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When Valerie Rowekamp’s labor started, it felt like an annoying case of menstrual cramps. During the hours that followed, the cramping became “downright uncomfortable, but not necessarily painful.” In fact, she gave birth without any pain medication. “I was surprised that it never really felt beyond my tolerance level, which is very low,” she said in her message on Fit Pregnancy’s Facebook page.
It was an entirely different story for Kebuileng Moshoeu. Half an hour after her labor was induced, major pain kicked in and didn’t let up until she delivered her baby. “I thought I was going to die. It was the worst seven hours and 55 minutes of my life,” Moshoeu posted, although she was quick to add that when she first saw her son she knew all the pain was worthwhile.
It may seem surprising that two women can have such different experiences. But labor pain varies dramatically from woman to woman, and even from pregnancy to pregnancy. Until you go through childbirth, you won’t know where on the spectrum you’ll fall. Here, experts in the field as well as other labor veterans who visited our Facebook page talk about the pain from both the professional and personal points of view.
Why labor hurts
The uterus is a muscular organ that contracts powerfully to squeeze your baby out, and those contractions are the primary source of labor pain. How much pain you experience depends on a variety of factors, including the strength of your contractions (this increases during labor); whether you had Pitocin, which causes stronger contractions; your baby’s size and position in your pelvis; whether she’s faceup or facedown (the ideal birth position); and the speed of your labor.
Besides intense muscle tightening throughout your abdomen and, sometimes, your entire torso and pelvic area, you may feel pressure on your back, perineum, bladder and bowels. “All that combines to ratchet up pain,” says Jay O’Brien, M.D., medical director of inpatient obstetric services at Women and Infants Hospital of Rhode Island in Providence.
A combination of genetics and life experiences determines your pain threshold, or ability to withstand pain, and this also plays a part. Social support (or lack of it), fear, anxiety and even the positive or negative labor stories you’ve heard can contribute to your perception of pain. What’s more, you probably can’t change your inborn capacity to withstand pain.
So if your threshold is low, consider lining up a labor helper now. Studies show that women who give birth with a supportive doula or midwife report less use of pain medication, fewer Cesareans and greater satisfaction with their birth experiences than women who don’t.
“When a woman feels vulnerable and in pain, a doula can help her feel cared for, which extends her capacity to han- dle labor,” says Seattle doula Penny Simkin, co-author of Pregnancy, Childbirth, and the Newborn: The Complete Guide (Meadowbrook).