PAIN in Labor: Breaking It Down
When I say birth, you say…?
I spend enough time in Facebook groups just for moms that I know the answer to that is usually: PAIN!
If it’s your first baby, it’s difficult to conceptualize what labor can possibly even feel like. Does labor feel like bad menstrual cramps? Does labor feel like squeezing? Does birth feel like I’m getting torn open? How bad is the pain of labor really?
If it’s not your first baby, but you had a difficult experience with a prior birth, or you feel like your birth was traumatic, anticipating the sensations of your next birth can be just as hard, plus you’re layering in a new emotional component.
Listen, I’m not the doula and childbirth educator that’s going to stand in front of you and say, “If you just do X, Y, and Z, you can have no pain in labor.” Is it possible to give birth with no pain? Believe it or not, it is! However, that’s extremely unlikely and not the case for the vast majority of birthing people. Frankly, when we share this message and a person internalizes it, what happens if they do have pain even though they did everything they were told? They feel like a failure. And there’s no such thing as failing in birth. That’s a big, fat lie in many childbirth education classes.
So let’s be real and throw it on the table, calling a spade a spade: there is likely going to be pain associated with your birth. But we’re familiar with pain only as a negative, as a bodily response to something being wrong. Let’s reframe this sensation of discomfort.
Because pain is one thing, and suffering is altogether different. Nobody should suffer in birth.
There’s definitely a difference between labor pain and other pain.
We can break down these differences with an easy acronym: PAIN in Labor.
The pain is causing necessary changes in your body so you can meet your baby. You’re not simply in pain because it’s fun. It’s the series of events that leads to an incredible purpose: the moment you gaze into your baby’s eyes for the first time.
Unless you’re already in active labor, you have time to prepare!
Find a birth class near you that teaches you about the stages of labor, the normal things to expect, and that doesn’t vilify any of the myriad medical interventions that are available to families today. Learn about and practice coping techniques and comfort measures.
Parents often tell me, “I don’t need a birth class because I already know I’m getting that epidural as fast as possible!” Fabulous! I love that you know what you want! And a childbirth course will teach you about the dozens of other options that come up in birth besides your pain management of choice. Another thing to possibly consider is that if you’re planning an epidural, it can take time to get it administered and you’ll want to have a toolbox for the waiting period. (And once in a great while the epidural doesn’t work properly, so it can never hurt to have a backup plan!)
Unlike getting a headache or some other painful experience, contractions don’t last consistently. They start only being 30 seconds long, and work up to an average of just 1 minute at a time. The peak of the pain doesn’t last the whole minute. The long contractions are usually about 90 seconds. In early labor, you’ll have an average of 10-20 minutes between contractions, in active labor, 3-5 minutes between, and in transition before pushing you have about 1-2 minutes. So while we’re not talking tons of down time, there ARE breaks between and they can be really greatly utilized to rest and relax your body. Because tension causes worse pain, and fear causes tension.
When we can learn to work with our bodies instead of fighting them, the pain of labor can be greatly reduced. A birth doula is an expert resource for managing the time during and between contractions in a way that feels best to you, as well as being a guide through the countless other questions you may have during pregnancy and birth.
When you stub your toe on the bedframe or burn your hand on the stove, the resulting pain is because something abnormal is causing an emergent physiological response. Labor and contractions are the normal, intentional work of your uterus. Your uterus is a system of muscles, so just like lifting weights and running marathons can cause intense pain, this is the normal bodily reaction so we can push through and finish the job. That epidural is great in the labor and delivery suite, but not so effective on the marathon course, though wouldn’t that be nice?!
Understanding WHY your body is feeling the way it is can help overcome the fear around birth in general, no matter what pain management strategy you choose.
Something else we often overlook in the discussion about pain in childbirth is that there are TONS of options for pain management in labor. We tend to think “epidural or unmedicated” but there are other fantastic choices in the spectrum between those as well. You can feel it all or you can choose to feel nothing, and only YOU know what’s right and best for you.
Anyone who tells you otherwise can go stub their toe on a bedframe.