We can do hard things.
If you live in a modern culture, you've probably heard people talk about childbirth as an intense and painful event. And with the gift of medicine, women are commonly told, "You shouldn't have to suffer."
Culturally, birth is viewed as something that should be comfortable, convenient, and controlled. From media and stories, pain in labor has such a negative and fearful aspect. It's often being thought about as something wrong or dangerous. It's no wonder that epidurals are so seductive! We want to feel safe in this vulnerable and new experience.
Like any extreme physical pursuit, the escalation of intensity is the body having to work stronger and harder to achieve what we are undertaking. And what's more worth undertaking than giving birth?
The truth is, our bodies are capable of a lot. Maybe instead of inductions and epidurals, all we need is a reframing...
A new context
What if pain is actually a vital component of healthy labor? That it could be a sign that the body is working at peak performance? And that it's our doorway into having a safe, transformative birth experience?
What if pain in childbirth is actually an expression of our potency, power, health, and vitality? What if being told we shouldn't have to suffer actually undermines our capacity for standing strong in our bodies?
Let's say you go into labor spontaneously. Your brain has started producing a hormone called oxytocin. This is the love chemical. When we are having sex, nurturing or being nurtured, connecting, feeling safe and secure, this is the hormone that's flowing through our bodies. And it's also what causes contractions. As oxytocin flows, contractions intensify...
We cross a pain threshold where our mind now starts producing a hormone called endorphins. This is like a natural opiate. It's the "feel good" hormone that dims the thinking brain and brings you into the deeper, primal space within yourself where you can follow your body.
Throughout labor, these hormones dance and flow to open you and allow your baby to descend.
Why are these hormones so important and why don't they occur when we have pitocin or an epidural?
When you're induced using synthetic oxytocin, it creates contractions. But it doesn't give you the feelings of love and safety as natural oxytocin does when produced by the brain. Nor does it give your brain the signal to produce endorphins, your natural pain relief. So often women are left with intense contractions and a feeling of being totally out of control, which is terrifying!
Why not get an epidural to cope with the intensity of labor?
While an epidural can be the perfect thing in some cases, they are not risk-free. You will be mostly numb from the waist down. Sometimes it causes labor to slow down, then leading to pitocin being used to speed things up again. You won't be able to move around as much to create space for baby to rotate and descend, and pushing can be trickier without sensation in that area.
For low risk women who's labor is induced and have an epidural, 30% of the time it leads to a cesarean section. For low risk women who go into labor spontaneously and do not have an epidural, only around 5% of them end up with a cesarean section. This is not to say you shouldn't get an epidural, but just some things to consider.
What does this show us?
Birth is designed to work without interventions. Pain could actually be our ally.
When we don't disrupt the natural process of birth, we are less likely to end up with a c-section or postpartum depression. And we are more likely to feel empowered, establish breastfeeding quickly, and have a stronger bond with our babies.
So the next question becomes, how do we cope with the intensity of labor naturally?
The good news is, there are so many ways!!!
Coping with Labor Sensations
First, form your support team. These are the people who will offer you the best support in the most crucial times of labor. For example, if at some point during labor you come across a crisis of confidence and you feel like you can't go on, who will be able to engage you back into rhythmic slow breathing? Who will advocate for what you want when you are deep within yourself? A doula can be an extremely helpful asset to your support team.
Second, create an environment that facilitates a safe, calming space for you to let go. Whether you are at home, in a birth center, or in a hospital, you can adjust your environment.
Dim the lights
Light candles (or use the battery-powered ones)
Mix an essential oil like lavender with water and spray it around the room
Get cozy with blankets
Get a birth ball
Have access to a bath tub or shower
Third, research your options and prepare comfort measures.
Know that your body is designed to birth your baby.
This article is based on the Birthful Podcast Episode 78: Is there a Purpose to Childbirth Pain? with Rhea Dempsey.