I did it! I delivered my baby without the use of any pain-relieving medications. In fact, there were absolutely no medical interventions at all.
It meant everything to me to be able to experience every sensation of labor and birth, start to finish. I knew it would better help me to feel like I’d had the full experience, and not “missed” anything. I knew it would help me to effectively push when it came time to actually deliver, being able to feel the progress of the baby as it exited my body.
In doing this, like so many other women before me, I channeled great, great inner strength. I devoted very, very intense mental focus. I worked hard ahead of time to prepare, largely by staying somewhat fit and even more largely by doing my homework.
I read books about natural childbirth, particularly about delivering all naturally yet still in a hospital setting. (It wasn’t my style to want to deliver at home.) I was inspired by the myriad natural birth stories I tracked down and read online, and educated by the thoughts and emotions experienced by women who chose to do the hard, no doubt, but rewarding — to be sure — work of delivering their babies all naturally.
Though birth often happens in hospitals these days, and the use of epidurals and other pain-relieving medical interventions is very common, babies were born without the use of any of these measures for many, many years before our modern times.
Women’s bodies — and minds — have great power. And if you look at it one way, the female body was made to do this. Through chemical processes, coping techniques, and the company of supportive helpers, women push (ahem…) through. Here are fifteen ways they do it.
15 Chemicals Between Us
If you’ve spent much time at all on a running trail, treadmill, or maybe even playing field, you probably know about this thing called “runner’s high.” The chemicals produced within the body that are often associated with this euphoric feeling are called endorphins, and they can really work some magic when it comes to relieving pain.
Endorphins are a group of hormones that are secreted in the brain and nervous system. These peptides activate opiate receptors within the body, creating an analgesic (or pain-relieving) effect. Exercise, stress, and pain may all cause them to be produced. I can tell you, if you didn’t already know, that labor and childbirth may involve a li’l bit of all of these.
So how have female bodies and brains been able to withstand the pain of childbirth for all these years? And why is the pain in fact bearable enough that many women actually choose to become pregnant and do it all over again? A big factor is endorphins.
14 In And Out
Whether through the Lamaze method, intentionally taking slow, deep breaths, or even perhaps speeding up the breath, many women are able to channel the power of the breath as a very effective way of getting through labor and childbirth pain.
Changing or focusing on the breath in these various ways can really aid the body in releasing tension, and there’s something natural childbirth experts will talk about called the fear-tension-pain cycle. Convincing the mind to let go of fear is of course one big step women may attempt in lessening their experience of pain, and getting rid of some of the associated tension is another big one.
Another approach is the act of focusing on the breath itself. If you are giving all your mental energy to a breathing pattern or a certain type of focused breathing, there’s no room in that noggin for focusing completely on the sensation of pain.
13 Groove Thang
All I could do to handle the more intense parts of my first (20-hour-long) labor was rock and sway, rock and sway. If a certain ’90s R&B jam was playing that happened to have just the right tempo for me, all the better. Put that shit on repeat, and turn it up. And I didn’t know which song or what tempo it would be — or even that moving to music would be the thing that would help me more than anything else — until the moment was upon me.
Movement is an absolutely incredible — and potentially incredibly effective — way of coping with childbirth pain.
Maybe it’s as simple as rotating your hips in a circle one way and then the other. Maybe it’s as complicated as a choreographed “labor dance” you do as you make your way down the hall. It could be leaning against a wall or your partner as you stand and sort of slow dance, or rocking forward and back in your own rhythm. Maybe you even tackle it on hands and knees.
I’ve tried them all, and I think they are all worth a try through the various stages of labor.
12 Friendly Fog
If the pain of labor and birth was really that bad, would so many women make a conscious choice to repeat the entire endeavor? Well, maybe not, depending on how you look at it. But the truth is, we may just not remember it all that well.
Maybe this is nature’s way of making it more likely that we’ll want to give pregnancy another go-round. Or do you think it’s a happy coincidence, based on the circumstances that immediately follow it?
Sure, labor can be very intense. Some women describe it as extremely painful, some women claim to find it almost orgasmic, and then there’s probably as many interpretations of how it feels and how badly it hurts as there are women doing it in between the extremes.
But immediately following, you enter into the foggy bliss of newborn times. Your brain switches right away to being completely occupied with caring for the little person you have just welcomed. You’re also usually pretty darn sleep-deprived, and memories may much sooner than you might think become less crisp and detailed than those of other times in your life.
11 Rhythm And Not-So-Blues
It’s been known to boost many a mood, bring together both couples and crowds, and start many a dance party. It’s music! Combine rhythm with notes, and it’s, well, um, music to our human ears.
Whether it helps them to be carried away to a more tranquil state, get a dance-y groove on, or focus on something besides the circumstances at hand, music has a way of making the pain go away, or at least be experienced less severely and more as something that can be handled.
I’d say laboring women might want to consider thinking outside the box, here. Maybe it’s the cliché “calming sounds” tracks that do the trick for you. If so, put on some whale sounds, wind chimes, or rain sounds and do it. But if techno takes you into a happy trance, try that! Pop stuff from your earlier days? Sure! Punk rock still your fave? Okay!
Music means happiness, relaxation, letting go, and feeling well for many people, so it makes sense that it’s many women’s drug of choice when it comes to coping with childbirth pain.
10 Stretch It Out
There are some facts about the human body that really do just make it less painful to deliver a baby than you might at first think. Skin, muscles, and other tissues are incredibly, wonderfully stretchy.
I read once that perhaps it’s actually kind of wack that we think it’s some awful endeavor that the vagina has to be stretched large enough for a baby to pass out of it yet don’t blink an eye at the fact that the male reproductive organ changes so tremendously in size and shape, like, every day.
But because birth isn’t something a woman experiences quite so often as arousal, maybe that’s why we are so fascinated by — or perhaps incredulous at — this phenomenon.
Yes, sometimes there are tears. These are easily stitched up by a doctor and often recover quite quickly and with not too much noticeable pain. But for the most part, the body is able to stretch right out to the size it needs to in order to allow baby to pass through.
The other neat thing to consider? Mamas tend to have babies that are just the right size for them to deliver.
9 Can’t Beat Heat
Even the worst muscle soreness can be greatly, wonderfully relieved with the application of some good old-fashioned heat. When in doubt, I always went to a little warmth to deal with my labor pain, just like it’s my go-to for sore muscles after long runs — or just long days of baby raising.
A long, sudsy soak in a bubble bath? That works wonders. But you know what my favorite is? Those fabric things filled with rice that you stick in the microwave for a minute or two and then can place right on whatever muscles are currently giving you trouble.
During my first labor, I packed one in my hospital bag, and there it stayed, just making the bag really heavy. I didn’t think once to pull it out and have a nurse stick it in the micro for some sweet, warm relief. But when I was in labor with my second baby, boy, did it work. I think it may have been all that really worked, as my contractions got long and strong so fast that I quickly passed being capable of moving around much or getting in and out of a tub. Plus, once your water has broken, it’s generally recommended that you avoid soaking in water.
8 Rockin’ The Rubdown
You may have been taught about “counter-pressure” and “hip squeezing” in your childbirth courses. These applications of pressure to just the right parts on a laboring woman’s hips and back can really do the trick to alleviate some of the intense sensations of pain during contractions.
Beyond these techniques, though, there are all sorts of massage methods laboring women may wish to try. Why not practice, in fact, during pregnancy? Experiment with what feels good, and get a massage out of it!
Are there certain patterns and pressures on your back that make your jaw drop in relaxation and make you say, “ahhhhhhh”? Is a hand, head, or foot rub what really helps you to go limp?
In my reading about natural childbirth (to prepare for mine), I noted that some women really respond well to a very light touch, such as a partner’s fingertips gently trailing over their abdomen.
Then there are some, women, of course, who — at least during some stages — don’t want to be touched much at all while in labor. Whatever works!
7 What A Difference A Change Makes
Whether it’s getting baby to shift to a slightly different position as it descends through the laboring woman’s pelvis or just getting her joints and muscles to get rest from the work they were doing and begin to work in a new way, changing position somewhat frequently is a common technique for coping with the pain of labor and childbirth.
The instructor of the childbirth course I took while I was pregnant with my first baby really emphasized giving each new position a shot before giving up on it as not feeling good. She said that often the first contraction experienced in the new position can feel like, well, no fun at all, and then giving the position some time helps things to feel better than they did before. If a woman immediately says she hates the new position, the instructor encouraged the birth partner to ask her to try a few more contractions in it before moving on to something else.
There are many poses to consider here, all probably good to get familiar with and practice during pregnancy, all the better to be able to bust them out when the time comes. Hands and knees, leaning forward onto a partner or the back of a chair, standing with one knee bent and propped up on a chair… These and many others can help a woman feel better able to handle the pain of contractions.
6 It’s All In My Head
To get the body to a more relaxed, comfortable place (where it is better able to cope with childbirth pain), many try first and foremost getting the mind to a relaxed place. Some achieve this through meditation.
I’m no expert in the varied techniques and practices that are out there, but if it’s of interest to you, consider exploring a practice through videos or classes to guide you as you begin.
My style — what works for me to deal with the intensity not necessarily just of childbirth but also of everyday life — is to just stand or sit in a quiet place. Sometimes I close my eyes. More often I focus forward at something. Maybe it’s just a wall. Maybe it’s a tranquil view out a window. I quiet my thoughts and try to replace feelings of stress with feelings of happiness and calm.
Meditation may involve repeating a mantra, a word or phrase that helps the person practicing to get to a more relaxed state.
5 Head To Toe
Letting go of tension is commonly believed to be a fantastic way to lessen the experience of pain. Accepting the sensations the body is undergoing is thought to be much easier to experience than sort of fighting them (or fearing them).
One way to consciously encourage the body to let go of tension is “progressive relaxation,” so named because you tense and then relax the various parts of the body in stages until, ideally, the whole thing is relaxed.
Perhaps starting at the head and working downward, you tense up an area completely, then release completely. This is what it feels like to have this area tensed up (is that how it was already maybe?), and then, ahhhh, THIS is what it feels like to relax the area in question.
The thing is, by the time you’ve made it down to your tippy-toes, every single inch of you should be relaxed, and hopefully better able to cope with labor pain.
4 I See, Therefore I Am
This one involves being able to take yourself to your “happy place.” An obvious go-to might be a white-sand beach, clear blue water sparkling, the calming sound of the waves gently flowing onto the shore…
The idea is you (and probably your birth partner or helper) are able to describe some scenario, probably in great detail, that will help you to feel more relaxed and at ease and better able to cope with labor and childbirth pain.
For some, visualization really does the trick. I’ve read that the key is to practice ahead of time. Your partner probably won’t be able to effectively guide you to your happy place if he doesn’t really understand what it is. You’ll want to go over all of the various sensations that make it a calming place for you. What do you see? What do you smell? What do you hear? What do you feel?
3 Takes Me Back
Isn’t it wild how strong smell associations can be? A perfume I notice on someone out and about in the world every year or two always takes me right back to my childhood friend’s house — her mom must have worn it. The smell of a certain tree I pass on my walk is just like a sunny day at preschool when I was three years old because the same type grew in the schoolyard.
If there’s a scent, be it incense, a certain candle, oils, or something else entirely, that makes you feel calm and happy, it could potentially be used to help you get your brain to calm down and focus on pleasure instead of pain, even during the intensity of labor.
Beware that there will likely be some restrictions to what you can burn once you are actually in the hospital. They probably don’t want candles burning in there due to the whole open-flame thing… But if you’re at home trying to create a tranquil environment that allows you to let go and give into the flow of labor, a special scent may be just the thing.
2 The Little Engine That Could
A word or phrase may seem like such a simple thing. How could it help a laboring woman to manage pain? I will tell you — from experience — that it can.
There may be moments, whether during really intense contractions while laboring or even during pushing itself, where you feel so much negativity. You might feel that you cannot do it; that you cannot and will not go on.
There is one simple thing you might try to turn this negativity into positivity, this pessimism into optimism, this exhaustion into energy. Instead of saying, “I can’t,” or it’s equivalent, try saying something more along the lines of “I can.” If you find yourself moaning, “No, no, no…” you might try, perhaps with the encouragement of your partner or support person, switching to “Yes, yes, yes…”
Positive affirmations are a great tool to have at the ready to push, mind over matter, through even the worst pain.
1 Slow And Steady
You’ve heard of labor coming in stages, right? At first it might seem like an almost mild, occasional cramping, and it builds, slowly but surely, to intense contractions with little to no break between that are strong enough to help you push the baby on out.
These steps, or increments, make it easier, perhaps, to withstand the most intense and painful parts of labor and childbirth, in that the most intense contracting doesn’t happen right up front, and it certainly doesn’t happen for the duration of the labor.
The process builds, so that contractions become longer, stronger, and closer together.
Aside from the benefit of making mom more able to approach the next level, so to speak, and deal with the pain, it also probably gives her time to realize what is happening and to find a safe, sheltered place for it to happen (in today’s world: the hospital, usually). Wild how well all this stuff sort of just works out, right?
Sources: Google.com, WebMD.com, Natural Hospital Birth: The Best of Both Worlds by Cynthia Gabriel (Harvard Common Press, 2011)