Anticipating the Pain of Childbirth: How Bad is it, Really?

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Happily for me (or perhaps naively of me), I don’t have any anxiety about labour or delivery. I know it will hurt, and I know it will hurt more than anything has hurt me before. But for some reason, I’m not nervous about that. Maybe because I hopped on the epidural train long ago. Maybe because I’m just curious more than fearful (how painful is it, REALLY?). And trust me when I say I’m not one of those people who has a high tolerance for pain. I don’t enjoy pain. I’m just not scared of this particular kind of pain.

My prenatal class instructor spoke a lot recently about “re-framing” the pain. She talked about the fact that we have been brought up to associate pain with negative experiences, but that childbirth is one time when pain is associated with positivity: each contraction brings you closer to meeting your baby and serves a very definite purpose.

A dear friend—who had a 50-hour labour, might I add, and 44 of those hours went by without drugs of any kind—also shared a statistic with me recently: when I go into labour, no fewer than 350,000 women around the world will also be in labour at that moment. She suggested that I could think about that and channel the collective energy of all of these women to help me manage the pain.

Other friends have offered various techniques that worked for them—”Gravol before active labour to get some sleep!” “In the earliest stages—a glass of wine and Tylenol!” “Hypno-birthing!” “Yoga and deep breathing!” “An epidural! Period!”

I’ll take all of the advice you have to give, too. What helped you manage the pain of labour? And was the pain what you expected? Was it worse or better?

23 responses to “Anticipating the Pain of Childbirth: How Bad is it, Really?”

  1. andrea says:

    voted, but even saying that it hurt A LOT, i have 3 kids lol…you get through it because you are supposed to, and you’ll forget all about it (well not really lol, but it won’t really phase you until you’re just about to do it again hehehe)…
    a labours are different, with varying degrees of pain, but in the end it is definitely ALWAYS worth it! :)

  2. oona says:

    Yeah, it hurt. But I had an awesome health care team, my husband and a doula that did acupressure. This really helped! So did morphine and laughing gas! I read “Birthing from within”, and maybe it was the book, maybe it was the high from the morphine, but even through the pain, I felt blissful knowing that I was bringing my daughter into the world. Best wishes for a safe, wonder-ful birth for you and your babe!

  3. Jen Wilson says:

    Oh, it hurt. A lot. I wish I knew the first time all that I knew the third time. I highly, HIGHLY recommend reading the Hypnobirthing book. I don’t/can’t believe in a painless birth, but it helped SO MUCH to make the labor more enjoyable and it helped my body handle it better (and it helped make my third labor 56 (FIFTY-SIX) hours shorter than my first). The main key is to relax, as hard as that is to do – RELAX. When you are relaxed instead of tense, you are working WITH your uterine muscles instead of against them. And the pain is lessened when you are relaxed. I swear it is.

    Oh, and also, EPIDURAL. I had one all three times and I do not regret it for a second. :)

  4. Ann Douglas says:

    The big thing to remember is that labour is pain with a purpose. At each stage, your body is doing something productive to try to get your baby out into the world. And each contraction brings you closer to meeting your baby. That’s what kept me going each time. I didn’t require pain medic1P(Adwives (depending on the birth). Have an amazing birth.

  5. Melanie says:

    It hurt, but in a way that you are excited for it to be over. In now have three children and didn’t know what to expect with my first delivery either.I had an epidural with my first one, but if I could go back, I would not have had it. The other two deliveries were much better without the epidural.

  6. Laura says:

    With my first, I was put on Pitocin to speed things along, and that made the pain more intense than anything I could have ever imagined! Felt like my body couldn’t keep up. I opted for an epidural.

    With my second, no medicine/intervention of any kind, and I got to let my body do its own thing, which I liked a lot more. Don’t get me wrong, there were moments where I still wanted to die (ha), but it was much, much more bearable. And no epidural actually made everything go smoother and kept things simple. I liked that.

    I used a TENS unit during my second labour – look it up if you’re curious. I thought it really helped. With the start of each contraction I would clutch my husband, breathe deeply, and count to 15 slowly. And I’d repeat to myself (in my head): Your mind will quit before your body will.

    At the end of the day, you’ll get it done, and it’ll be worth it and more! Good luck.

  7. Lynn says:

    For me it was the AFTER part that really sideswiped me. I wasn’t prepared for how incapacitated I would be after 14 hours of labour (doula, water bath, no drugs, a mistake in hindsight) that ended with birth by forcepts. Stitches, bruises, difficulty getting out of bed, up the stairs, using the washroom, showering, the mood swings, lack of sleep. Ack! The only thing I can say about that is everyone gets through it and it does get better!

  8. allison says:

    For me (and I think every labour is different), labour was mostly what I expected. I had a few days of early labour, and went into active labour at around 8pm Monday, while I was at a concert. I stayed for the concert, sitting down every other song to have a contraction. The “pain” (it really didn’t hurt much) was totally manageable, honestly. I got home at 11pm, my wife timed my contractions, and I called my midwives at 3am when I was in the 3-1-1 pattern. When they arrived, I was 5 cm dilated, and still feeling not much more than pressure.

    I did hypnobirthing, so I think that helped a lot. My wife said she felt like she was a scientologist labour because I was so quiet! But that’s how I am…I go inside myself and get very quiet when things are intense.

    It hurt more afterwards than I had expected though. I wasn’t as prepared for that as I should have been.

  9. Tara says:

    I’m a chicken and don’t like pain. I was scared about how much it would hurt and I think that’s what makes the pain worse than it needs to be. I have 3 children and the last birth, I figured I’d actually listen to my midwife and do the breathing and focussing. There was virtually no pain during labour – just pressure. It really is a state of mind (if you can get there). Of course pushing the baby out always feels best because it ends the pressure on your body. Listen to your midwife and doula – at worst, it’ll still hurt, at best, you focus and help your body do the job it’s trying to without fighting the baby on it’s way out. I’d do it again!

  10. AJ says:

    Your relaxed attitude will help a lot, that’s really half the battle. Just remember that whatever you choose you will have a beautiful baby when it’s all over. Go with the flow, whether you go all natural or opt for some of the medical pain control options available doesn’t really matter in the end. You’ll love your baby unconditionally because that’s what Mother Nature programmed you to do.

  11. Cari says:

    Women are powerful amazing creatures, our bodies were designed to birth. When I read stories like this, I am saddened beyond belief at the fear that is instilled in women about birthing. We have been birthing babies for thousands of years, it is not a medical emergency, it is a rite of passage. I have had 2 home births attended by midwives, I fully completely trusted in my body and my baby that both would know exactly what to do when the time came. And I was right, both of my babies births were beautiful, peaceful experiences for me and for them. I encourage all women to have faith in themselves and in the birth process. Educate yourself and don’t buy in to the fear!

  12. Shelley says:

    For me, it didn’t really “hurt” during the labour part. It was more just uncomfortable. At its worst, it was the kind of “pain” you’d experience if you had diarrhea cramps and menstral cramps accompanied by the feeling of muscles in your body contracting HARD, even though they’re tired. It took my breath away and I’d go off into my own little world of focus, just breathing through it. My labour was only 4 hours long, though, so I was fortunate to not have to endure any one stage of it for very long.
    I went epidural free because when they asked me if I wanted it (and said I had a very short window of time to decide), I asked them “well, am I to expect a lot more pain than I’m in now?” and the nurse examined me and said “honey, this IS pain”. So I opted to tough it out. I had no regrets afterward because I was up and moving around within the first half hour after birth.

    Something that helped me prepare for it mentally (and I’ll have to use it again, ha ha), is that this is one tiny moment of pain, in the grand scheme of your life. One “day from hell” with a very awesome ending, and the start to the most beautiful phase of your life, thus far (at least it was for me). You get through that day, and you’re home free. And you WILL get through the day just fine, because your body knows what it’s doing. I gave control up to my body, trusted my body, and rode the wave, moving when my body wanted to move, and staying still and calm when it wanted that instead, and it was just fine.

  13. darlene says:

    Hi, I delivered both my children naturally without any pain aids back in l981 and l984, that was what we did then, most of us anyhow, women have been doing this forever and the use of epidural is kind of scary, of course childbirth hurts, but you can be prepared by staying healthy and in shape, walking and also practicing the breathing techniques, they help you stay in control, we took what was called a neonatal class, everyone was doing it, then the husband or partner is involved. Every pregnancy and delivery will be differant but if you are prepared you can really help yourself and the baby. Without drugs in your system then you can immediately breast feed and that first feeding will be the most healthy thing you can do for your child, there is colostrum in the milk and it is the best natural antibody that your baby could ever get. Good Luck and it is really a wonderful experience, I know I can say that now, but I have nothing but fond memories or giving birth and my deliveries were no cake walk. Good luck.

  14. MARYSE B says:

    for me it was the contractions of the last 3 hours that were the most painful (ask my boyfriend, his fingers never recovered from it! hahaha). I had the epidural but I’m not sure now I should have, it helped in the beginning, I was able to rest for a couple of hours, but then it stopped working, that’s why the last 3 hours were so painful. The epidural itself, when she stuck that needle in my spine, was the worst pain I’ve ever felt in my life, very scary and risky too. The delivery itself (the pushing part) lasted 15 minutes and it wasn’t as bad. I guess I gave it everything I had cause I wanted to get it over with, I wanted the pain of the contractions to go away! I just couldn’t take it anymore! after giving birth I told my boyfriend “how do women go through this 2 and 3 and 4 times?!?! are they NUTS?????” hahaha. They say you forget. I couldn’t believe it at first but I think I believe it now. I’m not gonna have another baby, just the one, I’m 40, that’s it for me, but if I were to get pregnant again I would be very excited. Wouldn’t think about the pain just yet :)
    That being said, good luck! Just remember that it will be all worth it :)

  15. Diane says:

    I was very lucky – I have 3 kids. I actually fell asleep during the birth of my 1st child! The only pain med I had for each birth was a shot of demeral. My 1st child I was in labour[start to finish] for maybe 4 hrs, 2nd child alittle less and my 3rd maybe an hour.
    My experiences has all been positive and the hospital staff was great. For me kidney stones are the worst pain ever[I’ve had afew]giving birth was a walk in the park!
    Just relax and enjoy the experience

  16. Cassandra says:


    I went through the birthing classes and I think what I took away most was the breathing… I honestly think that helped me…

    My husband told me that during it all the nursing staff and doctors were commenting that it appeared I was in preservation mode and i was almost in a trance. My breathing was the only thing that helped me remain calm and collected through it all.

    I’m not saying it didn’t hurt – but soothing breathing and support were the things that helped me live with the pain. I did it drug free :) I think it helped ;)

    Best of luck – no matter what you will find what helps you through the experience

  17. Megan says:

    Which hypnobirthing book do you recommend, Jen? —Megan

  18. Everybody will tell you something different, and everybody will have a different experience. I had an unmedicated home birth with my first, and a very unplanned, unwanted emergency c-section with my second (little monkey went transverse on me at 10 days overdue. It was true to her nature, I now know.) I’d take the unmedicated home birth 100x over. Labour is intense, it’s really intense, but it’s finite, and you go to a kind of ‘other’ place to deal with it. Be proud that your body knows what to do, and enjoy the awesomeness of it.

  19. Lenny says:

    I had a midwife and did it all natural. They were so great and the pain was not near as bad as I had expected it to be. I laboured in the tub which I found helped a lot also. I would do it again in a heartbeat!:) Wonderful experience.

  20. Sarah says:

    I was more scared of the Epidural than I was of the pain of child birth. So, in preparation for the birth, I did an at-home hypnobirthing program (Hypnobabies) and it was brilliant. It didn’t take the pain away, but it helped me ignore it. I was in labour for about 32 hours and had to be induced to kick it into high gear. I didn’t know what sort of pain to expect, but it didn’t scare me, and therefore I was able to remain relaxed. I had a bit of laughing gas to get me through transition, but that is it.

    Enjoy the amazing experience!

  21. Sara says:

    It was less pain than I expected it to be, than again my son was only 4 lbs., he was premature by 2 months. I chewed alot of ice and he was out in 40 mins. Oh and the placenta felt good coming out, it was like the pressure was gone. Congrats and good luck!

  22. Nicole says:

    I recently gave birth to my second child, a son weighing 10lbs 4oz, without any medication. It was induced labour this time so it became was super intense rather rapidly and I wasn’t allowed to leave the bed once water broke because it contained meconium. I had to work very hard, quiet room except for my music playlist and my deep yoga breathing. My advice is to focus, think positively, and avoid activities that IMO waste your energy (e.g. crying, howling, etc.). Labour doesn’t last forever, and neither do contractions; each contraction can be dealt with as an individual obstacle. Breaking it down makes it more manageable IMO.

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