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Childbirth is the single most dangerous act most modern women will engage in. For many, it's also the most terrifying act and the anticipation of great pain is the source of this fear.

Are you currently trying to conceive or pregnant? The chances are that you are at least a little scared of giving birth.  Friends and relatives (quite possibly even your own mother!) will have told you stories about how much labor and birth hurt.

The stories are in all pregnancy books as well, of course with the addendum that you'll forget about the pain as soon as you see your baby's precious face. In books and films, you'll encounter a similar, overly dramatic version of childbirth. Women scream and hurl insults at their baby's father while they are in labor, don't they? It's just an integral part of the right of passage that marks your entry to parenthood.

Unless, of course, you are liberated from all of that with the help of modern medicine by way of the Great, All-Powerful Epidural. But does childbirth really have to be painful? Does it really have to be that painful?

Fear and pain

With all that you'll be hearing about childbirth, how dangerous it is and how much it hurts to squeeze a whole baby through a tiny vagina, it's no wonder that you're terrified before you even contemplate trying to conceive. True fear is a very powerful, primal and useful reaction. It sets in the moment we believe that we are in a great deal of danger, and this belief can appear when we are confronted with something that is unambiguously dangerous (like a house fire, a battle zone, or a tiger). It can also appear seemingly out of nowhere, sparked by something that our intuition (that speedy, animal-like cognitive system) recognizes as dangerous.

The moment we feel true fear, our body prepares for flight or fight. Blood is directed to the muscles that enable us to run for our lives or face a battle, to the detriment of other, non-essential muscles. Guess which organ the body's flight or fight system has categorized as non-essential? The uterus, of course. Fear can redirect oxygen-rich blood away from your uterus, placenta, and baby. This can cause labor to stall and complications to occur. Fear is a reaction that is designed to make us act, but during labor and birth you will be in the hands of a competent medical team and aren't required to fight or flight. Fear is not a useful reaction in this situation. Being scared of pain also has another side effect it actually causes you to have more pain. If you've ever been to the dentist, you'll probably know that the experience is a lot less unpleasant if you are relaxed during the procedure. Expect pain, and the pain you'll feel will be that much worse.

Can childbirth be painless?

Yes. In rare cases, women who are in labor really don't feel a significant amount of pain even without any type of pain relief. That epidural can also liberate you from the pain that you do feel, and the same goes for non-medical pain relief options such as hypnobirthing, which enable the laboring woman to zone out.

How much does labor really hurt? Well, let's put it this way. I've given birth naturally at home twice. My personal experience was that labor hurts like menstrual cramps at first, and more intensely later. Birth, the actual passing of the baby through the birth canal, comes with special sensations that can be described as unique, weird, full of pressure and indeed quite painful.

Yes, birth hurts.

Most women who have given birth throughout history will agree with me. But it doesn't hurt terribly, and it's not the kind of pain that signifies something is wrong with you. Birth hurts, but the pain is generally do-able. You don't forget about it right after you have your baby either, but that doesn't mean that it is a big deal.

I hold that a truly pain-free childbirth is not very likely. You'll probably be in pain, whichever option you choose. You'll have pain if you have epidural anesthesia, because it is not possible to have an epidural right away and the chances are you will not be in hospital when you start having contractions. You'll have pain if you have a c-section too after your baby is born. #

A natural birth will give you pain, and a birth with hypnobabies will give you pain too again, after the birth, if you tear or have an episiotomy. Perhaps a pain-free birth should not be the goal, after all. Instead, the goal should be pain acceptance and a lack of fear. Think of labor and birth as events that are usually natural and uncomplicated, and for which pain relief options are around if you want them. The pain is productive in this case though, not unlike menstruation (which you know will pass) or getting a tattoo (no pain, no gain). Soon, the event will be over and the pain will stop. You may not forget, but you'll probably be ready to do it all again soon.

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