Today’s guest post is offered up by a good friend of Mark’s Daily Apple—Genevieve Howland, aka Mama Natural.
Very few people embrace pain. Sure, we’ve all said “no pain no gain” at the gym. But, as humans, we have a primal, hardwired instinct to seek pleasure and avoid pain. And that’s what makes childbirth such a loaded experience. Because, yes, there is usually pain (some like to say discomfort) involved in childbirth.
And, unfortunately, the process of childbirth seems to be getting harder… or at least longer. Based on 140,000 childbirths, research shows that today’s moms labor an average of 2-3 hours longer than the mothers of 50 years ago. Births in the late 1950s and 60s were compared to births from 2002 to 2008. The study points out that moms are now heavier, older, and are more likely to use epidural anesthesia.
Why does childbirth last longer these days?
Two potential culprits:
- Sedentary lifestyles. Our bodies weren’t made to sit in desk chairs for 40 hours a week or recline in a carseat for several hours a day. This is doubly true for pregnant women. Childbirth is a marathon event, and mama needs to train. Also, an active lifestyle encourages baby to assume a more optimal position for birth.
- Epidurals. Epidurals increase the amount of time a mom spends laboring by at least two or three hours according to a 2014 study published in Obstetrics & Gynecology. Epidurals can come with other side effects too, like longer recovery times and slower initiation of breastfeeding. Not to mention the discomfort of being confined to your bed during labor while hooked up to a catheter.
So, what’s a primal mama to do? Well, thankfully, there are many natural (and proven) ways to offset the pain of childbirth.
Here are 7 proven natural pain relief techniques during childbirth.
Women are instinctively drawn to water during childbirth for the feeling of buoyancy and comfort it provides. And turns out, water birth can also be a great pain reliever.
In several studies, women who gave birth in water had less need for pain medication, and in some cases, no need at all.
Giving birth in water also reduced overall labor time by about 90 minutes per this study as well as this one.
Not only do water births result in less use of pain medication, women’s perceptions of pain are also significantly lower. In one study, women giving birth out of water ranked their pain score at nearly 7 on a scale of 1-10 (10 being the most painful). The moms who gave birth in water reported a pain score of only 3½.
Touch stimulates the release of oxytocin, an incredible hormone that stimulates uterine contractions, boosts mood and feelings of optimism and you guessed it, acts as a pain reliever. Have your partner hug or hold you in-between contractions to help ease the discomfort of labor. You could even employ a massage therapist.
In one study, laboring moms who received massage therapy had less pain, anxiety, and significantly shorter childbirths. These moms also suffered less from postpartum depression, too.
Another way to incorporate touch is with acupuncture or acupressure. Acupuncture is effective for chronic pain so it would make sense that pressing on certain acupuncture points may help during childbirth. (For example, focusing on the Urinary Bladder 60 point is often used to increase circulation and provide pain relief in the body.)
You can also have your partner or midwife apply counter pressure to your lower back and do a double hip squeeze to help manually open your pelvis during labor to get a stuck or stalled labor (and baby) moving!
3. Breath work
In any good childbirth education class, you’ll hear about “breathing” as a way to cope with the pain. I was a bit skeptical of this one, but I’ve been proven wrong by a boatload of medical research.
For example, a study from St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center found that women with painful conditions such as fibromyalgia experienced less pain when they focused on controlled breathing at a slow rate.
Why? Probably because focused breathing calms the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for—you guessed it—pain.
On the flip side, other studies have demonstrated that focused breathing actually increases our pain threshold.
Your breath has a rhythm that’s actually quite similar to a birth contraction. There’s a peak (the top of inhalation) and then a release (exhalation). If you can stay “on top of your breath”—that is, stay in charge of the pace of your breathing—then you’ve got a good shot that your labor will be more manageable.
While there are plenty of breath patterns you can learn about and research, I think simplest is best: steady inhale through your nose for a few seconds, followed by a calm and steady exhale for a few seconds.
As you focus on deep breathing, you may want to drift into a meditative state. Just as your body will release stress hormones and adrenaline if you’re watching, say, a scary movie, it will release positive endorphins when you’re focused on gentle breathing or a peaceful image.
In one small study, participants with chronic pain who meditated reduced their discomfort by a whopping 44%! (In contrast, past research indicates that opioid morphine reduces physical pain by only 22%.) You can learn more about meditation with this great beginner guide.
As Mark has covered before, sitting is the new smoking. No doubt about it, the human body is not designed to sit from 9 to 5 in an office, and yet many pregnant moms (myself included) are in this camp during their first pregnancy. By moving regularly, we may encourage baby to position him or herself better in our womb.
You can try these desk sitting hacks or special pelvic exercises to keep your hips open and aligned. Regular acupuncture or chiropractic care may also help avoid baby resting in the “occiput posterior position,” otherwise known as a “sunny side up” presentation.
In studies, sunny side up births are associated with:
- prolonged first and second stages of labor
- oxytocin augmentation
- use of epidural analgesia
- assisted vaginal delivery
- third and fourth degree perineal lacerations
- cesarean delivery
- excessive blood loss
- and postpartum infection
The remedy? Keep your body moving during pregnancy! Movement can encourage your baby to engage in a more favorable position for birth. It also lowers your risk for preeclampsia and gestational diabetes.
6. Special foods/beverages
Starting in the second trimester, moms can incorporate a few special foods to help with childbirth. While these items may not be natural pain relievers per se, they can help moms:
- have a quicker birth with fewer interventions
- reduce the length of discomfort during labor
- plus reduce postpartum pain/healing time
Red Raspberry Tea FTW!
If you talk to any midwife, doula, or crunchy mama you’re practically guaranteed to hear about the importance of drinking red raspberry leaf tea during pregnancy. Known by herbalists for centuries as a uterine tonic, science is now backing up the benefits of this herbal tea.
According to a study from the Australian College of Midwives Journal, red raspberry leaf tea consumption during pregnancy, when compared with a control group, can:
- decrease the likelihood of pre- and post-term gestation
- make artificial rupture of membranes less likely
- reduce the need for a Cesarean section, forceps, or vacuum birth
Perhaps even more convincing is the anecdotal evidence from countless moms who’ve relied on this herbal tea during preconception, pregnancy, and postpartum. Moms have used red raspberry leaf tea to:
- reduce morning sickness
- fortify the uterus in VBAC moms
- strengthen the bags of water
- balance postpartum hormones
- and boost early milk production due to its high mineral content
It’s best to talk with your midwife or OB/GYN to see if RRL tea is right for you. The general protocol is to drink 1-2 cups daily starting in the second trimester.
6 Dates a Day?
Another potentially beneficial (and quite delicious) food particularly for childbirth is dates during pregnancy.
According to this study, women who ate 6 dates a day for the four weeks leading up to their due date were significantly more dilated and more likely to:
- Have intact membranes upon admission to the hospital
- Go into labor spontaneously
- Avoid Pitocin
- And have a shorter first phase of labor
Pretty awesome for just eating some dates, huh?
Researchers have found that date fruit has an oxytocin-like effect on the body, leading to increased sensitivity of the uterus. It also helps stimulate uterine contractions, and reduces postpartum hemorrhage the way oxytocin does. They also found that it contains many nutritional benefits for pregnant mamas.
“Date fruit contains saturated and unsaturated fatty acids such as oleic, linoleic, and linolenic acids, which are involved in saving and supplying energy and construction of prostaglandins. In addition, serotonin, tannin, and calcium in date fruit contribute to the contraction of smooth muscles of the uterus. Date fruit also has a laxative effect, which stimulates uterine contractions.”
Of course these studies are limited, but there’s no real harm in eating dates during pregnancy, so why not give it a try?
It’s best to consume your 6 dates a day with protein or fat rich foods like nuts, aged cheese, or coconut flakes. If you have blood sugar issues or gestational diabetes, talk to your midwife or doctor.
Where you give birth is important, since around 6% of birth centers and home births end in cesarean versus the national average of 33%. But who is on your birth team is equally if not more important.
Midwife practices have lower intervention rates across the board, but they also tend to attract low-risk women. Birth doulas, on the other hand, can be employed by high risk, hospital birthing moms who want to have more natural births.
The word doula comes from the ancient Greek and means “a woman who serves.” A birth doula is a trained professional who gives continuous physical (non-medical), emotional, and informational support to expectant mamas, laboring moms, and postpartum mothers and families.
A 2012 Cochrane review showed that women who had continuous support, especially from a doula, were:
- more likely to have a spontaneous vaginal birth
- less likely to have any pain medication, epidurals, vacuum or forceps-assisted births, C-sections, or negative feelings about childbirth
Other documented benefits include:
- higher breastfeeding success rate
- better maternal self-esteem
- lower blood pressure during labor
- and less pain experienced
So yes, natural pain relief during labor is possible
When you find the right support and follow some of the strategies here, you have a great chance of perceiving less pain during childbirth. There’s also a good chance you’ll experience fewer medical interventions, have easier healing postpartum, and enjoy more positive feelings about your birth.
Go, mama, go!
Want to help change the birth culture in our country?
It starts by getting informed. I’ve just published the world’s first week-by-week pregnancy guide from a natural perspective. Featuring insights from a certified nurse midwife (who happened to deliver both of my children), as well as a registered nurse and doula, the book is packed with helpful info on:
- Natural remedies for common pregnancy symptoms
- When to get an ultrasound (and when not to)
- Sex during pregnancy
- The truth about epidurals
- How to naturalize a surgical birth
- Natural pain relief during labor
- What to do during every stage of labor
- How to recover naturally
- And so much more
This book is evidence-based, empowering and entertaining. ? (No boring text books over here!) If pregnancy is in your future, or if you know anyone who’s pregnant, please consider picking up a copy.
Even if you aren’t pregnant…
Consider purchasing the book and…
- Donating to your local library
- Giving to your ob-gyn at your next wellness visit
- Passing along at a La Leche meeting or baby carrying group
- Sharing with a pre-med student
- Keeping in your home library to loan out as needed
This will help us get the word out and change the face of birth in the U.S.!
Best wishes to all the future mamas out there!
I hope every mama out there gets the support and resources she needs to have an empowered and grace-filled birth.
Thanks to Genevieve Howland, aka Mama Natural.for today’s guest post. Have you or someone you know used natural birth supports? Have questions, comments, stories, or suggestions? Share them on the comment board, and have a great end to your week, everybody.
If you'd like to add an avatar to all of your comments click here!