Oh the pain! Probably the biggest reason women fear childbirth right? We are so accustomed to avoiding pain at all costs, why go through it to meet our child? Well, there are some important reasons which I’ll get to. But, do we really avoid pain at all costs?
What about that intense yoga class you just completed, or the half marathon you did recently? Was that hard and strenuous? What about that extra lap at the pool, or that hike you did over the weekend? Were there times you wanted to quit? Probably! You felt fatigue, you felt exhaustion, you felt your muscles ache and burn, but you kept on didn’t you?
We have all experienced the sensations of pain and fatigue when we’ve pushed our bodies to the limit at some point in our lives. Maybe it was a decade ago or back at school, but I guarantee you have. And what did you feel after the experience? I’m guessing a sense of accomplishment. Pride. Satisfaction. Awe of what your body can go through.
The intensity of labour is no different. It is likely to be the most intense experience of your life, but the sensations are not bigger than you. They are you. They are also not a pain of something broken, or of illness and disease. It is the pain of your body doing incredible, powerful, and purposeful work. It is a sign that everything is working right!
And the endorphins your body releases during those moments of athletic work (you know that ‘runners high’?)- you get that in childbirth too! By allowing things to flow the way nature intended you have the opportunity to experience the most transformative thing of your life. You will likely work harder than you have ever worked, but feel a sense of accomplishment greater than you’ve ever known. It’s a pretty cool way to enter the most challenging phase of your life- parenthood.
What most people think about the pain of childbirth is misguided. The female body has been incredibly designed to mitigate the pain of labour all on it’s own.
What if I told you your external environment has the ability to increase or decrease your pain perception more than what is happening in your body? Or that simple things like a warm shower, a firm pressure on your back, and music you love all work incredibly well in keeping pain perceptions down?
Hippy dippy witchcraft crap it is not. It works. And it’s because of the Gate Control Theory of pain.
The Gate Control Theory of Pain
The Gate Control Theory of pain works on the premise that the sensory nerves in our body are wider than the thin pain fibres. That means that pleasure sensations travel to your brain faster than pain sensations.
If you flood your body with the GOOD feels, then you experience less of the PAIN feels because you effectively shut the gate to the pain. Not completely of course, you can’t completely take away the discomfort, but you can go a long way in your ability to cope with it.
So if you utilise all your senses, changing it up every 20 minutes, you’ll be able to rock your birth without the need for medical pain relief.
But why would you want to, you ask? Why not go straight to having an epidural? Well because the hormonal orchestration between you and your baby is totally disrupted once the pain disappears and drugs are introduced. These hormones are incredibly important in keeping you and your baby safe. (I have a blog coming soon about the benefits and negative consequences/risks of epidurals so keep your eye out).
The Hormones of Labour and Birth
The hormones of labour and birth protect your baby’s brain from hypoxia. They prepare your baby’s lungs in preparation to take its first breath. They are instrumental in making you feel euphoric and in love with your baby after the birth. They prevent you from haemorrhage. And they mean your baby will be alert and ready to breastfeed in that first hour after birth.
They also provide pain relief!
- Oxytocin (the ‘love’ hormone that is driving the regular and rhythmic contractions) provides calm, connection and pleasure sensations.
- Prolactin reduces stress.
- Beta-endorphins are your body’s own narcotic, relieving pain, reducing stress, and promoting calm. As your labour increases in intensity, so does your endorphin levels, which puts some women into a dreamlike state, or ‘labour-land’ as some describe it (runners high!). It gives them the ability to keep on going right at the time they are feeling ready to give up.
Womens bodies are incredibly designed to cope with the powerful work her body does to bring her baby into the world. Interrupting the process with synthetic hormones to induce labour or speed it up increases pain and means the natural coping methods are no longer available because they no longer work.
Ideas for utilising your senses to reduce your pain:
- Scents like lavender, clary sage, orange and jasmine are very calming to the central nervous system and can help progress labour along as well.
- A hand to hold can promote calm and reduce pain perception
- Have someone brush your hair
- Have someone give you a foot, back or shoulder massage
- Use a rebozo to loosen tight ligaments or relieve pressure from a sore lower back
- Place a warm compress such as a heated wheat bag on your abdomen or lower back
- Place a cold pack on your neck or forehead
- Have someone give you a double hip/butt squeeze throughout your contractions
- Sit on a birth ball in the shower with the warm jet directed onto your lower back or abdomen
- Relax in an ‘aqua-dural’- a warm bath can reduce pain by up to 30%
- Smooch! Kiss your partner passionately! It releases more oxytocin, that feel-good love hormone, it makes you feel secure, protected and nurtured thus decreasing stress, and it helps release more endorphins to diminish pain even further. Win, win, win!
- Make a playlist that you love. You may even have a few- one for early labour when you are feeling excited and energised, and one for active labour where you are really doubling down and focusing on each and every contraction and needing something more calming and soothing
- You may like to listen to mantras or chants or calming sounds of nature. Find what works for you!
- A dimly lit environment (at home or hospital)
- Set up fairy lights or battery powered candles to create a sensual space
- Put up affirmations on the walls, or pictures of loved ones to help you focus.
- Eating and keeping your hydration up throughout labour is very important so ensure you’ve got easy to digest snacks that provide you a boost of energy
- Some small bites of dark chocolate, a yummy muesli bar, a sandwich, some nuts and dried fruit are all ideas to stock up on
- Coconut water or hydralite style drinks are also good ideas for hydration, as well as plain water of course!
Your Birth Environment
I mentioned earlier the importance of your environment and this is because of the negative effect of fear and stress on your body during labour.
Switching off your neocortex, that is your frontal thinking brain, and being able to activate your limbic primal brain stem, is critical for physiological labour to flow. To do that, being in a dimly lit environment really helps. We are mammals after all. Just like your cat slinks off to a quite, dark, intimate space to birth, so do we need such a space to birth in the instinctive way we know how. This will keep you calmer, and keep the Oxytocin flowing.
Say a stranger walks in the room, or a light gets switched on, or someone starts chatting to you about the weather… it all can take you out of your instinctive brain, and create a feeling of stress or fear. A stressor in your environment will cause your muscles to tighten, and that increases your feelings of pain. Hopefully your partner or Doula will recognise what’s happened and will get you back into a cycle of calm, comfort and relaxation so labour can carry on unhindered.
In a hospital setting do all you can to make it as home-like as possible.
- Don’t put on the hospital gown, wear your own baggy comfortable clothing
- Bring your own pillow from home
- Dim the lights, put up your affirmations, pictures, fairy lights and battery powered candles
- Put on your own music (check prior to labour if there is an iPhone doc in the suite)
- Put a sign on the door asking all who enter to talk in hushed tones and to knock before entering
Other places you might like to go to feel secure, safe and unobserved include sitting on the toilet. Leaning backwards on the toilet seat is a great idea to help you release and feel open. Your partner could be behind you rubbing your shoulders or pressing into your lower back, whatever feels good.
Lastly, don’t forget the incredible act of breathing . Deep, conscious breathing works incredibly well to calm your nervous system and allows those hormones to flow optimally. Focusing on your breath helps you stay centred and in your body, and you can focus on releasing any tension in your body on your out breath. You may also use a mantra you like, for instance ‘breathe in love’ on your in-breath, and ‘breath out tension’ on your out-breath.
Remember, at the peak of active labour, contractions last for only around 90 seconds. You can do anything for 90 seconds! And between contractions, you have total rest. You got this babe! Bring pleasure to your experience and the pain will be something totally in your control.
I hope this post has been helpful. There is plenty more I could write about pain of childbirth, such as the very language we use to describe it, or the P.A.I.N. acronym (purposeful, anticipated, intermittent, normal) or how doulas can be better than and epidural. I encourage you to look at all your options, take an independent childbirth education class during your pregnancy, and trust your body’s beautiful design.
Lead picture c/o Monet Nicole Birth Photographer