Pain in labour: does it serve a purpose?

Yes, it does ...  though you may not realise it at the time.

There are many ways to view pain in labour, or labour sensations, as I prefer to call them. 

Labour sensations alert us to the impending arrival of the baby.  They alert us to garner support and assistance for the baby's arrival.  They signal that a major change is coming and that e need to work with our bodies to help the baby to be born.
The sensations of labour occur because of labour hormones (oxytocin) that make the uterus contract and the cervix soften and open.  The sensations of labour also help the release of other hormones such as endorphins and oxytocin.  After a normal birth where the woman has not received pain-relieving medications, mother and baby bond and baby usually shows interest in feeding.  Interestingly, the hormones of labour are instrumental in helping the mother bond with her baby, and in preparing the baby for feeding and newborn life.

When labour starts, the sensations are usually mild, similar to period pain.  Over time, the sensations gradually intensify, so that the contractions last longer, and come more frequently.  As long as a woman feels safe, comfortable and protected, labour will usually progress well and her labour will be short and less painful.

This is because the body responds to labour by releasing more endorphins and oxytocin.  These hormones help the woman to feel relaxed and in a deeply inward state.  In this state, a woman is usually very in tune with what her body and baby need her to do in order for the baby to be born.  Provided that she is able to move unrestricted, she will adopt the very positions that are most helpful for her and for her baby during the birthing process.

Many women in labour will naturally adopt upright and leaning forward positions.  Interestingly, in these positions, gravity can help to direct the baby into the pelvis and also help the uterus to contract more effectively.

Assuming the labour is undisturbed and that the woman feels safe, oxytocin flows well and strengthens contractions, shortening the labour.  Throughout labour, the woman also releases endorphins, so that by the end of the labour when the oxytocin levels are at their highest, the endorphin levels are high, too. 

There are many things that a woman and her support people can do during labour to promote endorphin release:

  • labouring and birthing in a warm, dark, quiet room
  • minimal talking, disruption and interruption from support people and care providers
  • labouring and birthing in an environment that feels familiar and safe
  • feeling comfortable and safe with those in the room
  • labouring and birthing in a position that feels most comfortable
  • privacy
  • being free from medical forms of pain relief as these prevent the release of endorphins

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