PAIN points: Why do we feel pain in childbirth?
Updated: Jan 21, 2021
What if I told you... that pain isn’t always a bad thing.
Don’t hate me! I’ve been through labour twice and yes, it hurts. I’m not here to sugar-coat anything or give you a cutesy word that tries to mask reality of how it can feel. But I can tell you that my first birth (where I felt nervous, uninformed, and got an epidural) hurt MORE than my second birth (where I felt calm, educated, and only used a TENS machine). I promise I’m not exaggerating and don't have an agenda. Yes, I’m just one person, and everyone’s birth story/experience is as unique as they are. Just pointing out that your mindset, your stress levels, your trust, your advocacy skills, your role in you own birth, an so on, all can have an effect on how you perceive pain and how you manage pain in birth. There’s a lovely little acryonym I use to help pregnant people better understand (and lessen their fear) surrounding childbirth’s pain. Today, that’s what we’re going to focus on! First, imagine you’ve stubbed your toe, jammed your finger in a door, or gotten some other minor (but painful and unexpected) injury. We've all been there. What is the first thing you do? Scream? Swear? Grab your [toe] and breathe through your teeth? Rock back and forth? Punch a wall? GOOD! Chances are you do one, or several, of those things instinctively! That’s your body’s natural response to pain. But the pain of an injury is pathology, and the pain of childbirth is not. So why DO we feel pain in childbirth? (Most people, anyway. Though there really are some unicorns out there who do not!) Let’s look at a handy acronym to find out the difference between pathology pain and childbirth pain:
P – Purposeful
The main purpose to feeling the “pain” of contractions is your body telling you to do exactly what you might do for an injury: react to that pain! Move. Breathe. Apply pressure. Whatever your body is telling you to do… (except for panic). All of these things are productive to labour. Pain signals to your body TO move and work with that pain and work with your body. If you felt nothing, your labour might stall as you nap remain fully detached from the process. Good news: If your contractions are fuelled by your body’s natural oxytocin (see yesterday’s blog), you will also get a boost of endorphins! The other purpose is that there is a goal and an outcome; a reason for the pain; motivation to accept and motor on: meeting your baby! What’s the goal of a stubbed toe, hmm?
A – Anticipated
I would venture a guess that most of us don’t intentionally stub our toes. That pain is unexpected, and we can get a bit of an adrenaline/stress response to a true injury. We don’t want that in birth, but fortunately… you have ~9 months to anticipate birth, and HOW you anticipate that pain will affect HOW you feel it. If you worry about it, fear it, only listen to stories about how awful it is, telling you to “just get the epidural right away!” you might not find knowing ahead helpful at all. On the flipside, if you seek to understand the pain and prepare for it (mentally/physical) with coping mechanisms and support, you are taking away the element of “surprise” and staring that monster right in the face! Will it take away the pain? No. But it sure gives you a leg to stand on to ride it out. You can better arm yourself for something you expect!
I – Intermittent
You will not be in labour forever. Even the pain of a stubbed toe is temporary, yes. Birth is a little more drawn out, but imagine one hour. As an example, your contractions are ~4 minutes apart, and are lasting ~1 minute each. Let’s break that down: that is 15 minutes of CONTRACTIONS but 45 minutes of REST! That 15 minutes is not full-tilt. Each contraction climbs, peaks, and falls. Focus on the rest in between each contraction so you can literally rest, relax, regroup, refocus, recentre, and get ready to ride the wave of the next contraction! There is light at the end of the tunnel, I promise.
N – Normal
Remember, labour is a normal, internal, physiologic process. It is not external, pathology, an attack, injury or illness. Pain in labour/birth doesn’t mean something is wrong, but that something is right. Work with the pain and work with your uterus (a muscle) to help bring baby down. Lean into the contractions instead of pulling away. Pain in birth is a by-product of your own body’s strength and ability. One of my favourite affirmations is “My contractions cannot be stronger than me, because they ARE me.” That being said, if you are not coping, and make the informed decision to use medical pain relief, it is NEVER.A.FAILURE. You cannot fail in birth, to be clear. I’m all about giving you all the tools and information to make the birth decisions that feel right for you.
So there you have it! Keep those concepts in the back of your mind. Take childbirth education to gain the tools to cope (and to understand your other options). Investing in your birth experience is never wasted.