Pain is a very positive and productive part of labour. Birth pains are highly functional and necessary for the orchestration of hormones and feedback between yourself and your baby.
Remember that birth is a peak performance event. The muscles of your uterus, and entire body, are doing intensely challenging work for a purpose.
To birth your baby.
This is a good thing!
The pain of birth is not pathological, it is not indicative of imminent danger, it’s protective and biologically sound. The trouble we have is that 98% of women birth in hospitals where pain is usually associated with disease or pathology and pain relief may be warranted. Applying that to birth is a mismatch. The reasons for pain relief during birth being so prolific is complex, but has a lot to do with the cultural narrative we are enmeshed in which equates birth with pain.
Birth is a peak performance event, no doubt about it. While we celebrate the efforts of people running a marathon, we don’t give the same positive encouragement regarding birthing people’s efforts. Birthing women are generally pitied and offered to be rescued with drugs, and/or – the epidural, which Rhea Dempsey has labelled the trojan horse, in a labour bypass era, which I agree with wholeheartedly. You can literally give birth to a baby now while you play on your phone with an epidural as pain relief on board.
But what is the cost of this labour bypass era we find ourselves in?
Our culture doesn’t value the primal nature of birth and it’s rawness, messiness, wildness and sheer fierce intensity, as an initiation to your body – your pelvis especially, and – to the magnitude of your capacity not just physically, but emotionally and spiritually. Having a birth where you can exclaim proudly – “I did it!” – is the ultimate initiation and foundation for beginning motherhood.
We’ve become increasingly domesticated. It’s embedded in our collective psyche that girls/women don’t get loud, and wild, and moan, groan, scream, howl, grunt, poo, and allow themselves to be shaken by the intensity of birth.
We’ve lost touch with what we gain from being initiated to birth in it’s unhindered physiological trajectory. We would rather be in control than at the mysterious mercy of birth.
Rhea Dempsey says that in the current birthing culture (and indeed in our culture in a macro sense) there is high value on control, comfort and convenience (the 3 C’s). A technological paradigm based on control – managing risk, oppressing women and, measures of comfort – epidurals/drugs, and, convenience – induction.
To reclaim this initiation as your rite of passage to motherhood, is a heroic journey.
With birth mostly happening inside hospitals where disease and pathological concerns are high, and pain is generally indicative of dysfunction, it can be difficult to shift our perspectives towards it being normal and helpful. Paired with overwhelming cultural narratives and conditioning about childbirth being painful, it’s easy to see how the intensity of childbirth becomes the focus that needs to be ‘“fixed”, and, it’s as easy as an epidural!
Some sobering statistics –
The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) Australia’s Mothers and Babies report 2016 (the most recent report) states the following:
- 78% of mothers who gave birth in 2016 had pain relief. That’s almost 4 out of 5 women!
- 55% of women chose nitrous oxide (gas and air);
- 36% of women chose regional analgesic (epidurals)
- 17% of women chose systemic opioids (morphine/pethidine)
- 63% of women who opt for an epidural (who don’t birth via c-section) end up having instrumental vaginal deliveries (use of forceps, vacuum etc.)
The scary thing is, that when you choose to have an epidural you increase your chance of having other medical and instrumental interventions by well over 50%.
Perhaps you’re reading this and thinking, that’s not me. I won’t be one of those statistics. You know there is another way, and at some deep level of your being you believe your body is made to do this.
Indeed it is. I believe in you. There’s no formula either, sure you can learn pain coping techniques, acupressure points, hypnobirthing, and a range of other tools that may be helpful. But, it runs so much deeper than that. An entire paradigm shift is required.
By planning for a normal physiological birth within a modern hospital birth system, you have to want to experience birth in all its primal colours and iterations, AND, you must be savvy about your choices as Rhea Dempsey explains in her book, Birth with Confidence.
There is a very delicate but profound potency for innate, natural pain relief when your body’s hormonal orchestration for birth is able to initiate spontaneously and remains uninterrupted. This is normal physiological birth and it provides the best foundation for having a drug free birth experience. Your biological coping mechanisms generally provide you with exactly what you need to journey with the intensity, and pains of childbirth.
When you begin to interfere with that process by induction with syntocinon (pitocin), or other measures, you are artificially forcing birth to begin before your body, and your baby are primed, your coping abilities will be less than optimal. This may necessitate you requiring pain relief in the form of an epidural which you would otherwise not need. Induced labour contractions are experienced very differently to labour that has started when you’re biologically ready. This is essentially hijacking the delicate dance of pain relieving hormones and can result in the cascade of interventions coming into play. The chance of you requiring instrumental delivery with forceps or other assurance and or a Caesarean section increases by over 50%.
So, you’re up to the heroic path of experiencing your birth in all its intensity and reality?
To give yourself the best chance of coping with the intensity and pains of birth, saying no to any type of induction is top priority (unless truly medically indicated – hint: usually it’s not ever really medically indicated). The AIMS booklet by Sara Wickham has some great guidance regarding induction (see references below). Also, get clued up on the hormones of birth with Dr Sarah Buckley’s resources.
When birthing people have the freedom to follow their instincts, they well supported and are educated on the birth process, they will naturally find their own unique behaviours or things that enable them to cope with the intensity of birth. It might be intensely following their own breathing – breath awareness (we practise this in my prenatal yoga classes, as well as other supportive breathing practices), they find postures that are comfortable and support the pelvis to open and maximise gravity, they may do something very specific – count, or repeat something either outloud or in their head, they may visualise something, or move in a certain way, make loud sounds, even swear (swearing is scientifically proven to reduce your perception of pain!). I have some helpful tips on this here. Then there’s a multitude of “tools” you can have at hand – birth partners who can provide acupressure, massage, hip squeezes, and heat packs, or ice. Other methods that can be helpful – TENS machine, birthing in water, sterile water injections, rebozo techniques, and certain positioning (this is not an exhaustive list by the way!). Most good antenatal education (that is independent to the hospital) should cover these tools, or if you have a Doula, you will usually cover all this.
Birth is potent, powerful, intense and transformative, and you CAN do it.
Normal, functional physiological pain indicates your body is working hard and is providing feedback to mum and baby about what’s happening.
Pain is part of the rite of passage of childbirth. Read more about that here.
Pain is there to make you aware.
Birthing with Confidence – Rhea Dempsey
Ecstatic Birth (Hormones of Birth) e book – Dr. Sarah Buckley
Ten Things I wish every woman knew about induction of labour – Dr. Sara Wickam