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Is pain-free birth really possible?

From Laurie's Thoughts on Childbirth Frequently Asked Questions

Isn't it ironic and sad that so many pregnant women fearfully avoid such common substances as sodium, nicotine, caffeine, and alcohol for months, and yet at their baby's birth -- the crowning moment of all that care and hard work, that if added up, amounts to just a few short hours pain if any -- the majority today are all to eager to be pumped full of narcotics? Self appointed "guilt-busters" seem to lurk around every corner to encourage women not to feel bad about placing themselves and their babies at such tremendous risk. While it's true that women should not suffer martyr-style through childbirth, fortunately the issue is not really so black and white as "take drugs or suffer."

It's important to any discussion about pain relief in childbirth, that we first consider a drug-free birth a minimum safety standard rather than merely one of many acceptable options, whether some women are able to attain that standard or not. Once we agree that this is true, we then can accept the responsibility to look long and hard for ways to enable ourselves to attain that goal. Many women give up early on in the fight because so many have become convinced that childbirth is unavoidably, severely painful, and most women understandably have no compunction to subject themselves to torture.

I myself would never suggest that a woman should endure tremendous levels of pain in order to keep from using drugs. Exactly the opposite, I think all women should experience a joyful pleasurable birth as I did and as a pleasant aside, not need to use drugs. Many women strongly object to the suggestion that birth can be enjoyable for many reasons, the greatest of which I suspect is the great disappointment some women feel at having painful births after being told that painless birth was attainable by following a few simple rules.

My opinion, however, is that painless drug free birth is a real possibility for all women, and that we just need to share accurate information. Not the least of which is the fact that a belief that birth has to be painful is enough to cause birth to hurt. That's called a self fulfilling prophecy, and the truth is that that belief is hard to get away from in our culture, where every woman shares her torture stories with pregnant women, and T.V. and movies constantly bombard us with the idea that the traumatic medical model of birth is the norm.

While I will concede that different women have differing levels of tolerance for pain, I personally have no tolerance for it. I'm a wimp! But because of information I gained through reading the books Unassisted Childbirth by Laura Shanley, Supernatural Childbirth by Jackie Mize, and Childbirth Without Fear by Grantly Dick Read among others, I was able to have two nearly pain-free births. In one I experienced about six painful contractions in all, because of a moment of self doubt and fear, and in the other the pain was so minimal as to be laughable, but like I said I'm a wimp, and I complained about it anyway.

To understand why I feel that it is possible for all women to have drug free, pain-free births, you might have to read those books yourself, but let me at least say that pain is not a natural part of any healthy bodily function. On the contrary, pain is an indicator of something being wrong with the body, so in order to relieve pain we must discover the cause. The causes of pain in childbirth are too numerous to mention here, but a few are: 1) tension of any sort, 2) deeply held beliefs (even subsconcious) that childbirth must be painful, 3) any fear, 4) being monitored or watched, and 5) intervention.

Lets be clear, even if you or someone you know did what people like Lamaze and Bradley told you to do to have a "natural" birth, and still had pain, that doesn't mean that you had to have pain or that it was inevitable. While it is true that drugs in childbirth can increase the need for "assistance" in birth, it is also true that assistance itself also causes pain. There is nothing "natural" about birthing in a hospital, for instance. With people constantly looking at and touching your most private parts, sticking tubes, wires and needles into you, telling you what to do, and a gazillion other intrusive things, it would be hard to eat without getting a tummy ache, let alone give birth painlessly.

Have you ever heard that you should leave a mamma cat alone when she's in labor, or you will endanger the whole birth process? In her book Laura Shanley pointed out that this is written explicitly, right in the cat care manual put out by one of the main cat food manufacturers! The same holds true for humans, only humans are self conscious and often believe that they "need" help to birth well. The truth is that women are perfectly able to birth all by themselves and to enjoy the whole process. Birth is an extension of our sexuality and is meant to be pleasurable.

I don't mean that women should try for sensationless birth. To me that's what drugged birth is about. What I mean when I suggest that birth can be painless is that we can experience the uterus contracting, and pelvis opening up as pleasurable, probably strong sensations, but not painful. You can still feel your muscles working when you exercise them, even if they don't hurt right? You can feel it when you open your mouth from tightly closed to wide open, all without pain right? Well, all the physiological (physical) processes involved in birth are naturally just as "painless".

The uterus was built for the work it does and the pelvis was designed to open up for a baby. My own births have been great examples of this principle. If you've read my second daughter Angelica's birth story you may remember that I say that when I stood up I couldn't stand the intensity of the sensation, as if the birth would happen "too fast"? At that point I still had some residual feelings of unworthiness towards a quick, pleasurable birth. I'm not saying birth has to be quick to be pleasurable, but there's only a few inches between baby and the world, so I think it shouldn't take a whole lot of time without any mental, emotional, or physical barriers. During my third birth, I still struggled to feel deserving of a completely painless birth, but the pain I did experience I would trade any day for a stubbed toe!

Author Laura Shanley has some excellent belief suggestions listed on her webpage: Some of those that I found most helpful towards this end are, "I believe I love myself", "I believe I forgive myself", "I believe I trust myself", "I believe I am not ashamed of my body", "I believe I am not ashamed of my sexuality", "I believe I am not guilty", "I believe I am innocent"....Some that I have said to myself are, "I believe that I deserve a pleasurable birth", "I believe that I deserve an "easy" birth", "I believe that I deserve a quick birth". These are not mandates for how my birth should go, just affirmations that I am deserving of such good things. This has been hard for me to believe because of the abuse in my background, and my sad experience with the midwives really hammered that all home, but with time I've made great strides.

Something very helpful that minister Joyce Meyers taught me about beliefs and the time it takes to change them is that our negative beliefs are habits. There are negative habits and positive habits of course, and just like it can take time, repetition, practice, and hard work to get into our habitually negative thought patterns, sometimes it takes the same to get out of them. She used the example of the habit of smoking; how when you just start to smoke, you usually choke and sputter and it takes some effort and then it takes weeks to develop it into an addictive habit. Well, just like it takes time to start smoking, most people don't find it easy just to drop it in a day or two either. I used to smoke, so that's a helpful analogy for me. Though I understand it's not universal I believe it's still helpful. None of this means that I am doomed to have difficulty getting rid of old negative thinking patterns, but rather that I don't need to get discouraged if my thinking doesn't turn around as fast as I want it too.

All theories and reasoning aside, if you get to the point of birthing at home unassisted and still experience severe pain in labor you will want to know what can be done about it right then and there. It would be a shame to ditch all your hard won preparations in the last minute just because you were unprepared to handle the sensations of birth. I was asked by a good friend for a couple suggestions for easing labor pain while talking to her while she was in this very circumstance. Here are some suggestions that came to my mind:

Strong massage on my low back really helped me handle contractions, and other forms of massage may help. Maybe your older children can even help massage you? Leaning your back against a firm surface can perform the same function if you are laboring alone. Massaging your belly and thighs can be very helpful too. Perhaps try massaging to a rhythm. If you have a hand held electric massager, a footbath, a hot tub, whirlpool, or one of those portable waterjet machine for the bath, this is a great time to try them out! A handheld shower massage or even just a plain hot shower are very nice during labor.

One suggestion I've heard but never tried is holding a comb in each of your hands with the teeth pressing into your palms. This is supposed to touch special pressure points that help ease labor pain. I've also heard that calcium and magnesium supplements, red raspberry leaf tea, and the herbal preparations pn6 and 5w ease labor pain in different ways, though I can't vouch for them, since I've not tried them.

A couple of ladies I know that gave birth painlessly remarked that looking upward made any sensations of pain go away completely. I've never tried this myself either, but it sure couldn't hurt! Another unusual but possibly accurate opinion I've heard is that a full bowel can cause unnecessary pain during labor. The folks that claim this recommend a plain water enema before labor, which has long been promoted of as a labor stimulant as well, by many birth attendants.

Remember that making love (all forms - even just cuddling, kissing and hugging) can help in many ways, even if you're not "in the mood"; by relaxing the pelvic muscles, ripening the cervix, relieving tension, producing helpful hormones etc. Definitely masturbate to orgasm if you can, manually or with a massager, as this is a superb way to direct your energy and focus toward pleasure, relaxaton and opening up.

Some women find a hot water bottle or heating pad on the back and/or abdomen very helpful. Also, try to remember to purposely relax your pelvic muscles. Don't feel like a failure if you tense up through some contractions though. In fact, you might find it helpful to "give in" to the urge to tense up for a few contractions, and then relax. I was "given permission" to do this just once during my labor with Christiana (those wonderful midwives at work again) and found it very helpful. It's sort of like the relaxation exercise where you tense up each part of your body and then release it. I think it must be easier to release when you have some tension to compare it to. You can also try tensing up your whole body at once and then releasing.

A friend of mine also said that rocking back and forth helped her, which reminded me that rhythmic movement of any kind is commonly very helpful. Try different rhythms if you like. Another friend of mine said that tapping on the wall during contractions helped. Walking and/or at least staying normally active is a very widely acknowledged way to relieve pain. Lying flat on your back is one of the most painful ways to labor according to many women who have tried other positions. Squatting, hanging by your arms from a sturdy object, crawling on hands and knees, dancing, yoga, and swimming have all proven helpful to some laboring women at some time.

Remember to play music (slow dancing with hubby might be nice) if you like. Don't be afraid to ignore your labor if it helps. Watch TV or see a movie if you want to. When I labored with Christiana I felt kind of guilty at times thinking about watching TV during labor; it seemed sort of crass at such a sacred time, and yet, if it helps there's absolutely nothing wrong with it! Sometimes laboring women become tense from focusing too much attention on labor and distraction is just what they need. Most importantly, do focus on the baby when you can. I kept losing sight of what all the effort was for during my labor with Christiana, and thinking of the baby really seemed to help when I labored to birth Angelica.

If you are a Christian and have faithful friends or family who are not afraid of your birth plans, you might also have them pray for you and send their positive thoughts toward you. Maybe repeating a helpful scripture over and over would help. I kept thinking, "God did not give me a spirit of fear..." during Angelica's birth. God will carry you through your labors and births if you let Him, and afterward it will all be an incredible, empowering, uplifting memory that you will carry with you for the rest of your life!

If all else fails and you still find yourself uncomfortable during labor, try to keep perspective by remembering that in 24 hours of labor there are usually only about 3 1/2 hours of actual contractions, with periods of rest liberally interspersed. Some labors are longer than 24 hours, but many labors are far shorter.

Another point I want to emphasize is that, yes, it's helpful to believe that your labor doesn't have to be painful, but don't be afraid to prepare to cope with pain. If you're having trouble believing for a painless birth, start with what you do believe! Don't just go around thinking things you don't believe. Ask yourself, do you really believe your birth must be painful? No? Good. Yes? Do you believe every birth is painful? Continue narrowing it down like this and somewhere in there you may find a starting point for real, positive belief that you can focus on.

Once you have a truth you can start with, there are many different paths to choose from...If you believe each birth is unique (for example) then you could write that truth down and stick it somewhere you are sure to see it often like on your computer monitor or bathroom mirror. When you see it, say it, feel the sincerity of your belief and then move on. If such thoughts come to mind as, "My last birth (mother's birth, friend's birth, whatever) was painful," just acknowledge "Yes, they were, but they are in the past. This is a new birth." If that is something you feel is the truth.

You could also help yourself to open up by reading birth stories that are painfree or enjoyable like those found at Bornfree! the unassisted childbirth website. Stories like these really free the mind to explore what for some is completely uncharted territory, in essence giving them the key to creating their own most wonderful realities. Our thoughts are very powerful, as Laura Shanley explains in her article Birth Fantasies. If you doubt it, she suggests, imagine scrubbing the toilet the next time you are masturbating or making love and notice the difference!

As for preparing for pain, some people say it's like house insurance. It doesn't really protect the house, it just buys peace of mind. The theory goes that if you prepare for it you won't be worrying about it so much, and it's easier to work on new beliefs from a place of peace than the midst of fear. Still, it's important not to depend more on whatever "insurance" you choose than a faith in birth and trust in your body's inherent wisdom. Our bodies were built to give birth, so we have everything we need to do the job well right inside of us. We don't need drugs or assistants, gadgets and herbs or special activities to enjoy glorious, pleasurable births.

More articles by Laurie Morgan
(these articles do not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Compleat Mother magazine)
Are Castor oil and other so-called natural inductions safe?
How long should a woman feel comfortable going overdue?
Is pain-free birth really possible?
Is all pain in childbirth due to fear?

Letter to my unborn first child
Cierra's Joyous Birth (short story)
It hurts to be silent

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