From Painful to Powerful

When given the opportunity to describe labor, you often will hear women tell you about how long it lasts and how painful it feels. But what if “painful” stopped being the first word that popped into our minds when we thought about having a baby?

One of the very best ways to prepare for labor is to reframe your mindset about pain. I like to explain to my clients that pain can be divided into two categories. The first type of pain happens when your body is sick or injured — maybe you’ve sprained your ankle or cut your finger. Your body sends signals to the brain, warning it that there is a problem. This is the most common type of pain, so most people have trained themselves to think that pain = bad.

But there is another side to pain that can be experienced. This is pain with a purpose — like when you workout vigorously and your muscles are sore the next day. Yes it hurts, but it’s a good kind of hurt. Your muscles have worked hard and are now repairing themselves as they grow and change. Labor contractions fall into that same category of “good” pain that comes with a purpose. During labor, the uterus rhythmically squeezes (or contracts) for the purpose of opening up the cervix and moving baby down the birth canal.

If a mom in labor is able to reframe contraction pain as something that doesn’t signal that her body is hurt or broken but rather working hard to accomplish something, pain becomes less scary, and instead has a positive purpose.

Recently at a birth, I was supporting a mother during the transition stage of her labor. (Transition is the point in labor that comes just before reaching 10 centimeters of dilation and then pushing baby out. It is often characterized as being the most intense, painful, and challenging part of labor.)

As is common, this mom was starting to lose a little confidence in her ability to finish laboring. She was growing tired and slightly discouraged. She kept asking to be reminded why she had chosen to labor without medication, and needed lots of reassurance that she was capable of birthing her baby.

It was during this moment of maximum pain, that her provider stepped in to offer encouragement. She reminded the mother that she was strong. That her contractions were making progress to move her baby down and out. She told her that surrendering to everything her body was experiencing for the purpose of bringing her baby into this world was her very own superpower.

So with her head cradled in her partner’s lap, her doula providing a calming atmosphere and physical comfort measures, and her provider reminding her of the purpose of the pain, this mother made it through the transition stage and into the pushing phase of labor. And when her nurse asked her to rate her pain by how she was feeling, her reply was, “I’m feeling powerful.”

It can be challenging to reframe those painful sensations as something that is productive and has purpose. Having support in place to remind you that you can do it is one of the very best ways to prepare for a good labor experience. But even a great birth team can’t carry you all the way — the rest is up to you.

Turning painful into powerful is every mother’s superpower.