Let's Talk About the 'Pain of Labor'

The pains of childbirth were altogether different from the enveloping effects of other kinds of pain. These were pains one could follow with one’s mind.
— Margaret Mead

 

In my last blog, Is Birth Painful?, I finally admitted that, yes, in my opinion, labor is 'painful'. But let's talk a little bit more about labor 'pain' and how it is different from, say, the pain of stubbing your toe or the pain of breaking your leg.

Before we get any farther, let me tell you why I don't usually use the word 'pain' in reference to birth and why I keep using those annoying quotation marks around the word pain.

When I hear the word pain I cringe a bit inside. I pull back, so to speak, to guard myself. Like ducking a punch. I tighten up inside when I think about things that are painful- whether it was me that experienced the pain or not. Tell me about when you fell out of a tree and broke your arm and I tense my shoulders and wince. And the thing about tensing up is that it makes pain... well, more painful! So if I can begin to think about the 'pain' of labor as intensity or sensations, I take away that automatic response to tense up and when I can relax into a contraction rather than tense up and pull away from it I have a whole different and more manageable situation to deal with!

Pains one can follow with one's mind...

I think Ms. Mead said it so well, 'The pains of childbirth were altogether different from the enveloping effects of other kinds of pain. These were pains one could follow with one’s mind.' Contractions generally have a rhythm and predictability about them. They begin gradually, build in intensity, last for a predictable amount of time, come back down and then are done. You can follow them with your mind. And one of the most beautiful differences between pain as we think of it and the intensity of labor is that for most of labor you get these incredible breaks between contractions! I always say that you've never had a power nap like the ones that come between contractions! (Full discloser here- There is a part of labor where you may not have much of a perceptible break between contractions but even then there's still a rhythm and predicability. During transition, contractions often come fast and hard, lasting 60-90 seconds, coming every 2-3 minutes and leaving 30-60 in-between for rest. But do you see that even during this incredibly intense part of labor there is still a pattern? You can still 'follow [them] with one's mind')

 

 Is labor painful? Well, it is most definitely intense! As Margaret Mead said, '[the pains of childbirth are] altogether different from the enveloping effects of other kinds of pain. These were pains one could follow with one’s mind.'

Is labor painful? Well, it is most definitely intense! As Margaret Mead said, '[the pains of childbirth are] altogether different from the enveloping effects of other kinds of pain. These were pains one could follow with one’s mind.'

What if we referred to the sensations of labor with a word other than “PAIN”? The word PAIN is so small and limited. When I stub my toe, I feel pain. When I eat something that gives me gas, I feel pain. I wish I had a better word to describe what it actually FELT like to birth my babies. There was definitely sensation. A LOT of sensation. I could feel it. But it was good. It was OK! I even enjoyed it. It was so primal and sensual. I remember saying at the beginning of a surge, “This one is going to be really big…” and it WAS, but following every wave of labor was a wave of pleasure and relaxation and love. I felt so sexy. I felt so warm and soft and open and flushed with excitement. I guess you could say the pain of childbirth felt really…good. I wish I could invent a new word for it. The closest word I can think of is POWER, but mixed with surrender, sensuality, sexuality, vulnerability and strength. We belittle women and the birth experience when we refer to it with the same word we use for broken bones and bruises. The pain of labor is transcendent.
— Lauralyn Curtis, HBCE

The fear/pain connection

Women who have a pain free child birth (Don't laugh! It really does happen!) are generally women who have no fear in birth. They may have grown up in an environment where childbirth is a normal, everyday experience. They may have attended many births, even as a child, because birth is a natural process that is celebrated in thier community. Or it may be a woman who, having little to no experience with birth, learned to trust the process to the point of having no fear in it. 

When we are afraid we set off a chain of chemical events in our bodies. Your body goes into self preservation mode- the flight, fight or freeze mode. None of those three options are great for labor;)

You're brain says to your body 'There's danger here! Get ready to defend yourself!'

Your brain releases the stress hormones, cortisol and adrenalin, to help prepare you to either stand and fight the danger, run away from it or freeze (play dead). These responses will cause your body to try and work against the contractions (the perceived danger) and that will in turn cause you to feel (or feel more) pain. (For an excellent description of the Flight, Fight or Freeze response read this article)

Remember I talked earlier about how when I'm afraid I tense up? (And I'm guessing you probably do too) Well there's one more thing that happens when we're afraid that I want to talk about. It ties in with the stress hormones doing thier job of getting you ready to save your life from danger. Oxygen and blood are diverted away from areas of the body that don't need it for fighting and fleeing and are delivered to the muscles that will be used- like arms for hitting or legs for running. Here's the thing- your uterus is what will be getting your baby out of your body and into your arms. You're arms and legs aren't the stars of this show! So, when we are afraid, the fear of danger (whether real or perceived danger) sends our body into self preservation mode. That starts a chain of chemical events in our bodies that prepares us to do the opposite of what we need to do in labor (relax and open) and instead takes some of the oxygen and blood supply from where we need it (the uterus) and gives it to areas that don't really need it. Think of the stereotype of mom squeezing dad's hand so hard during labor that he has permanent scars. Does exerting energy with your hand help baby to come out? Nope, the uterus pushes the baby out. It only makes sense to help the uterus during labor instead of hampering it, right?

Ok, how do I help my uterus to get this baby out?!

It's simple really. So simple in fact, that it will take an entire blog post of it's own to talk about! Don't worry though, I won't keep you in suspense until the next post!