Thinking about Labor Pain

By OBOS Pregnancy & Birth Contributors | October 15, 2011

Labor and birth are intense and unpredictable, and can push us to places within ourselves that we’ve never been. Many of us fear the pain and wonder how we will manage.

Fortunately, many techniques are available to ease and help manage pain. These techniques range from comfort measures such as walking, touch, and submersion in water to mental strategies such as focused breathing and hypnosis to medications such as opioids and epidurals.

In everyday life, physical pain, especially intense pain, is usually a warning that something is wrong in our bodies. But the pain of labor is not a sign of danger, nor is it a symptom of injury or illness. It is a sign that your body is working hard to birth your baby.

Labor pain is different in many ways from other kinds of pain. For one, the pain is self-limiting—it will end when the baby is born. It is also intermittent, not continuous, which means you will usually have periods of no pain between contractions. In addition, labor sensations intensify gradually over time, and this allows your body time to adapt. These differences often make labor pain easier to cope with than other kinds of pain.

Because pain and suffering often go hand in hand, we tend to think they’re the same thing. But they’re not. Pain is a physical sensation, while suffering is an emotional experience. We may suffer (feel helplessness, anguish, remorse, fear, panic, or loss of control) even when there is no physical sensation of pain. And we may experience physical pain without suffering.

As Penny Simkin and April Bolding, longtime advocates for birthing women, write, “One can have pain coexisting with satisfaction, enjoyment, and empowerment.” By the same token, they say, suffering can be caused or increased by factors other than physical pain: “Loneliness, ignorance, unkind or insensitive treatment during labor, along with unresolved past psychological or physical distress, increase the chance that the woman will suffer.”

While it is commonly believed that a woman’s satisfaction with her birth experience is linked to how much or how little pain she feels, this isn’t typically so. Our satisfaction seems to be highest when we trust that we are getting good information, we are given opportunities to participate in decisions regarding our care, and our caregivers treat us with kindness and respect. Pain and pain relief seem to have less effect on our overall satisfaction than the quality of support we receive from our caregivers.

My labor felt like a marathon that lasted over two days. There were easy periods, where I sailed along (I was even able to sleep), but there were stretches when it felt like a steep, uphill climb that would never end. But just like in a marathon, you just keep putting one foot in front of the other. You don’t think about reaching the end, you just think about taking the next step.

Having the support of a great midwife, my husband, and a few close loved ones made all the difference. I had such a HUGE sense of accomplishment when my daughter emerged and made her first tiny sounds. I was exhilarated by meeting such a great physical (and mental) challenge and felt I had earned a marathon “crown.”

For information on specific methods of dealing with pain, see Non-medication Coping Strategies and Medications for Pain Relief.