top of page

Reframing Labour Pain

Pain Blog

I’ve just seen a quote that says “Fear and Birth don’t go together”. It’s so true! But it’s also really easy for me to sit here and say “don’t be frightened of birth as it’ll make it really hard”. It’s like saying “don’t think of pink elephants whatever you do”… You see! Pink elephants all over the shop (thanks, brain).

Aside from the obvious (healthy baby) the focus of fear for many of the mums in my Pregnancy Yoga classes and Antenatal classes is around ‘pain’. I regularly get asked “how bad will it get?”, “ how will I cope with the pain?”, “I don’t want an epidural but I don’t know how I’m going to get through without one”. In fact, outside of my classes, so focussed is the fear around pain that some hypnobirthing practitioners used to advise against using the word ‘pain’ at all. (Side note, I don’t believe giving any word more power than it’s formed jumble of letters deserves. Except “no”, that is my exception; in the right places a firm “no” can be hugely powerful, but even “yes” doesn’t scare me…).

I absolutely get it. For our whole lives we have been fed a series of dramatised birth images. One Born Every Minute, your own birth story from your mum, Adam Kaye’s This is Going to Hurt, when Tracey off Eastenders gave birth on the sofa (still makes me shiver). All we’ve been showered with is a series of ever-increasing pictures of pain and jeopardy around birth. And, I’m not going sit here and tell you that childbirth is pain-free.

What?!! She’s agreeing it’s painful?

Well, hear me out…. There is a sensation when your uterus contracts (‘surges’, for those who have given the word ‘contraction’ more power than it’s jumble of letters). It is a really powerful sensation that makes it almost impossible to focus on much else. During the latter stages of labour this sensation radiates from your middle, it’s almost impossible to move any of the rest of your body during a contraction and you might feel other sensations that you haven’t ever felt before. Nor have the words to describe. (By the way, there’s a really cool reason it’s hard to move your limbs during a contraction, come see me for birth prep if you’d like to know more.)

However, I wouldn’t describe this as pain. It’s just that we don’t HAVE another word to help us out in the right way. Saying ‘sensation’ is misleading. Breathing is a sensation. Eating chocolate is a sensation. Even brushing your hair is a sensation. None of which necessitate fear, a class in how to do it or a storyline in Eastenders.

Going forwards, you’ll forgive me for wandering off on a seemingly irrelevant direction, but I do LOVE a simile.

So, here goes…. I am a regular gym-goer and sometimes I will treat myself to a PT session. My PT knows that it’s his/her job to get me to lift/move/squat more than I would on my own, teach me techniques to keep my muscles safe and generally make me even stronger and, in an ideal world, with thighs like Naomi Campbell and arms like Madonna (one can but dream).

During this process there will be some pain in my body, no doubt. It’s usually somewhere between the 3rd and 50th weighted squat that I really start to feel it. A heat that starts in my thighs and grows until it’s actually burning, I swear. And I’m not sure if you’ve ever been to one of these sessions (I make them sound awful but honestly they’re great… I think), but you just keep on doing the squats like you don’t have a choice and can’t just get up and walk out (actually, after the 50th squat the ‘walking out’ part of that is absolutely unavailable)! The pain gets so bad sometimes that I literally shout “FUCK” at the top of my voice. But what is happening in my head?

Well, I have a vague idea that the burning sensation is something to do with lactic acid in my muscles. I understand it’s kind of what I’ve paid for and it’s making me stronger. I absolutely know it’s not going to break me and I know that it’s going to stop the minute I stand up and put the weight down. And I know that, the stronger this sensation, the more I feel in my legs, the closer to those Naomi Campbell-esque thighs I’m getting. I actually want this sensation, I understand the reason behind it and I know that it will produce a great outcome. Not once does this scare me or induce fear in me. In fact, it makes me feel pretty high, especially when I managed more squats than I did last week and when I realise I DID it. I might even feel pretty perky all day actually. (This is the power of endorphins, by the way, also included in my birth prep sessions.)

So what is the difference? Why might I not be scared of this kind of ‘pain’, but really terrified of labour pain? Really the only difference is just knowledge and the absence of fear. And, let’s face it “something to do with lactic acid” isn’t exactly phd-level understanding. I trust my body will be strong enough and I understand the power of this sensation in my achieving my end goal. I feel safe, I feel strong, I understand what is happening and why I’m doing it.

And, imagine, if you will, that I suddenly felt that burning sensation in my thighs, randomly, with little advance warning and no understanding of what was happening to me. I would be utterly terrified. This fear would absolutely make the sensation feel 100 times worse, it would be impossible for me to make the associated endorphins and it would be a truly traumatic experience. Especially if I had spent most of my life being fed images on TV of women my age and circumstance whose thigh spontaneously and dramatically exploded with no warning…..

It is EXACTLY the same with birth. Admittedly bringing a baby earthside is a darn site more important than looking good in shorts come summer. But the inherent knowledge that you can do it, that you are safe, that the sensation is bringing you closer to your end goal, shouldn’t differ hugely.

I get that not everyone likes the gym. So lets look at some other examples – a headache from drinking too much the night before, the sensation cold-water swimmers enjoy, stepping into a hot bath when you’re cold, funfair rides, ridiculously hot/spicy food, getting your legs waxed (actually, scrap that last one – I’ve done childbirth at home without even a whiff of gas and air and it wasn’t nearly as powerful a sensation as waxing!). The point is, we encounter sensations ALL the time, that we could interpret as ‘painful’ or ‘frightening’, if we add in an element of jeopardy, a lifetime of drama on TV and misunderstanding or lack of knowledge about what is producing this sensation.

So, what’s the answer? Well, decent antenatal education (have I mentioned my birth prep sessions?), a reduction in listening to horror stories and a societal change in how we talk to parents about birth would help. I mean the whole system is a bit messed up, BUT, for now lets just start with you and your thinking behind the fear of pain in labour.

My fervent wish is that this blog provides you with, not all the answers, but just a taste of the fact that childbirth can be an incredibly powerful experience, a chance to reconsider your own narrative around what you perceive to be labour pain, and the confidence to go and get yourself some decent knowledge without fear about what produces this sensation.

And, of course, if you want all of that to a gold standard, you’ll absolutely want to get in touch with me to book in some Antenatal Preparation sessions (have I mentioned… oh okay).

bottom of page