What is labour like? Useful Analogies

April 11, 2008

What is labour like? Useful Analogies
By Jane Weideman

The I am often asked by friends & clients what labour (birth) is really like. Having birthed 3 LARGE babies naturally myself, they want to know how I did it? What does it feel like? How does one cope with it? What if the baby is large? Do you have to have a super human pain threshold? How do I know if I can do it? What will happen to me afterward? Questions, questions…

It’s hard to describe something to someone when they have no frame of reference. How can you really describe a contraction to someone who has never felt one? Or to a partner who never will feel one, and possibly can’t relate to it at all?

Over time I have developed a few analogies which help to illustrate the process of labour/birth, and the experience of feeling and dealing with contractions. I hope my descriptions help to make it clearer and more understandable. As well as less intimidating and less scary, to those who have the fear of the unknown.

“Nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood.”
~Marie Curie~

The best analogy I can give you for birth, and what it is like, is that is it like running a marathon or climbing a mountain.

Take Cape Town’s Table Mountain for instance, there are many different ways to get to the top. None more right or valid than the others, they are just different. And those different ways suit different people better. So the best way for one person, may not be the best (or even a good) way for someone else, depending on each person’s circumstances and motivations. So while you may want to climb it, someone else may think you are crazy for wanting to do that! Why go through all that pain, sweat & exhaustion when you could take the cable car? Someone else might think that even the cable car is risky, or a waste of time, and would rather pay to get a quick & easy helicopter trip up there. I mean the end result is being at the top right?? Doesn’t matter how you got there….

Well yes & no. Sure that’s the end goal, but for some the journey of getting there is as much part of the experience and memory as the summit, and being at the top can feel that much more of an achievement and high if you got there yourself. Plus it is healthy for you, it is exercise and fresh air!

Then of course , there are different ways of climbing, there are long slow winding paths, more steep and intense direct routes, and then even scary but exhilarating real rock-face climbing options. There are loads of options and only you would know which you would want to do, and which is right for you.

Make sense?

Birth is VERY similar.

If you choose the climb option in the analogy, it doesn’t mean the journey won’t be hard and tiring. You might even think “What the hell am I doing!? Why didn’t I just catch the cable car??”, while you are plodding along, and as it starts getting steep. But you keep going, one step at a time, you get into a rhythm, and before you know it you are there at the top. You did it, and you feel fantastic! Like you can do anything. You are proud of yourself, exhilarated and the experience has been unforgettable. And that view from the top is so worth it because you really worked for it, and earned it. Your endorphins are rushing and you have never felt as good, or moved, or emotional before. Nothing compares to that. That’s what natural birth feels like.

So what you need to work out for yourself is. What option do you really want? For YOU. No one else can, or should, make that decision for you. It is a very personal choice, and you are the one who will need to do the work, and feel the feelings and really LIVE the experience.

Do I have a high pain threshold? …. I think mine is probably average, but I think I am very logical and rational. So while I hate having a pimple squeezed. It hurts and just feels WRONG to me. But the ‘pain’ of birth is not just pain. It is a combination of factors, all of which make sense.  So I can deal with it, using my rationalisation skills. A male friend asked me about labour once and said, ‘Ok so is it like slamming your hand in the door and staying there for like 12 hours!?

NO!!! Firstly it’s nothing like that. It’s not ‘oh my god I am being damaged, having nerves severed and am about to die!!’ pain. It is a pressure, dull ache, muscle-working-burn kind of pain. Secondly it’s not continuous. Contractions come and go. They build up to an intense peak and then dissipate, and mostly, the gaps between them are longer than the length of the contraction itself. You have a break after and between each one.

Imagine this scenario. You have an strict gym instructor and have do a yoga-type squat/lunge for a full minute every 5 minutes for a few hours. It starts off fine. No sweat. Easy! Then after 30-seconds or so your thighs start burning and feeling tired and you want to get up. You’re not dying, but you feel uncomfortable. You can’t just stand up though, you have to stay there for a full minute. You could cry, panic, scream etc, but that wouldn’t help, it would actually just feel worse, and you would just waste energy and upset and tire yourself. What you need to do is relax, zone out, breathe slowly and deeply, and just try to forget about it. Before you know it the minute is up and you can stand up. You then have a few minutes to rest move around, breathe, have a sip of water, whatever you want to. Then you start again.

The thing is each one is bearable, but you need to prepare your mind and your attitude, that’s the main thing. You need to not panic and you need to just accept it work with it, and only think in the moment. Each one you finish is one that is gone and done, don’t dwell on it. Don’t think or worry about how many more you have, or how much worse it might feel. All there is, is here and now, and each one you finish is one step closer to the end… You can get into a rhythm and find ways which help you relax quickly and easily in between. You’ll find you can finish the minute with 4 or 5 long slow breaths. Or perhaps someone encouraging you or rubbing your back through the hardest part helps you to get through it. Or closing your eyes, or day dreaming or focusing on a spot on the floor etc, whatever you need to do. Sooner or later your endorphins kick in and suddenly it’s not so bad, you can do it, you ARE doing it.

The other way to imagine a contraction is like you are floating on the ocean and each one is a wave. As it comes you can kick and fight and try to stop it affecting you, or you can simply relax as it comes and allow yourself to be lifted up and over the wave. Ride it, don’t fight it. You can’t stop a wave in the ocean, you will exhaust yourself or be dumped by it. Work with it and just surrender to it, and then you can relax and even enjoy it.

Basically your body knows what to do, and will do it regardless. Even if you went into a coma your body would birth the baby without you. In fact it would do a pretty good job of it. So your role in the birth is actually just to not get in the way. Really. 😉 You need to learn how to relax and surrender and breathe through it, and not hold back and resist and impede the progress.

In general a vaginal birth (and particularly a natural one where mom is up and active) is much safer for the mom and baby. The ‘stress’ of natural birth is actually very good and healthy for the baby. It stimulates the baby and prepares it for life outside the womb. Far more Caesarean babies have breathing and lung difficulties (pneumonia etc) because they have not had the fluid squeezed out of their lungs by the passage through the birth canal (and the adrenaline etc they have during birth too). It’s not to say a Caesarean is a BAD way to birth, but natural birth is arguably the best way to birth.

Also even if a Caesarean birth is necessary, or selected, it is still better to allow the baby to be fully ready (not at 38 weeks) and even allow labour to start, before performing the Caesarean, and let the baby get the benefit of:
1) Being born on its actual intended birth date, when it was ready to be born and
2) The stimulation of the contractions. Labour is good for the baby (unless there are issues like with the cord or placenta etc when it’s not, but that’s what the intermittent monitoring is for, to make sure baby is fine with the labour).

Are my pelvic muscles damaged? No. Sure they are not 100% the same as they were, but they work completely fine, and honestly I am far more comfortable with my body and my sexuality now than before I had my babies. Somehow growing and birthing them really put me in touch and in awe with myself. Honestly my experiences of giving birth are some of the highlights of my life, and I regard them as my greatest achievements. I wouldn’t change that for the world.

So the choice really is yours, but I hope some of the above can help with your decision.

The power and intensity of your contractions cannot be stronger than you, because it is you.
The contractions come from and are YOU. So they can not overwhelm, or be bigger than you, as they are only as strong as you are!