If you are expecting, and worried about how painful childbirth might be, you’re not alone. Many women feel a mix of excitement and worry. You may have heard women say that it was the most pain they’ve ever experienced. And you may even have heard someone say that they were able to give birth naturally without pain. The idea of that seems awfully good, but is it realistic? Let’s talk about it!
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Can You Give Birth Naturally Without Pain?
My husband and I enrolled in a natural childbirth class in preparation for an unmedicated birth with our first baby. Throughout the course, the instructor insisted that childbirth was not painful. She described contractions as waves of pressure that felt a lot like period cramps. She assured me that if I stayed relaxed, I could anticipate a pain-free birth.
Fast forward a few months. I was 5 days past my due date, several hours into labor, and the contractions were picking up in pace and intensity. Despite what I’d been told, I was starting to feel PAIN! I panicked – sure that I must be somehow relaxing incorrectly. My ability to focus on the relaxation scripts and guided imagery faded as quickly as my confidence. I felt out of control with fear and eventually abandoned my plans for a natural birth and chose an epidural.
After 6 more births, all of which were unmedicated, I’ve learned that for most women, pain is simply a part of giving birth. The presence of pain is normal, even when you’re coping well with the contractions. The goal shouldn’t be to give birth naturally without pain. Instead, learn a wide variety of coping tools to help manage the intensity of childbirth. With a combination of relaxation, positioning, breathing, and other techniques, you can stay calm despite the pain of contractions to embrace one of the most rewarding experiences of your life.
Read More: Contraction Pain: How Painful is Childbirth?
The Physiology of Pain
Throughout your body, you have pain receptors that transmit signals (electric impulses along nerves) to your brain. The brain processes the signal, interprets it as pain, and you become aware of the sensation(1). This is a pretty basic explanation, and there are multiple types of pain, but this is sufficient for our discussion.
One thing that’s interesting to note in a discussion of labor pain, though, is that your pain receptors aren’t evenly spread throughout your body. Your skin has many receptors which can tell your brain precisely where the pain is, and whether it is sharp or dull, hot or cold, pressure, itching, pinching, etc. (1). Your intestines and internal organs don’t have as many receptors and aren’t very good at pinpointing pain or its source. You are less able to determine exactly where the pain is, and it’s likely to be felt over a large area. This, in itself, can be somewhat unsettling. And to add to that vagueness, you may feel labor discomfort in multiple areas as related, interconnected muscles and systems work together to bring your baby into the world.
Pain in Childbirth
Looking specifically at the pain associated with childbirth, there are simply too many things in your body that are stretching and pulling and changing to make it realistic to expect natural birth without any pain. Labor requires a lot of stretching — namely of the cervix and perineum, and the surrounding muscles that support the entire pelvic and abdominal regions.
During contractions, the uterus squeezes from the top to shorten, thin, and dilate the cervix, pulling the cervical muscle up and out of the way so that you can push your baby through. If you’ve never seen the demonstration with a balloon and ping pong ball, you may want to take a moment to watch Labour Process: The Cervix Explained. This is a helpful visualization for understanding what’s happening in your body during labor and delivery. As you watch the changes happening to the “uterus and cervix” in that video, and imagine them as muscles, you can see why there would necessarily be pain, or at least discomfort, involved.
The Psychology of Pain
All of that, though, is just the technical answer for how pain is felt. How it is interpreted is also important, and this is unique to each person and each situation. The actual physical sensations that you feel during labor aren’t the only factor in how you experience pain.
You are more likely to report a more painful birth experience if:
- A fearful or anxious temperament is your norm
- You’ve had prior negative experiences with pain or trauma (especially sexual trauma)
- Your family or culture’s attitudes about birth are more negative or fearful
- A lack of childbirth education, or misinformation about birth
- You’re feeling powerless or unsupported (2)
Learn More: Read about the differences between pain and suffering in labor
The bottom line is that pain is not something that can be measured with the same ruler across the board, because it’s so highly influenced by emotion. Not only are there physical differences in each actual labor and birth, but also in how individual women interpret pain. Heck — there are even differences in how the same woman would rate it at different times in the same birth.
But, circling back to our original question, none of it adds up to a realistic expectation that you can give birth naturally without pain. Sure, it can happen…but it’s not the norm.
Managing the Pain
We don’t talk about pain in childbirth to scare you. Rather, the idea is to be informed and prepared, and to understand that you can manage the pain. It’s all about preparation.
I like to compare birth to running a marathon. (I have given birth to seven children and run two marathons, and there are definitely similarities!) You train for months beforehand. Race day comes with excitement, and by around mile 20, you’re exhausted. There are times when you’re in pain as your muscles start to fatigue, and you put one foot in front of the other with willpower. Many marathoners experience moments when they doubt that they’ll be able to cross that finish line. But you can! Let’s discuss some of the best ways to manage labor pain confidently. You’ll learn these, along with others, in the Kopa Birth® online childbirth class.
Knowledge is Power
There is a reason that most OBs and midwives recommend that their patients take a high-quality childbirth education class. You will feel more confident and less pain as you can visualize exactly is going on with your body during labor, not to mention what is going on around you. Familiarize yourself with the hospital equipment, the various forms of intervention you might be offered, etc. This type of knowledge will keep you from feeling scared and out of control. Understanding what’s going on both inside and outside your body can make a huge difference in how you experience labor.
As mentioned above, a large part of how you experience pain is dependent on your own mindset.
Think of it like this: When having blood drawn to check on your baby’s health, you know that there will be an uncomfortable stick, but that it’s necessary and only momentary. It probably registers as only a minimal amount of pain. But if you were walking down the street and were suddenly jabbed by the same size needle in the same place, you would likely experience it as much more painful. The element of surprise and the fact that you had no control would likely make it seem much more traumatic.
Linked together with the knowledge and understanding about what’s happening in your body, you can develop a positive mindset about the sensations of labor. You can choose to frame these sensations as progress rather than negative pain. You can remind yourself that every contraction is a step closer toward meeting your baby.
It might sound unbelievable to think that you could relax during an event like childbirth. But you can learn to deliberately relax your muscles during a contraction. And relaxation has been shown to lower the intensity of pain during labor (3).
Tensing up makes you tire more quickly, because your muscles are active instead of passive. Tense muscles can work against what your body is doing naturally during labor–moving the baby down and out of the birth canal. And tense muscles experience pain more acutely than relaxed muscles.
Another thing you’ll want to learn is how to find labor positions that work with your body instead of against it. Studies have shown that the position in which you labor does significantly affect your perception of pain (4).
Today, it’s not uncommon for women to lie in a hospital bed for much of their labor. Unfortunately, this position decreases oxygen flow to the baby, eliminates the positive effects of gravity, and can make pushing more difficult. Instead, you and your partner should use positions such as swaying, squatting, and side-lying — positions that are both comfortable and help promote labor progress.
When you see childbirth depicted in movies and TV shows, you almost always see the woman panting in some form of controlled labor breathing. Although it may seem like an outdated 70’s Lamaze skill, breathing techniques really are a tried and true method to both relax your body and keep you focused and retain a sense of control during labor. And more than one study shows that breathing exercises learned before labor and used during labor can dramatically reduce anxiety, perception of pain, and length of labor (5,6).
So I Can’t Expect to Give Birth Naturally Without Pain?
Unfortunately, a pain-free childbirth is not the norm. But hopefully what you’ve read here shows you that you can give birth naturally, with pain, but without distress or suffering. Instead, birth can be empowering and rewarding amidst the challenge.
Because this is a topic that so many pregnant women worry about, we’ve covered labor pain from a variety of angles in different articles. So, read on to learn more!
Read more: Contraction Pain How Painful is Childbirth
Read more: Natural Childbirth How Bad is it Really?
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!
- Overview of Pain By James C. Watson, By, Watson, J., & Last full review/revision Apr 2020| Overview of pain – brain, spinal cord, and nerve disorders. https://www.merckmanuals.com/home/brain,-spinal-cord,-and-nerve-disorders/pain/overview-of-pain
- Simkin, P., Whalley, J., Keppler, A., Durham, J., & Bolding, A. (2016). Pregnancy, Childbirth, and the Newborn: The Complete Guide. Minnetonka: Meadowbrook Press.
- Smith, C. A., Levett, K. M., Collins, C. T., Armour, M., Dahlen, H. G., & Suganuma, M. (2018). Relaxation techniques for pain management in labour. The Cochrane database of systematic reviews, 3(3), CD009514. https://doi.org/10.1002/14651858.CD009514.pub2
- Valiani, M., Rezaie, M., & Shahshahan, Z. (2016). Comparative study on the influence of three delivery positions on pain intensity during the second stage of labor. Iranian journal of nursing and midwifery research, 21(4), 372–378. https://doi.org/10.4103/1735-9066.185578
- Cicek, S., & Basar, F. (2017). The effects of breathing techniques training on the duration of labor and anxiety levels of pregnant women. Complementary therapies in clinical practice, 29, 213–219. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ctcp.2017.10.006
- Yuksel, H., Cayir, Y., Kosan, Z., & Tastan, K. (2017). Effectiveness of breathing exercises during the second stage of labor on labor pain and duration: a randomized controlled trial. Journal of integrative medicine, 15(6), 456–461. https://doi.org/10.1016/S2095-4964(17)60368-6