Thoughts On Pain In Childbirth

What is pain, exactly?

Biologically speaking, it’s simply a message our bodies send to our brains that something needs to change, and quickly. Hand on a hot curling iron? The pain message sent tells your brain to MOVE YOUR HAND NOW!!! I would say that this is a very efficient way to carry a message.

In other words, pain has a Purpose.

In labor, its purpose can be one of many things. It might be telling the mother that she needs to stand instead of sit, lie down instead of walk, or get into a tub instead of sitting on a ball. It might be telling the mother that she is tense, and needs to focus a bit more and relax. It could be saying that she needs to go to the bathroom. It could also be telling her that she has an unspoken fear lingering somewhere in the back of her mind that needs to be brought out and dealt with. The list goes on indefinitely.

The common thread running through the list is that this pain message carries the responsibility of telling the laboring woman what she needs to know in order to help her labor to progress. It encourages her to move, to find comfortable positions, to vocalize, to change her breathing in ways that will ensure that her baby can navigate her pelvic bones and pelvic floor muscles in such a way that he can meander his way through the birth canal in the most efficient way possible. Even if the baby is a little malpositioned, the pain messages mom’s brain receives will tell her what positions will be most conducive for baby to maneuver himself into a better position.

In my training as a doula, and experience birthing four babies, I have learned that a moving pelvis = moving baby = the most efficient labor progress for THIS birth. Looked at in this light, it seems that pain in childbirth might actually be a good thing.

Consider, also, that pain in childbirth is something we know is coming. It is Anticipated.

We humans, though we delight in variety, are really creatures of habit. If we know something is coming, we like to plan for it, as a general rule. I have found, too, that the more we know about something, the less we fear it. So, pain in childbirth is something right up our alley! We can learn about it, and learn how to deal with it. It is not over-powering.

While some women really do have what they describe as “pain-free” or even “ecstatic” births, most of us will experience some level of pain, discomfort, incredible pressure, or just intensity that is more than we normally deal with in everyday life, and it behooves us to prepare for it.

I think it’s wonderful to be able to have an idea of what to expect, and have nine whole months, give or take, to get ready for it! Independent childbirth classes are, hands-down, the best way to prepare for what your birth might look like. Since everyone is different, these classes should cover a wide range of coping mechanisms to equip birthing women and their support teams with the tools they can use to handle their particular level of pain or discomfort in labor. Everything from breathing techniques (the non-hyperventilating variety), to relaxation tools, to position changes, massage, and counter-pressure are wonderful things a woman can pull from and adapt to her own experience.

Again, her pain has the purpose of telling her which of these techniques she needs to try next, as long as she is able to turn inward and listen to her body’s signals, and has good support surrounding her, encouraging her to do so.

“This is all well and good,” you say, “but, what if my labor goes on for a Really Long Time?” Well, what if it does? Pain in childbirth is not like the suffering that comes from a badly broken bone, or a traumatic injury of some kind, where the pain doesn’t really ever abate. It is Intermittent. It comes and goes. For the majority of the time you are in labor, your body is doing no work at all, but resting.

Your uterus contracts for anywhere from thirty seconds to a minute, every three to five minutes or so (on average – keep in mind every labor is different). Even if your contractions are a full minute long, and only three minutes apart, you still get to rest twice as long as you are contracting. Heck, if they are ninety seconds long in that time frame, you’re still resting for half the time!

When people hear that my first birth was 37 hours long, they are amazed and ask how I did it. “The same way every woman does,” I reply, “One contraction at a time.” My contractions were a full five minutes apart most of the time, and only a minute long for much of it. I was resting four times as much as I was working. I was not having a giant, 37-hour contraction! I remember, during that labor, as it went on, seemingly forever, having the distinct feeling that I could handle it. “This isn’t so bad,” was my prevailing thought. Of course, I got tired. Exhausted, actually, but I found that it was totally doable! I was strong to meet this challenge, and so are you, my fellow birther. So are you.

Even transition, the time during labor where you will work more than you will rest, becomes doable when you are prepared to handle labor up to that point. You will have energy reserves left to help you get through that relatively short, intense time. You may find that you hit your wall, but that with good support and adequate tools to handle it, you will find yourself able to climb over it with strength.

Above all, the thing to remember about pain in childbirth is that it is Normal. Completely, utterly, normal. Keep in mind that if pain in childbirth were so horrendous, women would have stopped doing it as soon as we had the means to do so! In reality, many women enter labor, and realize that they can do it. That it’s not something completely insurmountable. It’s not like the movies, where a woman has one contraction, and is immediately in so much pain she can’t think straight. It’s a gradual climb, starting in hill country, moving to more mountainous routes, and finally, a wall that requires all your concentration and energy. Reaching the peak, though, is worth every agony.

All of this is why I am such an outspoken advocate for normal, unmedicated birth. I fully admit that I am strongly in favor of women being given information about the truth of pain in childbirth: It is not an evil to be avoided, but the most efficient means of communication our body has to help affect the safest, healthiest birth possible for you and your baby. I think it helps that I also understand the proper role and uses for pain medications given in labor, and see them as just one tool among the vast reserves available to birthing women. There comes a time to pull out those tools on occasion, but if women were not able to give birth without them, humanity would have died out as a species a long time ago.

So, yes, I encourage women to embrace the pain and discomforts of childbirth, because I am confident of its usefulness and purpose. It is a perfect design that draws out of us strength we never knew that we had. If it weren’t for the pain we experience, we would not know the heights of joy and thankfulness at the end of that climb. And really, when you think about it, most labors don’t take more than a single day out of our lives. What is one day of pain, compared to the lifetime of love and relationship with a human being so connected to us?

I think it’s more than worth it. But, that’s just me. I take no pride in this viewpoint – I don’t. I am just very confident in what I know to be true. I don’t condemn anyone for their use of pain meds, nor do I believe every mother who goes “au naturel” in birth deserves any kind of a medal. My point is this: to educate, inform, and equip women to do what women have been doing for millenia very successfully, and to understand that they already have what it takes to do it.

There is a quote which gets passed around the birth community, that I think sums this whole post up quite nicely:

“We have a secret in our culture, it’s not that birth is painful, it’s that women are strong. ~Laura Stavoe Harm

1 Comment

  1. jenni on April 21, 2010 at 12:52 pm

    Life involves pains. Pregnancy involves pains. Childbirth involves pains. Parenting involves pains! We lose our chance at the growth that occurs through the pain when we constantly seek to circumvent it. This I firmly believe. If we could only learn to embrace it and be willing to hear God speak through it, how much wiser we would be.

    Exactly, Jenni. It’s something I’m going to try to teach in my childbirth classes. ~Tiff