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Many expecting women worry about the culmination of pregnancy—childbirth. What will it feel like? How bad will the pain be? Can I handle it? Being prepared with tools to cope can help instill confidence as your due date approaches and can create a more positive birth experience.
The pain that occurs during labor is caused by the contractions of the muscles in the uterus and the opening (dilation) of the cervix. It's often described as an intense cramping sensation in the belly, groin and lower back, sometimes radiating to the sides and thighs. It may start out feeling like menstrual cramps and then become much more intense, depending on the individual. Other sensations may include pressure on the bladder, the large intestines and the perineum as the baby's head descends.
Many women opt for medical interventions, most commonly the epidural, which is a regional anesthesia injected into the back that blocks pain by numbing sensation in the lower half of the body. While many are pleased with the outcome of this intervention, others experience a stall in labor and difficulty pushing, as well as side effects of vomiting and shaking. There is also a risk of a drop in blood pressure and, rarely, severe headache if there is any spinal fluid leakage, as well as difficulty urinating, backache and some other very rare complications. The baby may experience breastfeeding or respiratory difficulties, though research in these areas remains uncertain.
Learn more about medical pain management options here.
So what other options are there? Opting for natural childbirth doesn't mean going in unprepared. The following techniques, when practiced prior to labor, have been extremely effective pain-management tools for women opting for a drug-free labor.
The Lamaze technique is one of the most commonly used methods in the United States for managing pain during childbirth. Often this method is what is taught in hospital childbirth education classes. Lamaze classes teach the philosophy that giving birth is normal, natural and healthy. A certified instructor coaches expecting parents through relaxation techniques, physical coping methods, breathing exercises and distraction techniques, which can ultimately help lower your perception of pain. The classes also educate attendees about childbirth so that they can make educated choices, including finding the right health care provider and birth environment. When it comes to medical interventions for pain management, the Lamaze technique does not take a specific stance, and it encourages women to make informed decisions as to whether physician-provided medication may be beneficial.
The Bradley method, also referred to as the Husband-Coached Birth, aims to involve the partner as a birthing coach. It takes a holistic approach, by addressing overall prenatal health, including healthy eating and exercise. For childbirth, it promotes relaxation and deep-breathing techniques that work with the body's natural abilities to manage the pain, instead of receiving medication. It also encourages alternative pain management options, such as hypnosis, yoga, meditation, walking and massage. The standard length of classes is 12 weeks, and they include general childbirth education.
Hypnobirthing is a technique that aims to take the fear out of childbirth and create a more relaxing environment through self and partner-led hypnosis. It utilizes breathing techniques, guided imagery, visualization, counting and vocalization, all practiced through a series of classes, guided hypnosis CDs and a script that can be read by a birth partner or doula. It allows the mother to be in a meditative trance-like state, noticing and coping with contractions rather then resisting or fearing them, but still able to easily come out of the state if the need arises. A woman in labor who is practicing hypnobirthing often looks opposite to the childbirth images often portrayed in movies. Many practitioners describe them as quiet and internal. This technique is ideal for women who regularly meditate but can be used by anyone. Childbirth education classes may be needed in addition, depending on the specific class curriculum.
If you're unsure of which of these pain management options is right for you, talk with other moms about their birth experiences, and seek guidance from your health care provider or a specialist.