I’ve written about the fear of childbirth, which I believe has two main causes: we question the safety of childbirth and we believe it’s going to hurt. I’ve written about the safety of birth, and now I’d like to address the issue of pain. Pain is real, but it can be avoided or at least diminished through simple, natural means. Avoiding pain, rather than treating it symptomatically, not only leads to a more comfortable labor. It also makes labor progress more quickly.
I do believe women who tell me that childbirth hurt. I also know that mine, for the most part, did not. I attribute my relatively comfortable labor partially to luck, but mostly to HypnoBirthing. The foundation of HypnoBirthing is the replacement of fear with trust in the body’s ability to birth safely and comfortably. Upon this foundation techniques for working with the body are taught, the most important being profound relaxation and deep breathing. The result is a more comfortable labor – i.e. less pain, even no pain.
I have two children. In both my labors I had a direct experience of how fear caused pain and an experience of how relaxation made the pain go away. With my first child, labor began very gently in the early morning hours. Mid-morning, I was crossing the dining room on my way to the kitchen when I felt a more powerful surge coming on. The intensity frightened me and I braced myself for it against the wall and held my breath. It crashed over me like a wave, painful and disorienting! I panicked, sure I could not do it. Then I remembered that I had learned HypnoBirthing. It was time to put it into practice! So I put on my HypnoBirthing relaxation CD, got comfortable on the sofa, called my husband to sit by me, and when I felt the next surge come on, instead of bracing myself for it, I relaxed into it. I breathed. It made all the difference! Instead of a wave crashing over me, I felt myself riding a swell. It was then that I knew I could do it, then that I recognized that fighting labor only made it hurt.
With my second child, an easy day-long labor kicked into high gear after I woke from an afternoon nap. As we drove through 5 pm traffic my surges kept coming quickly and powerfully. When we found ourselves stopped completely as three lanes of traffic merged into two to cross a bridge, it occurred to me that we might not make it to the birth center. I did not want to have my baby on the side of the road! While having that fearful thought, I had a very painful surge. They’d been powerful, but not painful until then. I quickly made the connection that my fearful thought had created tension within me that caused the pain. I smiled and decided that, if my son wanted to be born at the side of the road, it would be okay. When the next surge came, it was just as powerful as the previous one but there was no pain. (We did make it to the birth center, incidentally, and my son was born soon after).
Why did relaxing and breathing make my pain go away? Because breathing and relaxing are the antidote to fear – more specifically to the body’s response to fear, the well-known “fight or flight” response, has two specific effects on labor.
First, fear causes muscular tension in the body, and tension causes pain. To understand this, recall that the uterus is a muscle system like others in the body, composed of two opposing muscles. The inner layer of muscle runs in a circle, parallel to the floor, like latitude lines. The outer layer of muscle runs longitudinally, perpendicular to the floor. When you’re in labor, the longitudinal muscles pull up on the base of the uterus to thin and open the cervix and uterus so that baby can be born. In order for this action to be accomplished, the latitudinal muscles of the uterus must relax. If there is tension in the body, the latitudinal muscles will not relax and allow the longitudinal muscles to do their job.
To experience this for yourself, try this exercise. Extend your right arm to the side so it is parallel to the floor. Now flex your arm at the elbow. Easy right? As your bicep contracted, your tricep relaxed, and the movement was almost effortless. Now extend your arm again. This time please try to flex your arm at the elbow while keeping your tricep tense. Much harder, isn’t it? If the movement can be accomplished at all, it will be exhausting and painful. The surging of the uterus – the flexing of the longitudinal muscles – is involuntary, so it will keep trying, even if the latitudinal muscles resist. The result is exhaustion and pain.
The second effect fear has on labor is a hormonal one. If the action of the uterus is involuntary, that means it is controlled not by intention but by hormones, namely the hormone oxytocin. Oxytocin causes the uterine surges that result in birth. But fear releases stress hormones called catecholamines, which slow down or stop altogether the release of the hormone oxytocin.
To understand this, it will help to remember that oxytocin is called the hormone of love and bonding. It is responsible for sexual arousal and orgasm. It is one of the hormones involved in the let-down reflex of breastfeeding. It promotes bonding with your partner, with your children, with anyone you love. It causes a feeling of connection, even oneness that feels heady and blissful. It is now easy to see how much the release of oxytocin is influenced by the environment: you cannot make love if you’re scared, or breastfeed your baby, or experience that sense of oneness with loved ones. Catecholamines suppress the release of oxytocin, because they are released by a body that believes itself to be threatened. In nature and human evolution, safety trumps reproduction. Oxytocin will not release if you don’t feel safe, and no oxytocin means a slowed or stalled labor.
Free from fear, the muscles of the body relax and do not resist uterine surges. Oxytocin flows freely, not only achieving the birth of the baby but also preparing the mother to bond profoundly with her newborn. In Nature’s perfect economy the hormone that got you pregnant, oxytocin, will birth your baby and facilitate your bonding.
But there’s more! Equally good news is the body’s own natural response to physical exertion: endorphins. “Endorphins” means “endogenous morphine”; i.e. morphine made by the body. Endorphins are the most powerful pain reliever known to us, and they are Nature’s plan for the exertions of birth. Furthermore, release of endorphins can be enhanced through meditation and relaxation.
This understanding is profound. It suggests that by managing fear, relaxing, and entering a meditative mental space — in my case, this was facilitated by HypnoBirthing breathing and visualization techniques — during labor, mothers can have easier, faster and more comfortable birth without drugs. That doesn’t necessarily mean that there will be no discomfort or circumstances that require medical intervention when giving birth. No one can predict what course a mother’s birth will take. However, how encouraging to know that Nature’s design is for efficiency and comfort during labor!
Please share your experience! What helped you during labor? Did you notice ways that stress and relaxation influenced the course or your labor or your level of comfort?