About Pain and Birth

That Was Then…

As I became involved in the birthing field, one of the nurse-midwives with whom I was acquainted introduced me to Jung’s quotation: “There is no birth of consciousness without pain.” (Alternately, “There is no coming to consciousness without pain.”) It struck a deep chord in me.

At the time, I was going through a painful divorce and creating a new sense of self. As a dancer, I had long since learned that the acquisition of new movement and performance skills involved a painful relationship with one’s body and mind that results in a new identity: I am a person who can do this. At that time, I also had my first pregnancy loss – painful in every definition of the word. Even ideas required painful “births” in my educational process. “Aha!” was usually preceded by muddled difficulty in disciplining my thought processes.

So, when I first saw the saying, “There is no birth of consciousness without pain,” intertwined with a drawing of a woman literally giving birth, the truth of the image seemed obvious to me. It become hard-wired into my underlying assumptions about giving birth. The process itself combines intense noxious sensations with mid brain emotional input into what neural science calls pain. For years, this realization has driven what and how I teach: Being fit and educated in body/mind are the tools of enlightenment and self-empowerment.

…And This Is Now

A little while ago I came across a NY Times article “Profiting From Pain.” While the article concerns the huge increase in the legitimate opioid business – products, sales, hospitalizations, legal expenses and workplace cost – it restarted my thinking about a topic fermenting in my brain between That Was Then And This Is Now: The sense of entitlement to a pain-free existence. The idea that pain free is better than painful. And the selling of this idea for profit.

Where does this come from? Trying to obliterate pain has led to increased addiction, death and other adverse side effects. A new topic has shown up in women’s health discussions: Increasing use and overdose from prescription pain killers by women, including during pregnancy.

Could it be that human fear of pain is being used to generate financial profit? (the opium-is-the-opiate-of-the-masses model). Perhaps once the notion of palliative care reached a certain level of acceptance for the dying within the medical community, it began to spill over into other human conditions (the slippery-slope model). Or, perhaps we don’t want transparency at all (the denial model).

In the last few days, NPR has raised the question of whether the high cesarean birth rate is tied to the payment for procedure rather than outcome model? The recovery from cesarean is more painful than the recovery from vaginal birth, has adverse side-effects for mother and baby, and was originally designed for use only for the 15% +/- of real complications that arise in normal birth. So, how is it being sold to 35% of women in the U.S,? At one point, there was a serious discussion within the medical community that if women were afraid of the pain of birth and wanted a cesarean, a care provider should do one. No discussion of why it seems painful or how to deal with pain.

The Affordable Care Act aims to improve some of the cost issues in medical care by shifting the payment incentive away from procedures and on to outcome assessment. As a result, the cesarean rate and even such seemingly innocuous procedures as fetal monitoring are coming under scrutiny. If we truly want to do a service to the mothers-to-be in the ACA transition period and beyond, I think we must discuss the question of birth and pain. 

I can think of many questions that fall under this topic…Why do we call the intense phenomenon of birth “painful”? How do our genetics, behavior, training and thought-processes affect our experience of pain? What about the health care culture – has it focused on relieving pain at the expense of what we gain from working with pain short of trauma or imminent death? How do we prepare women for working with sensation without automatically labeling it pain? Is the “empowerment” often attributed to giving birth what is learned by going through the center of the “there is no birth of consciousness without pain” experience? These questions are just a start.

In closing…

Let me address the childbirth educators and pregnancy exercise instructors. This is our present challenge. In my work, I feel the necessity to make all pain management strategies understandable to my clients. I find that most of the women I see in classes must deal first with self-discovery before they can assess their commitment to the view of birth they carry in their minds. The images of birth we lay out for them to consider need to include an understanding that you cannot escape the work of birth. Being present – mindfulness – can be scary and intense but it is the medium by which our consciousness expands. Cardiovascular fitness and strength are the source of our endurance and power.

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Pregnancy Exercise – The Evolutionary Imperative for Vigorous Activity

I have long wanted to write this post. Recently two articles appeared in the NY Times prompting me to move forward. One article dealt with how it is that ongoing vigorous exercise produces brain enhancements. The second article dealt with how running creates its “high” and explained why the resulting addiction is an evolutionary benefit for human survival.

Every day in Africa a gazelle wakes up.
It knows it must run faster than the fastest lion or it will be killed.
 Every morning a lion wakes up. It knows that it must outrun the slowest gazelle or it will starve to death.
 It doesn’t matter whether you are a lion or a gazelle.
When the sun comes up, you better be running.

Abe Gubegna
Ethiopia, circa 1974

The pregnant mom who exercises vigorously and regularly – the one who runs or swims or does aerobic dancing – is not the one at risk, or whose infant is at risk, of a lack of tolerance for the rigors of labor or for lifestyle health problems. It is the sedentary or low activity mother and her offspring who are at risk. I have written at length on this reality in my chapter on Women and Exercise in Varney’s Midwifery.

This realization has plagued me for ages, and the two articles in the Times convinced me to make this statement, explain why it is true and exhort women of childbearing age to become aerobic animals.

In the contemporary world, we are not as active as previous generations. Few women exercise to the extent required to develop the capacity to withstand the rigors of birth. It is little wonder that so often health care providers hear that women are afraid to exercise, and childbirth educators hear that pregnant moms are afraid of birth and don’t have confidence in their ability to do it. There are solutions for these issues…

The biggest bang for the buck is aerobics. This gets almost everything that helps you in labor. It increases endurance, strength and range of motion. It improves breathing capacity (you get more oxygen + less fatigue). It reduces your need to tap your cardiac reserve (your body works hard in labor but not to the degree it must if you are not fit). Plus, regular participation in a good cardio or aerobic workout gives you the mental toughness and confidence you need to know that your body is capable of the work and the recovery – what we call body trust. Fit Pregnancy has discussed the myths surrounding how hard a pregnant woman can work out.

Learning useful positions and movements is extremely helpful. Be sure that your workout also includes strength and coordination movements – such things as squatting, core movements for pelvis and spine, and other motions that aid your progress in labor. Being upright and moving are keys to a healthy labor. These require strength and coordination.

Mental focus and being present teach you to work with your body. Activities such as relaxation training, yoga, pilates for pregnancy and dance help you develop the mental skills (mindfulness and deep breathing) that accompany your movement. Learn to recognize your body’s signals so you know when it’s time to push.

A truly effective use of your time is a one hour class a couple times a week that combines all these elements. We have known this for decades. The evidence is clear that it works. Keep moving…right into labor and birth!

Find a safe and effective class or trainer.