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Labor Contractions: How Do They Feel?

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When I was a kid, I wasn’t afraid of the dark or of spiders or of monsters lurking underneath my bed. I was afraid of giving birth!

And no wonder…whenever someone around me spoke of labor/giving birth/having babies, they would say things like:

“It was the worst pain imaginable!”

“I felt like my body was turning inside out!”

“I thought I was going to die, but then it was all over and I had a baby in my arms. And then I kind of forgot about the pain. You will, too.”

These bits of information did not comfort me in the least. And so I grew up thinking that labor and birth was this big gigantic ball of chaotic pain. When I finally became pregnant at the age of 27, I had the feeling that I was heading straight for the waterfall--there was nowhere to go other than plummeting over the edge toward a very scary ending. So, being my father’s daughter, I knew that I just had to figure things out for myself. That’s when I decided to sign me and my husband up for a three-month childbirth class. (Three months!)

What I learned from the classes is how the birth process works and what is actually happening during labor and birth. The uterus, one of the strongest muscles in the human body, has grown from about the size of a pear to the size of a watermelon by full-term. This large muscle is contracting, which causes the cervix to open and the baby to move down until he is eventually pushed out of his mom’s body by way of the pelvis.

It is good to remind yourself that the uterus is a tremendously strong muscle (probably umpteenth times stronger than your partner's biceps!)

So what do contractions feel like? Well, each body is going to experience labor in its own unique way. For a select few, contractions aren't painful at all, and for others, the pain can sometimes veer into the land of trauma and be too painful to bear. I wholeheartedly believe that our mind is very powerful and that a lot of unnecessary pain can be created during labor due to feelings of fear. Because of this, it is very important to provide a peaceful, safe and loving environment in which the woman can labor. This will help to avoid a lot of unnecessary pain.

Intense! Labor, which is the context of contractions, is definitely intense. The pain isn’t like stubbing a toe or slicing your finger. Those sensations are more surprising and they cause you to want to tense up. But with labor, the sensations typically build in intensity, and yet you must relax in order for the contractions to be able to do their job. When we tense and fight the contractions, we add unnecessary pain. Since labor demands all of our focus, it is also important that the laboring woman is not disturbed with unnecessary talk or unnecessary interference. Again, these things create unnecessary pain. As contractions build in intensity, you may feel gripping or pulling sensations, or you may think they feel like menstrual cramps to the hundredth power.

Some people have likened labor to climbing a mountain or running a marathon. These events typically start off fairly easy, and you wouldn't consider either tough at first. So it is with labor. You may have the first twinge of a contraction and think, "Did I just have a contraction?" Pain isn't even part of the equation yet. But as the mountain gets steeper, the climb will demand all of your attention and your body will be screaming at you saying, "I can't do it anymore!" Then what do you do? You take a deep breath, let it go, relax, believe in yourself, remember what the pain is doing (it is pain with a purpose), and you continue on. Hopefully you have a loving companion with you to encourage you when you think you can't continue; someone who puts a cool wash cloth on your head, provides counter pressure down low on your back, continually offers you sips of water to hydrate and refresh you and encourages you to get into a bath to feel the support of the water on your body. Just like the wise and experienced climbers always bring a friend, you also should have support during labor.

Another thing to realize is that in natural unmedicated labor, there are breaks in between contractions. Contractions are timed from the beginning of one to the beginning of the next; if contractions are five minutes apart but lasting about 90 seconds, you may have up to three and a half minutes to relax and rest before the next contraction comes along. (I say in an unmedicated birth, because drugs will interfere with the normal process of labor and cause contractions to be unusually intense and closer together.) Remember, you only have to get through one contraction at a time, so take them one at a time because you don't know how many there will be!

During pregnancy, talk with other moms about their birth experiences and what it was like. Only let your ears hear about the positive birth experiences…the ones where the moms felt empowered by their births (note: an empowering birth isn’t always one that goes as planned, but it is usually characterized by the parents being in control and making decisions instead of having things “done” without their consent). Learn how they handled the sensations of labor and what they did to prepare themselves for one of the most demanding and tough experiences their mind and body have ever endured. Know that there are many ways to handling the demands of labor from relaxation, to hypnosis, to water therapy, to medication. Educate yourself on the process so that you and your partner are able to make informed choices. 

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