Is labour painful?

We’ve all seen our fair share of movies where mum is on a hospital bed, in stirrups, sweating, screaming and crying, as her baby comes into the world, haven’t we?

No wonder we grow up expecting that birth is going to be just like that.

No wonder we expect it to be excruciatingly painful.

No wonder we think we’ll be the woman screaming in pain before her baby is delivered into her arms.

Expectations are set for us, but what’s the reality?

The reality is that labour and birth (wait for it) aren’t always painful. Not for everyone. While labour is most definitely perceived as painful to some, believe it or not, it isn’t by everyone.

Just like not all births happen in hospital with mums on stirrups, right? Mums also give birth at home, in birth pools (at home or in hospitals). They give birth squatting, leaning forward, and in so many other ways and settings that it’d be just impossible to list them all.

Because just like every birth is unique, different and individualso is the way a woman experiences the sensations of labour.

So, on behalf of all our wonderful MummyNatal practitioners, we are sorry. We are sorry that we cannot answer this question for you with a straight yes or no.

We just cannot tell you that labour and birth will be painful.

We just cannot tell you that labour and birth will not be painful.

And we are going to explain why. And we hope you’ll understand.

What word would we use to describe labour then?

Essentially, it just wouldn’t be fair to give you a descriptive word for labour, because we know full well that that’s not what you might experience. And then you’d come back to us and tell us you felt let down – it just wasn’t like we said, and our information was of no use to you. Reality not matching your expectations threw you, and you didn’t feel comfortable or equipped with the right information.

That would be quite disempowering. And it’d be exactly the opposite of what we’re trying to do.

Yes, some women will describe their labours as painful. Excruciating even. Others will call it uncomfortable. Others intense. Others pain-free. And some will even use the word orgasmic.

So there, how can we possible pick one for you? We’re not you. We’re not you living a particular experience. So we just can’t.

And no one else should.

Always remember this though: drama sells!

So if labour isn’t painful for everyone, why does everyone tell you it is? Why do all the movies, TV shows and media like to show women giving birth in pain?

Because drama and pain sell more than tranquillity and bliss.

A bit like we, as humans, are more likely to complain when something goes wrong (think customer service here) than telling everyone about what a great experience we had at the post office yesterday.

Birth is the same.

We hear of negative experiences a lot more than we hear of positive ones. This doesn’t mean that the positive ones don’t exist though!

And even if the amount of stories we’re exposed to was evenly spread, we’d still hold on to the ‘horror stories’ more than we would to more positives ones.

It’s just human nature.

But this does labour and birth a great disservice, because it programmes us to just expect and assume that labour will be painful. That birth is inherently painful. Unless you take all the drugs on offer or have a blissful elective c-section.

And yes, these are choices that are fully within your right to make, and no one can tell you otherwise. But we would be lying if we said that these are the only ways for you to not experience pain in labour.

Like we said, everyone experiences and defines sensations differently.

The ‘curse’ of anticipating pain

However, what we can talk you through is what an expectation of pain can do to you in labour.

Have you ever heard of a self-fulfilled prophecy? If you are conditioned to think or believe that your labour will without-a-doubt be painful, it probably will be.


Because you are expecting pain. And your body will tense up in anticipation. Let’s face it – pain isn’t pleasant for anyone. Your body and brain have experienced it before.

You hurt yourself, and your brain registers the event and the sensation. It stores the memory up somewhere where it can easily retrieve it, because its job is to protect you. So, next time you find yourself in a situation which is perceived as dangerous, your brain will send your body into fight or flight mode.

What does that mean for you when you’re in labour?

If you are tense, if you expect pain, if you’re not in a place (mentally or physically) or in an environment where you feel safe and surrounded by people you trust, your brain will perceive this as danger. And it will fill your body with cortisol (stress hormone) and adrenalin (ready for you to fight or flee).

Except that you’re not actually fighting anyone. And you’re not going anywhere.

Because your body is trying to release oxytocin to allow your cervix to relax and expand, and your uterus is trying to contract to allow a fully developed baby to come out of it.

When you are stressed or scared, how do your hands look? Nice and open or clenched in a fist?

When you are stressed or scared, how does your jaw feel? Nice and relaxed or clenched?

If you feel stressed and scared, and some of the visible parts of your body are closed up and clenched, how do you think your uterus will react?

It will try to clench too.

Except that, as we said, it’s trying really really hard to relax and expand.

So as the uterus tries to do its job, your brain (unbeknown to you) perceives a situation of danger and starts sending all the wrong signals to your body parts, including your uterus. It floods your body with the ‘wrong’ hormones – wrong because you’re not about to fight a tiger, you’re about to have a baby! And it’s like your body is now at war with itself.

And all this can feel painful. We are not going to lie about it.

How MummyNatal can help

And this is why in our MummyNatal classes we spend a lot of time talking about the physiology of birth. But we also talk a lot about exploring the mind / body connection and go through different techniques to manage uncomfortable sensations.

Because we want to be honest and prepare you for whatever birth YOU will have.

Labour and birth can be painful. But they don’t need to be. They most definitely aren’t for everyone.

And what matters to our MummyNatal teachers is that you walk away from a term of classes feeling confident that you have the right information to make the right choices for YOUregardless of the type of birth that you want to have or that you will have.

We are there to support youdemystify and break down stereotypes. Like the one that labour and birth are always painful.

That’s why we’ll never make any promises to you.

And that’s why we’ll never tell you that labour will be painful.

We hope you understand.

How would you describe your labour(s)? Did you expect your labour to be painful? Have you ever attended a MummyNatal class, and what did you take away from it?

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