bellies, babies, breastfeeding, and everything in between

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Pain with a purpose

Among our birth clients, especially the first time moms, one of their biggest concerns is how they will cope with pain in labor.  We have a variety of resources such as physical comfort techniques, emotional comfort techniques, and environmental comfort techniques that we use but in this post we will explore the purpose of pain in labor.

It has been our experience that nature does not often make mistakes.  If labor and birth are painful to women, there is a reason for it.  Those reasons have been much studied and we have come across a great resource for this, a British publication titled “Normal Birth: Evidence and Debate” edited by Soo Downe.  We encourage our science-minded clients to read this book if they are interested!

First and foremost the pain is physiological.  For a first time mother, you have a baby living comfortably inside you, and this beautiful baby needs to emerge from an opening (the cervix) that has never opened before, and then the vagina, which has never stretched that far before.  Despite the fact that both of these organs were made to do just that – stretch and open and then return to their ‘normal’ state surprisingly quickly, the first time you and your body are doing this can be quite uncomfortable and even painful.

Numerous studies have also shown that pain is a trigger for the the neurochemical cascade that is so crucial to a healthy birth.  Examples of these include oxytocin as the bonding hormone for mom and baby, catecholamines to stimulate baby’s lungs, and prolactin to stimulate breastmilk production.  Dr. Sarah Buckley explains this extremely well in her article that can be found at

Perhaps equally importantly, the pain serves as a warning that it is time to look for a safe place to deliver your baby.  Your body has to signal you somehow, so that you are not delivering in the car (though this does happen!) or the mall or grocery store!  When the contractions begin it is time to head home so that you can prepare for baby’s impending arrival.  Midwives will often use your level of pain to describe when it’s time to head to the birth center or call the midwife to your home.  Pain also “summons support.”  Time for the partner, the friends, and the family to rally around and help with the household or other children, or to support mom while she births her baby.

The pain of labor  marks the transition to motherhood.  Labor is a gateway between your life as a pregnant woman and your life as a mother (or mother of many).  Women who labored and delivered without the use of epidurals reported a higher state of joy and triumph after their birth.  Bringing your baby from inside your body to your arms is a momentous occasion and should be marked by a triumphant experience.

We find it important to note that the current culture of maternity care in the United States does not make it easy for women to refuse pain medication during a hospital birth.  The non-evidence-based practice of restricting the movements of women experiencing normal labor makes coping without pain relief nearly impossible.  Excessive use of continuous fetal monitoring (which has not been shown to be any more effective than intermittent monitoring in numerous studies), Pitocin for ‘slow labors,’ lack of continuity of care, and other factors contribute to a level of fear and discomfort that inhibits a mother’s ability to work with the pain.

We believe that all mothers are strong and capable of working with the pain of normal childbirth.  We believe that there are many factors that contribute to levels of pain, and many non-chemical ways to relieve pain.  We also believe in circumstances in which chemical pain relief is warranted.  We believe in a mother’s right to choose pharmaceutical pain relief if that is what she wants and if she has been properly educated on the risks and benefits.  We do not support the belief that the pain is always unbearable, or that women are weak and unable to cope, or that they “need” medical intervention in order to birth a healthy baby.

For more information on any of these topics, feel free to contact us!