What does labour really feel like?

I love doula-ing for first time parents. There’s something special about walking through labour and delivery with someone for the very first time. A couple of days back I was at a prenatal home visit with a first time mother. We were talking out a few birth options, and got on the topic of catching your own baby. I mentioned that it’s a moment of incredible relief, right after delivery. That’s when she asked me.

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“I ask moms all the time, what labour felt like. And they all do the same thing. They smile and talk about how it’s all worth it, and the second baby is born everything is fine. And that’s great and all, but I still want to know what this is going to feel like.” She’s got a point. We birth professionals tend to be particularly guilty of this. We love the idea of fearless birthing. We talk a lot about joy and relief. We use words like “waves” and “sensations”. Which is perfect for experienced birthers. They know what it’ll feel like, and reframing those feelings as a positive can do a lot of good. But is it possible we’re leaving first timers behind? Are we setting them up for fear of the unknown by avoiding the realities of birth?

Here’s what I told my client. Envision a menstrual cramp. It’s not the same, but this is the closest parallel. It’s that same kind of low, crampy sensation. This is not true for everyone. Some will experience back pain. Others virtually no pain at all. Still more will have combinations of labour sensations. But that menstrual type pain tends to be most common. I remember mistaking my first labour pain for intestinal pain. You know, those deep, spasming abdominal pains you get with a stomach bug? If you’ve experienced those, or a bad menstrual cramp, you can imagine labour.

One detail that seems obvious, but often doesn’t really sink in for first timers, is that the pain isn’t constant. I vividly remember my first contraction doubling me over, then disappearing after just over a minute. Poof, gone. I stood back up, thought “that was weird”, and went back about my day. I clued in when another cramp hit me exactly five minutes later. As things progressed, I’d make phone calls between contractions. I’d sit there, repeatedly dialing my mother, and physically throwing the phone at my partner when a contraction would hit. Like someone is flicking a labour light switch. On, off, on, off. This is where the mental side of labour really makes a difference. My first birth, I was frightened. I knew those intermittent moments of comfort would give way to a contraction. So I fought it. I spent my moments of comfort trying to fight off contractions, panicking, yelling at everyone that I didn’t want to do that again. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was making labour harder on myself. Ultimately, over the course of a labour and delivery, you may spend more time between contractions than not. Use that time to catch your breath. I’ve seen women sleep between contractions, have sips of water, get massages. Taking care of your body when you’re able will help you immensely.

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I also told my client there’s a difference between pain and suffering. This was hard for me to understand my first time as well. Think back to all the times in your life when pain has been helpful. When you didn’t fight it. I’ve had a couple of surgeries. I signed up for that pain. I knew it had a purpose. I used comfort care, and I focused on the goal. It hurt, but I didn’t suffer. I’ve broken up with bad boyfriends. It hurt! But it was good for me. I grew, and I knew I needed to get through that hurt to end up in a better place. It hurt, but I didn’t suffer.

Pain is a part of life, suffering shouldn’t be. That, to me, is what makes the difference between a positive and negative birth experience. We use a lot of descriptors about birth, like “intense”. The reality is, yeah, by all typical standards you will likely experience some degree of what you would perceive as pain. But you don’t need to suffer. You never need to suffer.

Birth might hurt, but it also feels damn good. That part gets criminally little attention. Pushing with your fetal ejection reflex feels great. The relief when you finish delivering the head feels fantastic. That split second, after the first shoulder is delivered, when it’s all suddenly over. When your baby effortlessly slides into the word and into your arms. THAT feels amazing.

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Birth feels exactly how it should. It feels monumental. It feels intense and overwhelming, and empowering. It feels like too much, and something you’re totally prepared to accomplish, at the same time. It feels like the hardest moments of your life mixed with the most incredible. What does birth feel like? It feels like everything.

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