You’ve heard that natural childbirth is intense, but how bad is it really? Should you expect something along the line of strong menstrual cramps, or should you plan to be doubled over in pain?
Questions like this are very normal when you’re making the choice between an epidural and a natural, or unmedicated, birth. You want to know what kind of pain you’re up against so that you can be mentally, emotionally, and physically prepared. Let’s delve into the how’s and why’s of the sensations you’ll feel during natural childbirth.
Natural Childbirth How Bad Is It Really: Why does it hurt?
PAIN. That dreaded feeling that everyone would love to avoid! This seems to be the number one thing that women worry about after they become pregnant, and it plays a huge part in their birth planning decisions. Labor pain occurs because your body is opening and changing in order to deliver your baby. Understanding what’s going on inside your body and acknowledging that this pain is normal and temporary can help prevent pain from becoming too overwhelming.
By the end of your pregnancy, your uterus has become the largest and strongest muscle in your body. During labor, the top portion of the uterus contracts and pulls the muscle fibers upwards. This tightens and shortens the muscles of the entire uterus, putting pressure on the cervix (1). When the cervix is fully dilated, contractions help push the baby down and out of the uterus and into the birth canal.
Contractions send pain signals to the brain, which releases oxytocin. In turn, oxytocin causes the contractions to increase in intensity. This is nature’s way of speeding up the birth process. But don’t worry – pain also increases the release of powerful endorphins. Endorphins not only help with pain management, but also contribute to a shift from a rational mindset to the more instinctive mind necessary to cope with birth (2).
Position of Baby
No matter what kind of position your baby is in, your body is working hard to make him or her descend. This movement puts a lot of uncomfortable pressure all over your body. You may experience extreme back pain if the baby is breech (the baby is feet or buttocks first) or posterior (the baby’s face is positioned towards your stomach instead of your back).
Different Stages of Labor
As labor progresses and birth becomes more imminent, pressure on your body builds and then decreases as you deliver and recover. Here’s what to expect with each stage (3):
Early labor: This stage will last approximately 8-12 hours. Your cervix will efface and dilate from 0 up to 6 cm. Contractions will last about 30-45 seconds, giving you 5-30 minutes of rest between contractions. Contractions are typically mild and somewhat irregular but become progressively stronger and more frequent. They can feel like aching in your lower back, menstrual cramps, and pressure/tightening in the pelvic area.
Active labor: This stage will last about 3-5 hours and your cervix will dilate up to 8cm. Contractions during this phase will last about 45-60 seconds with 3-5 minutes rest in between. They will feel stronger and longer.
Transition phase: This is the final stage, lasting 30 min to 2 hours. The cervix will complete dilation to 10cm, allowing baby to finally start moving into the birth canal. Contractions are long, strong, intense, and can overlap. You might experience hot flashes, chills, nausea, or vomiting.
Pushing phase: Baby is starting to move downwards into the birth canal and you will feel a strong natural urge to push. Contractions will last about 45-90 seconds with 3-5 min of rest in between. You will feel strong pressure at your rectum as the baby’s head is crowning, accompanied by a short-lived burning, stinging sensation.
After the baby is born: Within 5-30 minutes, you will continue to have contractions as your body delivers the placenta. You might experience some severe shaking and shivering after your placenta is detaching, but this is common and not a cause for concern. Period-like cramps will continue for up to a week as the uterus shrinks back down.
Natural Childbirth How Bad Is It Really: How does it feel?
The pain of natural birth is typically described as intense pressure and pain in the lower abdomen and lower back. When the baby drops down near the birth canal, the pressure and pain move deep within the pelvic area.
Childbirth differs for everyone and there are many viewpoints on the physical effects. The intensity will vary, but some of the most common feelings would include: cramping, tightening, pressure, stretching, and burning (when baby’s head is crowning; also called “the ring of fire”) (1).
Here’s how some women described labor:
“I’d first feel cramping in my back, then it would move around my front and my whole belly would tighten. Later in labor, I could feel the cramping even in my thighs.”Sarah F.
“The best way to describe labor pain is that it’s like the kind of aching pain you get when you do something that requires a lot of effort, such as doing a chin up or holding an advanced yoga poses for a long time. Your muscles burn as they get tired. That’s what my uterus felt like.”Emma W.
“Have you ever had a really sharp gas pain? To me, that’s how the contractions of active labor and transition felt. They were intense and strong, but were much easier to cope with when I focused on relaxing my muscles during the contractions.”Katie G.
Natural Childbirth How Bad Is It Really: How to Cope
Relaxation and Tension Release
Relaxation is the art of recognizing and releasing muscle tension; it’s the key to finding comfort during labor. It leads to a more relaxed state of mind and reduces stress (1). It also helps you save energy and makes contractions less painful. Relaxation is most effective as a pain management strategy when learned and practiced in advance of the labor experience (4).
Moving around and changing positions allows you to discover your own best way to be comfortable during labor. Movement gives you the ability to change the shape of your pelvis to help baby descend. And upright positions using gravity aids the progression of the labor and releases pressure and tension in different areas of the body (1).
Labor is no different from any other activity that requires physical and mental discipline, such as swimming, running, yoga, or singing (1). All of these activities require some measure of breath control. Rhythmic breathing techniques can keep you focused and in control of your mind and body. Just like the activities listed above, you need to practice patterned breathing during pregnancy so that you can feel confident using it during labor.
Music, touch, massage/effleurage, acupressure, hot/cold therapy, aromatherapy, and hydrotherapy are sensory strategies that can promote comfort and relaxation (4). When you’re in labor, you may discover that using one or multiple types of these sensory options can help you focus on relieving stress and pain.
Past Coping Methods
Focusing on specific uncomfortable situations in the past, learning how you coped with them, and applying those same coping methods to labor can help make your pain more manageable. For instance, analyzing the ways you dealt with strong menstrual cramps, enduring a strong headache, suffering with aching muscles or illness and going through stressful situations at home or work, can be helpful (1).
Childbirth Education Classes
The knowledge and skills gained from a good childbirth class are valuable to all laboring women. Preparation for labor is very important due to the close link between pain and anxiety. Studies show that women are more confident after attending childbirth classes. As a result, they report less pain in labor and use less pain medication (Lowe, 1996) (4).
Fortunately, Kopa Birth® has you covered! We offer online birthing classes to prepare you for natural hospital birth, as well as local childbirth classes in some areas of the country. Whichever course you choose, enroll with your partner and practice your coping tools together regularly. This type of preparation is sure to make the pain of labor less intense and easier to cope with.
Kopa Birth’s online childbirth classes allow you to prepare for a natural childbirth from the comfort of your own home, 24/7. Enroll today in our free online childbirth class to learn more about preparing for a natural hospital birth.
1. Simkin, P., Whalley, J., Keppler, A., Durham, J., & Bolding, A. (2016). Pregnancy, Childbirth, and the Newborn: The Complete Guide. Minnetonka: Meadowbrook Press.
2. Lothian, J. A. (2000). Questions from Our Readers: Why Natural Childbirth? Journal of Perinatal Education,9(4), 44-46. doi:10.1624/105812400×87905
3. American Pregnancy Association. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://americanpregnancy.org/
4. Pubmed. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/