Estimated reading time: 9 minutes
Contraction pain is on the mind of every woman during at least some point in their pregnancy. So let’s talk about pain in labor and strive to answer the big question, “How Painful is Childbirth?”
Table of contents
- Is childbirth painful?
- Contraction P-A-I-N
- Why is childbirth painful?
- How painful is childbirth?
- Contraction pain vs suffering
- How painful is childbirth: Comparing birth to running a marathon
- Conclusion on contraction pain
Is childbirth painful?
When your ultimate goal is to remove a 7+ pound baby from your body, some measure of discomfort is unavoidable. So my short answer is, Yes. For the vast majority of women, childbirth is painful.
But before we go any further, it’s important to recognize that pain in labor is not exclusive to women who have natural births (birth without an epidural or narcotics). It’s rare to have a completely pain-free birth, even if you choose to use pain medication. Most women experience hours of contractions before they get an epidural. And we know there’s nothing pain-free about healing from a c-section, either. So it’s wise for all moms-to-be to anticipate pain and learn to cope with it.
I’ve had 5 natural births, and believe me, I’m no masochist. And I’m certainly no superwoman. I load up on Motrin when I have my period and use heavy Novocain when I have dental work done, just like every other normal person out there. While contraction pain is often severe, I’ve learned that the pain of childbirth is different from the pain of a broken arm or a kidney stone. Contraction P-A-I-N is:
P – Purposeful (The goal of labor is to give life to your baby. Much better than giving birth to a kidney stone, right?!)
A – Anticipated (You know a contraction is coming and you’re going to be well-prepared with tools to decrease the pain. You’ve got this!)
I – Intermittent (Labor pain comes and goes in short, minute-long waves with breaks in between. For most of your labor, those breaks will be long and pain free. Birth is not hours of unrelenting pain, like the constant throbbing of a broken bone.)
N – Normal (Pain is usually a sign that something’s wrong. Childbirth is one of those rare times when discomfort is a sign of progress. Each contraction brings your baby closer to you.)
Why is childbirth painful?
For most women, the contractions of early labor are mild and far apart. As labor progresses, contractions grow in length and intensity. With time, you feel the urge to push, and baby moves down the birth canal. Finally, baby’s head crowns and the head, shoulders, and body are born.
The following physical changes contribute to the pain of childbirth (2):
- Reduced oxygen in the uterine muscle, creating a build-up of lactic acid
- The stretching of the cervix as it dilates from 0-10cm
- The pressure of baby’s head pressing onto the cervix
- Tension as the ligaments of the uterus and pelvis are stretched
- Pressure of the baby’s head pushing on the bladder and rectum
- Stretching out of the pelvic floor during pushing
How painful is childbirth?
Contraction pain: Strong period cramps or worst pain ever?!
So, how bad is natural birth, really? Moms ask me this question all the time. I clearly remember the conversation I had with one tearful mom. She was terrified of labor pain. Crying gently, she said, “My mother-in-law says birth is nothing more than hard period cramps. But my own mom says it’s the worst pain ever and I should get an epidural. Who should I believe?!”
Women experience contraction pain differently
Who should she believe? How painful is childbirth? It turns out that everyone processes the pain of contractions differently and perceptions of contraction pain are all over the board.
That’s because pain is a physical experience that’s also influenced by emotions. There are many factors that can influence your perception of labor pain, such as (1):
- Do you feel confident or fearful about the idea of giving birth?
- Have you had a traumatic experience with pain in the past?
- Are you giving birth in an environment where you feel safe?
- Is this your first baby, or have you given birth before?
- Are you having a normal length of labor?
- Are you surrounded by a supportive birth team?
- Did the labor contractions start on their own or are they augmented with a medication like Pitocin?
- Is your baby in a normal, face-down position or is baby in a posterior position?
- Did you take a childbirth class to learn tools to reduce labor pain?
P.S. As a side-note, the tearful mom I referenced above went on to have an awesome natural birth 🙂
How women describe contraction pain
The pain feels a bit different during each phase of labor. However, when describing contraction pain, women often use phrases such as:
- Cramping pull
- Sharp, stabbing, or shooting
- Constant pressure to have a bowel movement
- Huge waves, like diarrhea cramps
- Severe, dull ache in back
- Spasms, like a charley horse
- Burning in perineum (area between vagina and anus)
- Bad gas pains
- Radiating waves of squeezing pressure
- Profound stretching
- Tremendous rectal pressure
- Powerful, beautiful intensity
Contraction pain vs suffering
As a registered nurse, a large part of my training was spent in learning how to alleviate pain. Most healthcare professionals feel the same way. No one wants to stand around watching someone suffer if they can step in and help, right? That would be cruel!
But are pain and suffering the same thing? Is someone in pain always suffering? Do women in labor need nurses to step in and end their contraction pain with medication?
Pain is a physical sensation of discomfort. It’s common in labor. Suffering is an emotional experience of distress or hardship. It’s often associated with a loss of emotional control. It’s not a natural part of the birth process.
I love this quote because it helps to normalize contraction pain:
“During a strenuous workout, you may experience the pain that accompanies exertion. You know why your body hurts, but you also associate the pain with improved physical conditioning, which makes the pain manageable. You may experience intense pain during labor but not feel as though you’re suffering, because you associate the pain with normal labor progress.”Penny Simkin, Pregnancy Childbirth and the Newborn
Even if you practice coping tools and prepare your body for natural birth, you will likely still feel significant pain in labor. However, preparation enables you to experience a natural birth without a sense of anguish and suffering. I’ll teach you how to keep pain from turning to suffering, and show your partner how to keep you in a positive coping cycle.
How painful is childbirth: Comparing birth to running a marathon
You’ve probably heard childbirth compared with running a marathon. As someone who as run 2 marathons and given birth 6 times, I can say from experience that the comparison is very accurate.
If you’ve ever participated in an endurance sport like a marathon, you know there’s a point where you “hit the wall” and feel like you’ve completely run out of energy. It happened to me at around mile 21 of the 26.2 mile race. I felt wasted and discouraged, and wasn’t sure if I’d be able to finish. According to Runners World, “hitting the wall refers to depleting your stored glycogen and the feelings of fatigue and negativity that typically accompany it.”
The wall and women in transition
It’s very common for women to hit the wall in labor, too. The times I’ve experienced this were often in the midst of transition, when my cervix was dilating between 8-10 cm. I’d already been exerting myself physically for hours, and now the contractions were longer, more powerful, and seemed unrelenting. I was physically and emotionally worn out. At times like this, it’s normal to feel unsure of your ability to handle even one more contraction.
Beth Shearer, a childbirth educator who has observed many Boston marathons, compares the marathon runner to a woman in transition.
“People come up Heartbreak Hill (near the end of the race) looking desolate. They’re in agony, in terrible pain; they look ghastly. They get to the top of the hill and of course everyone is cheering them on. No one is saying, ‘Oh, you poor dear, do you want anesthesia?’ No one is saying, ‘Do you want to drop out?’ That’s not what they need.
They need encouragement to help themselves go on,” says Shearer. In the marathon, everyone is saying, ‘You can do it, you’re doing great, just a little bit farther.” They’ll get a drink or hosed down if it’s a hot day. They get all kinds of physical and emotional support. Once they’ve scaled that hill, it’s downhill and the end is in sight. They’re tired and sore, but the triumph of finishing that race can override that.”Beth Shearer, as quoted by Adrienne Lieberman (3)
You CAN run this race!
Even though I hit the wall, I slowly but surely finished both marathons. Childbirth was no different. My babies now range in age between 15 and 1, a testament to the fact that slowly but surely, I was able to give birth despite the hard work.
And with the right tools and support, I know that you can do it, too.
Conclusion on contraction pain
Don’t fear birth – Prepare for it!
I’m not here to downplay the reality of pain in labor. Giving birth is HARD WORK.
But I want to assure you that the pain of natural childbirth really, truly is MANAGEABLE. You can have confidence in your ability to bear the pain of labor without losing control. I’m here to teach you skills to both maintain your sense of composure AND act instinctively during labor. And I’m also going to teach your partner how to provide practical, meaningful support.
Research supports preparing for birth
NOW is the time to lean in deep and start preparing for your natural birth! And in addition to decreasing the perceived intensity of contraction pain, there are other good reasons why you should prepare. Studies have shown that women who take time to prepare for birth tend to (4):
- Be more confident in their ability to give birth
- Approach birth with less fear
- Have better communication with their doctor or midwife
- Use less pain medication in labor, and
- Are more satisfied with their births than women who do not prepare for birth
In my opinion, those benefits are clearly worth the effort. So are you ready to get started?!
Learn more about KOPA® PREPARED Online Childbirth Classes.
Kopa Birth’s online birthing classes allow you to prepare for a natural hospital birth from the comfort of your own home, 24/7. Enroll today in our free online childbirth class and start preparing for your natural birth!
(1) Camann, W. and Alexander, K. (2006). Easy Labor: Every Woman’s Guide to Choosing Less Pain and More Joy During Chidlbirth.
(2) Simkin, P., Whalley, J., Keppler, A., Durham, Jl, & Bolding, A. (2010). Pregnancy, childbirth, and the newborn: The complete guide. Minnetonka, MN: Meadowbrook Press, 254-256.
(3) Lieberman, A.B. (1992). Easing labor pain: The complete guide to a more comfortable and rewarding birth. Boston, MA: Harvard Common Press, 18.
(4) Masoumi, S. Z., Kazemi, F., Oshvandi, K., Jalali, M., Esmaeili-Vardanjani, A., & Rafiei, H. (2016). Effect of Training Preparation for Childbirth on Fear of Normal Vaginal Delivery and Choosing the Type of Delivery Among Pregnant Women in Hamadan, Iran: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Journal of family & reproductive health, 10(3), 115–121.