How would you feel if I told you that today, you would stub your toe over and over for a span of a few hours? (Panic? Fear? Dread?) On the other hand, what if I told you that, today, you would experience a period of discomfort or pain -- perhaps even a long period -- that would start off slow and mild, offer frequent breaks, and would yield a life-changing reward at the end?
The topic of pain in labor and birth washes a wave of fear and panic over most first-time pregnant parents. We humans tend to try to avoid pain at all costs and often fear the unknown, which doesn't exactly bode well for confidence in birth! While pain in labor can't be entirely avoided (for most people), the fear of pain can be addressed and reduced. Taking a good childbirth class, working with a trusted and supportive doctor or midwife, and having good continuous support from a partner, friend, or doula all can help greatly reduce your fear of pain in birth. It also helps to know a few things about labor pain.
It's gradual. Labor is not like stubbing your toe. Going into labor isn't the same as walking into a level 10 pain (which is pretty much what it feels like to catch your pinky toe on the leg of the coffee table). Instead, it ramps up slowly and gradually, easing you into the process.
It's intermittent. You get breaks in labor! When a contraction ends, the pain immediately and fully disappears. Poof! Even if your break only lasts a minute, you get several of them over the full course of labor and birth.
It's "pain with a purpose." The pain you experience in labor is caused by a process -- contracting of the uterine muscle, opening of the cervix, and stretching of the vaginal tissues -- that allows for a baby to be born. Most other day-to-day experiences of pain give you nothing but, well... pain.
Your body makes hormones that both cause and counteract pain. The human body truly is amazing. A laboring person's body creates the hormone called oxytocin, also known as the "love hormone," which is responsible for keeping contractions going throughout labor. At the same time, your body also produces endorphins, which are hormones that increase feelings of calm and provide pain relief. The level of endorphins gradually rise throughout labor to match labor's intensity. Your body makes its own specially-formulated pain medication -- whoa.
It ends. Even if you have a very long labor, your labor will, most definitely, come to an end. Labor pain is one of those experiences filed under, "this too shall pass." It helps to know this going into labor and at various points during your labor when you may feel like it will never be over.