Labor and Delivery: The Purpose of Pain

Mother looks lovingly at baby in her arms

Today’s blog is written by Rachel Piersol, a registered nurse and an instructor for our Labor & Delivery Class. The views reflected in this blog are hers, informed by her work as a nurse and her own experience as a mother.

Let’s face it. Humans love to over complicate things. In doing this, we often take a good thing and make it more challenging than necessary. We do this with relationships, diets, parenting and even childbirth. We take something our bodies are designed to do and add interventions to “make it work” or “get through it.”

The simple reality, however, is this: every little aspect of pregnancy, labor and childbirth serve a purpose.

Let me make it clear, there are complications and situations which require medical interventions and procedures. In this blog, I am referring only to healthy moms, with healthy babies, where added interventions are not medically necessary.

Your body can handle childbirth.

It likely feels intuitive to you that your body knows how to make and grow a baby. Chances are, if you’re reading this, your body is currently growing a baby and providing all its needs. It might take more convincing, however, to believe that your body also knows how to birth your baby.

Did your brain just jump to all the reasons you can’t or don’t know how to birth your baby? The world we live in tends to paint childbirth as this scary event that our bodies can’t handle on their own. But you are strong enough, and your body can handle childbirth.

The Purpose of Labor Pain

But wait, what about the PAIN of childbirth? Sure, your body may know how to do its job, but what if you don’t think you can deal with the pain? Just thinking about this can cause anxiety and fear. This leads most moms to choose medical interventions to manage labor pain.

But, I’m here to tell you, you can do it! Your body was made to handle labor pain. And, believe it or not, the pain experienced in labor has an important purpose. So, before you decide on medical pain management interventions as a part of your birth plan, consider the following advantages of a more natural approach.

Pain and Positioning

First, the pain helps in positioning your body to assist in the progression of labor.  Think of it as your body’s way of telling you, “this position isn’t working, try another.”  If we allow the pain to guide us into the optimal position to birth our babies, we are aiding in the progression of labor – meaning, labor may move more quickly!

For example, if given the option, most women prefer the hands and knees position or a modified squatting position. These positions allow gravity to help the baby move down the birth canal and encourage baby to rotate into the optimal position for delivery.

Pain and Labor Hormones

In addition to optimal positioning, the pain experienced in labor also increases the levels of necessary labor hormones. These hormones are oxytocin, endorphins and catecholamines.

Pain, Labor Progression, and Bonding

Oxytocin is the hormone responsible for causing uterine contractions during labor. The contractions of the uterus and dilation of the cervix trigger stretch and pain receptors. These receptors cause the brain to increase the levels of oxytocin. In other words, as the pain increases so do the levels of oxytocin, helping labor to progress.

Oxytocin is also known as the “love hormone” and plays a huge role in the bonding that happens between mom and baby after birth. Interrupting this process with pain medications can decrease the amount of oxytocin released, and consequently, stall labor progression and decrease bonding after birth.

Pain and Natural Pain Management

Endorphins are our body’s natural way of managing pain. Think of them as “nature’s narcotics.”

As the contractions become stronger and more painful, your brain releases more endorphins. These endorphins not only help decrease the sensation of labor pain but also put you in a dream-like state, helping you to cope with the demands of labor. When pain medications are used, the brain dramatically decreases the amount of endorphins released.  This leaves you with little to no endorphins and can potentially increase your sensation of labor pain as medications begin to wear off.

Pain, Focus, and Alertness

As labor progresses and the contractions become strongest, there is a surge of the hormones called catecholamines.  These “fight or flight hormones” help you stay alert, stay focused, and muster up the strength to push out your baby.

The surge of catecholamines also has advantages for the baby. First, it helps the baby survive the oxygen deprivation experienced in the birth canal. In addition, it helps them be alert and transition after birth. The alertness experienced by the baby after birth aids in bonding between mom and baby and helps in initiating breast feeding.  If you don’t experience the pain, the catecholamines are diminished and you may miss out on the fullness of these significant advantages.

In sum, labor pain plays a very important part in your body’s natural birthing process.  It’s not just the negative sensation experienced from a baby moving through the birth canal. It keeps labor progressing, helps keep baby safe and encourages bonding. We hope this information helps you prepare for labor and delivery with greater confidence in your body and its ability to birth your baby.

If you’re interested in learning more about the signs and stages of labor and relaxation techniques, consider taking our free Labor and Delivery Class. The class is open to women who are more than 16 weeks along in their pregnancy. Call us at 734-994-8863 or email us at [email protected] to find out about our next class and to register.