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Is Childbirth Painful? (The Answer Might Surprise You)

Is childbirth painful? The answer to that isn’t a simple “yes” or “no.” Keep reading to discover a few “what ifs” about pain that might just change the way you think about birth.

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After I gave birth to my first daughter at home, some people were curious to know about my experience. There was one question that I got asked a lot, and I expected it. The answer I gave may have been a little unexpected though.

The question was, “So was it painful?”

This blog post is my answer.

The Real Question

When a pregnant woman asks if childbirth is painful, she gets a myriad of answers from a myriad of sources. I think most of those answers miss the point, though.

Maybe I’m wrong, but I think that when a first-time mom asks, “Is childbirth painful?” what she’s really asking is “Should I be scared?”

The problem isn’t pain; the problem is fear. 

But isn’t a woman totally justified in being afraid of something that people say is more painful than almost anything else she’ll ever experience? Maybe.

But maybe we’re looking at it all wrong. 

Life is What You Believe About It

If I could make only one argument for my case about how painful childbirth is, it would be this:

What we experience is more a result of what we believe than anything else. I think that’s true of life and I think it’s true of birth.

I wasn’t afraid to give birth. But I don’t think that’s because I’m braver or stronger or more educated or more anything than other women; I think it’s because of what I believe about birth.

I believe God designed the childbirth process and I don’t believe He designed it to be inherently dangerous or risky – or extremely painful! I believe God created my body and your body to be able to give birth – to give life – without needing something to numb the pain.

With that as my foundation, why would I fear?

NOW I don’t mean to imply that if you’re afraid that you don’t believe in God as our Creator. It takes time to see birth differently and it’s especially hard in a culture where birth is so often portrayed as scary and excruciating. 

But if you come from a place of believing that birth is a medical emergency, an illness or condition, or something that is bound to go wrong, nothing is going to have much power to change your mind about the pain.

My Invitation to You

I didn’t write this blog post to get everyone to see things like I do. And I didn’t write it because I think that I’m right and that everyone who thinks differently is wrong. I wrote it to give you, my readers, a chance to consider things from a new perspective.

I wrote this to give mothers like you and me the option to see birth not as something to be dreaded or merely tolerated but as something to be happily anticipated, something that can be joyful, safe, sacred, and beautiful.

So my invitation to you is to open your mind and come with me to explore four “what ifs” about the pain of childbirth.

Shall we begin?

#1 – What If Pain Has a Purpose

To start, imagine you are working out. Maybe you have some 12-pound weights in your hands and you’re doing bicep curls. It probably won’t take long before you start to feel that burning sensation in your arms that tells you your muscles are getting stronger.

If you keep going, your muscles will start to get tired and that burning might start to feel like pain. You might get to a point where you want to be done lifting, but you won’t be concerned because you know what you’re feeling is normal and that it’s actually doing you good.

Well, the uterus is a muscle too. (By some measurements, it might be the strongest in the human body!) When the uterus contracts over and over, it can start to feel painful, just like any other muscle.

This is where the power of education comes in.

If you don’t know what’s going on inside your body, the intense labor contractions may scare you because it feels like something is wrong. (We’ll talk about how fear and pain create a vicious cycle a little later.)

However, if you’ve taken the time to learn about your body and the work it does during labor, when you feel that intensity you’ll be able to stay calm because you know what you’re feeling is actually exactly what you’re supposed to be feeling.

READ MORE >> The Three Stages of Labor (and How to Know Which You’re In)

Not All Pain is the Same

Let’s think about it another way. 

What happens when you cut your finger? You feel pain. That pain is called physiological pain. It’s your body and brain reacting to something that is dangerous or harmful. 

But labor contractions aren’t like cutting your finger. The pain of contractions isn’t physiological; it isn’t telling you that something is putting you in danger or causing you harm.

I like to think of labor pain as “productive pain” or “positive pain.” It may sound silly, but it makes a difference. 

How?

The power in understanding the difference between physiological pain and the pain of contractions is that you begin to view labor as a positive thing. Now, instead of contractions being a problem, they are steps to get where you want to be: with your new baby.

Now, each contraction reminds you that your body knows how to birth your baby. Every bit of pressure feels like progress. Each push brings you closer and closer to meeting your little one.

Now they aren’t sensations that need to be numbed; they’re experiences that necessarily precede giving life to another little human. 

Pain as Communication

I want to make sure I point out one more element of the purpose of pain: pain is communication.

Like we said, when you cut your finger, those nerve signals are telling your brain that something is wrong. When you workout, the burning pain in your muscles is telling you that you’re getting stronger (and maybe also that it’s about time to take a break). 

When you feel the pressure of contractions, that pain is telling you something too. 

As an example, I could not lie down during contractions. If I did, the contractions were overwhelming. For me, that “pain” was telling me to stand back up and move around. (I put “pain” in quotes because it was more of an extreme discomfort than actual pain.)

For other women, the pain of labor tells them to walk, dance, or sway their hips or to change positions regularly.

It really is unfortunate that it’s “normal” to labor while lying in a hospital bed. Women would have a very different experience if they stood up and listened to what their bodies were trying to tell them to do.

#2 – What If Pain Isn’t Inevitable

As crazy as it may sound, some women experience painless childbirth.

These women don’t have ridiculously high pain tolerances and they aren’t some breed of woman that doesn’t perceive pain the same way the rest of us do. The key to their comfortable labors was much simpler than that: they knew what to do and had the right tools to make it a great experience.

My point is this: what if childbirth doesn’t inevitably mean pain?

Yes, I did experience some pain. Yet, I believe it is possible not to. I believe childbirth doesn’t have to be painful. And I think the tools to achieve that are within every woman’s reach.

As I already talked about, belief is the first key to a painless (or at least less painful) birth. After belief, what we need to understand is the “fear-tension-pain cycle.”

The Fear-Tension-Pain Cycle

First introduced by Dr. Grantly Dick-Read, the cycle of fear and pain goes like this:

If a woman is afraid to give birth, she holds that fear as tension in her body. It’s like how people say they’re “paralyzed with fear” or why you might squeeze someone’s hand really hard during a scary movie.

Tense muscles are a biologically normal response to fear; it’s part of our “fight or flight” mechanism.

But tension makes muscle contraction more painful. When contractions get more painful, the woman gets more scared, either because she’s afraid of the pain or because it seems like her coping techniques aren’t working.

That fear leads to more tension, and so the cycle continues.

This cycle is the motivating idea behind the many childbirth methods that emphasize relaxation, hypnosis, and breathing techniques to help women give birth unmedicated. (You can learn about the big 3 methods – The Bradley Method, HypnoBirthing, and Lamaze – here.)

The reasoning of these methods is that if you can disrupt the cycle – by either removing the tension or eliminating the fear – your pain can decrease or disappear entirely.

Tools for Managing Labor

There are two general categories of “tools” any woman can use to manage labor: 1) coping techniques and 2) support people. Both can provide effective, natural pain relief in unique ways.

By “coping techniques” I mean things like relaxation, breathing, and massage. You can learn all about options for coping in my blog post How to Cope With Contractions: Natural Pain Relief During Labor.

“Support people” includes care providers like midwives but mostly refers to people who can be with you from the start of labor and all the way through birth. That would be a husband or partner, a supportive family member or friend, or a hired doula.

Having a continuous support person through labor can lessen a woman’s perception of pain, among other benefits.

READ MORE >> Why You Need a Support Person at Your Birth

#3 – What If Medication Actually Makes Pain Worse

In America, most women use medication when they give birth. Most American women also say that childbirth is painful. What if the two are actually related?

I believe they are, to some degree. And I think there are many reasons for that. Expectations is one of those reasons but we’ll talk about that in a second. 

Aside from beliefs and expectations, there are some real ways that medication actually does make pain worse. Let me explain.

How Medication Actually Increases Pain

When I say that medication can make pain worse, I mean three things. The first two have to do with Pitocin, the most common form of synthetic oxytocin, and its effects. The third has to do with the other labor medications and interventions that are commonly used.

Pitocin Makes Contractions More Painful

First, around 50% of women in the US will have Pitocin administered to them at some point during labor. Pitocin is synthetic oxytocin. It is chemically identical to the oxytocin our bodies produce but it doesn’t have all the same effects.

Foremost among those differences is that it isn’t self-regulating like natural oxytocin. Because it isn’t able to naturally maintain a consistent, normal pattern of contractions, Pitocin causes contractions to be stronger, longer, closer together, and, therefore, more painful.

Pitocin Disrupts Pain-Reducing Hormones

Second, and connected to the first, is the role that hormones play in an uninhibited labor. I go into depth about the hormones of labor and birth in this blog post, but I’ll summarize a few things briefly here.

When it comes to the pain of labor, we’re looking at two types of hormones: oxytocin and endorphins.

Oxytocin

Oxytocin, like I alluded to, controls contractions. It produces its own positive feedback cycle which allows it to maintain a natural pattern of contractions. 

This oxytocin cycle starts in the brain. Oxytocin is produced in the hypothalamus.

That oxytocin is then released into your bloodstream and sends a signal to the uterus to contract. The pain of that contraction then sends signals back to the brain, and that triggers the release of more oxytocin.

Why do pain signals trigger the release of oxytocin though? Because oxytocin has naturally stress-reducing and pain-relieving abilities.

In other words, our body knows how to handle pain.

Endorphins

In addition to oxytocin, we naturally produce another pain-reliever: endorphins.

Endorphins are literally an opiate, part of the strongest class of painkillers that we know of. (The word itself suggests that. “Endo” comes from “endogenous,” meaning internally produced, and “orphin” comes from “morphine,” one of the opiates found in nature.)

Labor medications mess with endorphin production, too. When a woman’s contractions are stimulated by Pitocin, her body responds by shutting down hormone production because something else is doing the job of the hormones.

Now the signaling in her body has changed.

Pitocin in the bloodstream keeps contractions going but doesn’t reach the brain. That means the brain doesn’t know it should be producing oxytocin or endorphins (or at least not at very high levels). And all of a sudden the woman’s internal pain management system is gone. 

READ MORE >> Medications During Labor: Is It Worth the Risk?

Medication Leads to More Pain After Birth

The third way that medication can make pain worse is the way it affects you after birth.

Part of the reason many women opt for unmedicated births is because the pain of labor, like we’ve covered, can be managed in so many ways and may even become nonexistent with the right tools and techniques.

In contrast, when medications and other interventions – like IVs, c-sections, and catheters – are used during labor, the potential for lasting pain, which can inhibit the postpartum period, is far more likely. 

To explain, I want to quote from a book that I highly recommend: “Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth.” Ina May says:

“When avoidance of pain becomes the major emphasis of childbirth care, the paradoxical effect is that more women have to deal with pain after their babies are born. 

“Frequent use of epidural anesthesia drives up the rates of cesarean section and vacuum-extractor and forceps births. Epidurals cause long-term backache in approximately one woman in every five. Sometimes the use of forceps and vacuum extractors results in injury to the baby or the mother.

“Intravenous [IV] lines are painful as long as they are in place and for a couple of days after they are removed. …

“Women who have cesarean operations must have a catheter inserted in their urethra before the surgery is performed. This hollow tube will be kept in place for at least twenty-four hours. While the catheter is in place, many women have a constant urge to urinate. Of course, since they are constantly “peeing,” there is no way to satisfy this urge.

“The formation of intestinal gas after any abdominal surgery…is acutely painful for women. Postsurgery soreness can interfere with a woman’s ease in handling her newborn baby.”

—Ina May Gaskin

While not every woman will experience these things, many will, probably more than you think.

A Real-Life Example: C-section Infection

In addition to all of that, there’s also the chance that a cesarean incision becomes infected.

I know a woman who did get an infection. The doctor had to reopen the wound and insert gauze into the incision to help it drain. Every few hours this woman had to switch out the gauze.

She was in pain for months after giving birth. 

That same woman recalls that during labor she only felt discomfort. The fentanyl the doctor gave her “just got rid of discomfort.” The pain she experienced after birth, however, “that was real pain,” she said.

Her experience, and those like it, make me sad because I know a better way is possible. After giving birth unmedicated, even after a few stitches because of a tear, I was feeling good within a few days. I was up and moving around comfortably within a week.

#4 – What If Childbirth Is Painful Because We Expect It To Be

You know how people say it’s good to keep a gratitude journal? It’s a good idea. But why does it help? I think at least part of it has to do with expectations. 

If you expect to notice things you’re grateful for so that you can write them down at the end of the day, you’re probably going to notice more things you’re grateful for. Did anything in your life really change? Maybe, maybe not. But your expectations changed, so things seemed to improve.

I think it’s the same with birth. If we expect pain, that’s probably what we’re going to get. If we expect that we’re going to be unable to handle it and need an epidural, that’s probably what we’re going to do. 

Yet the opposite is true too. If we expect to enjoy labor and find it to be a satisfying experience, it probably will be. If we expect that things will be hard but that we have the tools we need to do it, we probably will be able to!

(By the way, if you think I’m being unfair in implying that an epidural may be something we want to avoid, check out my blog post Medications During Labor: Is It Worth the Risk? to find real evidence for why unmedicated birth is a great goal for many women.)

But taking a step back, where do our expectations come from? Why do so many women expect childbirth to be unbearably painful? 

In large part, our expectations of birth, at least in America, are very poorly informed. Our ideas come from movies and other media and from a culture that loves extremes.

A Culture of Extremes

Our world of technology and information is wonderful for many reasons. It means that we can find an answer to nearly every question we have and hear news articles and read stories about happenings all over the world, on every topic.

Inherent in that, though, is the fact that people can say whatever they want. And I don’t just mean that people can tell the truth or lie. Even staying within the bounds of telling the truth, any story can be told in very different ways. 

For example, if an online news magazine was to post an article with the headline “High School Swimmer Disqualified Because of Weight” it might get a few clicks. But if they rephrase it to be titled “Alaska’s Swimsuit Scandal Unfairly Polices Young Girls’ Bodies,” it’s going to get far more attention.

What’s the difference? The first headline wasn’t untrue. But the second one makes you feel something. It presents a dramatic opinion that draws people in. It makes you curious – and maybe angry.

It plays on extremes.

People do the same thing with birth. We hear headlines about someone who suffers long-term consequences from a c-section gone awry. We see birth portrayed as an emergency in movies because it drives the storyline and keeps you watching. We are bombarded with dramatic – often negative – stories of birth when, in reality, those are the exception.

What I’m trying to say, in short, is that extreme is eye-catching. Drama draws ratings. Sensational sells. 

When women grow up surrounded by this culture of extremes, it’s understandable that so many are afraid to give birth.

Let’s Talk…Differently

The other element of expectation is the way we, and those around us, talk about things. 

When I was pregnant with my first (and especially after I decided to do a home birth), some people seemed eager to tell me about the bad experiences they or someone they knew had had, both at home and in the hospital.

I don’t think they were trying to be negative; they probably just wanted to make sure I knew what could go wrong so I could make an informed choice.

But, honestly, that wasn’t helpful.

I knew about birth and what could go wrong. And I knew how to make things go right. I knew that emergencies happen. And I also knew that those emergencies are the exception. What I wanted to hear was happy birth stories and positive perspectives about birth.

I wanted help focusing on the good because, very likely, my experience would be safe and happy. Talking about that would be far better at helping me prepare than worrying about the off chance of something bad happening.

So let’s switch the way we talk about things: instead of starting with the challenges and what could go wrong, let’s start with the joys and what can go right. That way, we mothers can expect the best, and, from that place of hope, we can then prepare for whatever may happen.

Choose Your Words Wisely

In addition to talking positively about birth, the actual words we use can change how we think about birth. For example, Ina May Gaskin, a famous American midwife, encouraged her clients to refer to contractions as “rushes.” 

In her book “Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth,” which I mentioned earlier, she explains her reasoning:

“I felt free to change some of the language surrounding birth as a way to help women cope with labor pain. I have a master’s degree in English and was aware of how language can condition our response to a physical/emotional/spiritual process such as labor. I began to use the word “rush” instead of contraction. Why use a word that suggests tightness and hard muscles when successful labor will require expansion of the cervix?”

—Ina May Gaskin

If you want to try replacing some common words we use to refer to labor and birth with something more positive- and less medical-sounding, here are some suggestions:

chart of alternative words to help reframe childbirth as less painful

Parting Thoughts: Is Childbirth Painful?

So…what if? What if childbirth is not as painful as they say?

What if birth doesn’t inherently equal pain? Or what if the pain we do experience has a purpose? What if the medication we use to numb the pain actually makes things worse? And what if we experience painful birth because we expect to?

Come to think of it, what if “labor” was intended to be just that – labor –  because the work required is an important part of the process? 

Like I said, I’m not saying these “what-ifs” are right or wrong. I just want us all to think about it. I really do believe that birth was meant to be a beautiful thing, even a sacred thing, and I think considering these what-ifs could get us back to a world where that is more often the case.

If we can do that, maybe more women can have the kind of wonderful birth experience they want. If we can achieve that, maybe giving birth – giving life – will be seen not as dreaded pain that must be suffered through but as an experience to be cherished and a privilege like no other.

Until next time,

Allison

P.S. If you want some research-based thoughts about how painful childbirth is, check out this article over at EvidenceBasedBirth.com.

READ MORE >> 67 Quotes About Birth That You Need to Hear If You’re Pregnant

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