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How painful is labour and birth?

As an antenatal teacher this is something I frequently get asked and there isn't really an easy answer. Often, our view of labour is pretty scary – there’s screaming, shouting, everyone looks panicked and sweaty. Alongside what we’ve seen on TV and in films, or even experienced ourselves, we’re also familiar with comments like these; ‘just have the epidural’, ‘your dignity leaves you at the door’ and ‘you can’t breathe your baby out’.

It’s not surprising then that people often feel that a painful labour is essentially a rite of passage to getting a baby. And, with that brings worry and fear of birth. However, there is another way! No, I’m not going to promise you a pain-free birth, but I can support you to find ways to manage discomfort – keep reading.

Let’s start at the beginning – what actually happens during labour and birth?

Your uterus (womb) has layers of muscle that run horizontally and vertically. During a contraction the vertical muscles tighten and shorten pulling up the horizontal layers of muscle – this shortens and opens your cervix (effacement and dilation). Once the muscles have moved up to the top of your uterus and your cervix is fully opened, they will then push down, moving baby down and out. It’s useful to know this, as if you understand what’s happening it can really help you associate the sensations with the work your body is doing – that in itself can make it less unnerving.

What does labour and birth feel like?

Generally, people use the following words to describe the sensations of labour contractions; uncomfortable, pressure, a dull ache, tightening, intense cramping (like menstrual cramps). These sensations might be felt across your tummy, or into your back – where you feel the sensations is often due to where baby is sitting in your uterus.

The key thing to remember is that in physiological birth these sensations build up slowly – like a wave rising, reaching its peak and then flowing away. Additionally, contractions start small, as your labour progresses they increase in intensity, length and frequency – but this slow start is a bonus – it gives you time to get your head around what’s happening and get used to the sensations and it gives your body time to build up endorphins – a natural pain reliever – and oxytocin, the hormone that gives you that loved up, out of this world feeling.

How can I cope with the pain of labour and birth?

There are so many options when it comes to managing the pain of labour, starting with your mindset is incredibly powerful. Our mind has a huge influence over the workings of our body and the sensations we feel. It sounds incredibly ‘woo’, but research shows us that working to address any worries or anxieties that you have can really support your muscles to relax and get on with their job of birthing your baby – want to know more? Book into one of my free ‘introduction to hypnobirthing’ sessions.

Next up, understand what’s happening in your body and how you can support it, there are really simple things you can do – staying hydrated and well fuelled in labour will again support your uterus muscles to birth your baby. Additionally, there are a number of tweaks to your birth environment that you can make (whether you’re birthing at home, in a birth centre, or in hospital) that will boost endorphins and oxytocin which will help labour progress.

Understanding both the pharmaceutical and non-pharmaceutical pain-relief options available to you is also a great idea, this gives you the reassurance that there are options every step of the way throughout your labour and birth and gives you time to consider what you are comfortable with. You could consider the use of warm water (shower, bath, birth pool, hot water bottle), a TENS machine, a comb (weird but true), breathing and relaxation techniques, oral morphine (oramorph), pethidine, gas and air (entonox), remifentanil and yes, an epidural! These are all options open and available to you and something we discuss fully on my hypnobirthing courses. If you’d like to find out more about your pain relief options, take a look at my my upcoming antenatal courses here.

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