Labour pain is certainly something every woman has an opinion on – even before they’ve given birth. Many women already have a preconceived idea about how they might cope with the pain, or even a predefined notion of what it will be like. The truth is, until you’re in labour, you won’t know for sure how your body (or mind) will cope with contractions and pushing, but I encourage everyone who is fearful to remember that your body is designed for this purpose, and where the pain is too much, there are plenty of safe options to support you through the birth.
Unsurprisingly, many women can have a huge fear of labour pain and while not everyone is afraid of it, it’s usually something approached with a dash of trepidation. The pain and discomfort during labour are all good signs that your labour is progressing as it should and that your baby will soon be here. However, that doesn’t take away from the fact that getting through contractions and the pain of pushing, is physically and psychologically challenging. This blog explores exactly why your body is in pain during labour and what purpose this pain serves.
There are three hormones that play a major role in the initiation and progress of labour; Oxytocin (an amazing hormone we produce not only during labour but also during orgasms and breastfeeding), endorphins (our natural painkillers) and catecholamines (one of our stress hormones).
When things are going well this powerful trio of hormones work together and adapt to each other, to bring about labour and see you through to delivering your baby.
At the early stage of labour your body starts to release oxytocin which prompts your body to kickstart those uterine contractions, which feel like a tightening across your stomach and sometimes lower back.
As oxytocin levels rise, contractions become more intense and most likely more uncomfortable. Your body intuitively responds to this increased intensity by releasing more of your natural painkilling hormones, endorphins. These naturally decrease your perception of pain, moderate your oxytocin levels and can even put some woman in almost a dream-like state!
The good news is that between contractions the body and mind are given a break and there is absolutely no pain. Your body instinctively allows you to have some time to recover physically so you can catch your breath, have a sip of water and mentally prepare to ride out the next contraction.
Towards the end of labour, it is not unusual to experience a certain amount of anxiety while your body helps to move your baby down the birth canal with some powerful final contractions. This surge stimulates the release of stress hormones for both you and your baby, which help you to focus as you start to get ready to push your baby out.
The ideal scenario involves these three hormones working perfectly in sync with each other throughout the duration of your labour. Of course, it doesn’t always work that simplistically. I’ve helped hundreds of women give birth and have seen how imbalances of these hormones ebb and flow during the labour process. I’ve found in my professional experience (and this is confirmed by medical studies too), when there are disruptions during labour due to fear, stress or anxiety, the amount of hormones released can be reduced and as such slow labour down until the body feels secure again.
It’s totally normal to feel all of these emotions during labour, particularly if it is your first experience of labour or if you are going to have another baby after previously having a traumatic birth. In fact I’d go as far as to say that a labour without a small hint of some anxiety, fear or stress at some point in the process is exceptional.
I passionately believe that all Mamas should go into labour feeling prepared, relaxed and supported. It’s so important to invest in your pre-birth preparation on a mental, physical and emotional level. It takes nine months to grow a baby and nine months to prepare your body for labour and your mind for motherhood.
I find that a lot of fear, anxiety and stress in labour comes from not feeling in control. Preparing well and surrounding yourself with proper support during your labour can go a long way to guide you through your labour pain for a successful and positive birth experience.
When it comes to early labour pain, I like to think of it as the body’s way of letting you know that it’s not going to be a regular day. It could be your baby’s birthday! Those early contractions are the first indication that your baby is ready to arrive and that your body is now preparing physically for the birth process.
Your body is incredibly intuitive and this pain is sending you a signal to get ready to meet your baby. As your contractions intensify your body keeps releasing oxytocin and endorphins to keep your labour moving forward and your baby down your birth canal.
As your uterine muscles contract more, your body provides its’ own form of pain relief – the endorphins I mentioned earlier. They’re known as ‘nature’s narcotic’ and can even bring about a sense of euphoria!
Not every woman feels euphoric about their contractions though but it does help to view them as a positive type of pain – one that comes and goes in short bursts and that is a productive pain.
I’ve seen it many times before – once a woman in labour is able to ‘let go’ and starts to ‘ride the waves’ of contraction pain, instead of resisting them, labour will often start to move along.
Contractions are painful. They’re also an essential part of the labour process, but you don’t have to suffer them without a strategy. I’ve had a lot of experience helping women to adopt practical steps and mindful approaches so that they can feel more in control and physically and mentally prepared to cope better with labour pain.
These tried and tested methods can help you cope and work with the pain of contractions, rather than resisting it.
1. Pick the right birth partner(s)
You will need continuous support throughout your entire labour. Have someone by your side who makes you feel calm, relaxed, reassured and who can get you back on track when you’ve hit a wall. For some this person may be your partner, for others this may be a friend, relative or even a hired professional such as a Midwife or Doula – to act as additional support to take the pressure away from your partner.
2. Keep moving
Trust your body and remember the laws of gravity. Move when you feel you need to, swing those hips, walk around. When resting try to lie on your side rather than your back.
3. Concentrate on your breathing
Try to slow your breathing down with extra focus on the out-breath. When tension creeps up, focus on releasing your jaw and dropping and relaxing your shoulders on the out-breath. If you are open to it, listening to relaxation or mindfulness tracks can help focus your thoughts.
4. Keep your body fueled
Labour is very tiring and can last a long time. Make sure you stay hydrated and eat if and when you feel like it.
5. Water works
Allow yourself a warm bath or shower. Warm water soothes and calms both mentally and physically.
6. Tilt your pelvis
When you’re having a contraction, try sitting back to front on the toilet. It will help you to tilt your pelvis forward and open your hips.
7. Stop clock watching
Trust your birth partner to note the space between your contractions and allow yourself to forget all concept of time. Focus instead on going from one contraction to the next and be mindful that each contraction will get you closer to meeting your baby.
8. Listen to your body, not your birth plan
If your planned pain management strategy isn’t working anymore, try something else. Perhaps you feel like you need gas and air or an epidural but you didn’t want either when you were preparing a birth plan? Screw it, your birth plan is a theory, and your labour is the real deal. Listen to what your body is saying and don’t hung up on following your birth plan or seeing any detours from it as failings.
9. Ask for help if you need it
If you can’t ask for help during your labour then when can you? Don’t be afraid to ask your birth partner or support for help. Hydration, touch, massage, cold cloths, ice cubes, and running baths are just a few things you might want to ask them to sort out for you. You’re doing all the hard work – it’s the least they can do!
10. Believe in your body’s ability to give birth
It’s always worth try various forms of natural coping strategies. Explore what works for you and what doesn’t.
Pain and suffering are two very different things. Pain is an unpleasant physical sensation whereas suffering is an emotional state that can be quite debilitating. By ensuring you’re prepared for labour and well supported before, during and after birth, you minimize the chances of suffering and trauma.
It’s really not a competition to be able to cope with labour pain using one method or another, and if you feel you need pain relief, there are many safe options available. Research them before and make sure you discuss them with your midwife or doctor so you have time to ask any questions you might have.
Pain is one of the most common concerns I hear when discussing labour and birth with my clients, but it is a natural fear, and it’s healthy to consider how you feel about it.
I’ve seen countless times how the stress of labour pain can be minimized when a Mama has a supportive partner or midwife and is guided through her contractions so she can relax her body into them. Empowering a woman to trust her body is an incredible part of what I help my clients to do, and one that I never tire of.
So if you’re nervous about labour pain, please know it’s absolutely normal to feel this way. Until you’ve done it, giving birth is the great unknown and one of the most incredible miracles that happens every day. Yes, it’ll hurt, but once your baby is in your arms, there is absolutely no pain – just overwhelming love and/or the feeling of being an absolute badass who just gave birth to a new human being!
“Sex and acupuncture is what got my labour started with both of my pregnancies” Muma to Max and Julie
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photo credit: Krista Evans
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