The answer to this question is probably something that every first time mum-to-be wants to know isn’t it? The reason they want to know may range from mild curiosity – “I’ve never done this before so I am curious to know what it is going to feel like”, to a petrified woman trying to handle her fear through knowledge – “if I know what it is going to feel like then I can plan how to deal with it”. The truth is though for four important reasons no-one can tell you what childbirth is going to feel like for you.
- How we experience physical sensations in our bodies is very subjective and unique to us. So, one person’s excruciating pain might be another’s mild annoyance.
- Our expectations of the experience set up by others’ messages about what childbirth feels like.
- Our emotional state and what we are paying attention to at the time changes what we notice about sensations in our body.
- Birth is different for everyone which also applies for the same woman’s multiple birth experiences.
With this in mind, perhaps there is a more useful question to ask rather than “what does childbirth feel like?”
Which I would suggest is “How can I be best prepared to handle my labour and birth experience?”
I am going to answer that by delving deeper into my four points above.
From point 1 – how we experience sensations in the body is subjective and unique to us, we can learn that it isn’t useful for us when someone else shares what labour and birth felt like to them. However descriptive and whether the woman sharing had huge amounts of pain or not, you don’t know if you were able to have exactly the same experience (if that could be created which of course it can’t), that you would feel the sensations in the same way.
This leads us on to point 2, because when someone shares their experience with you that can set up what is known as expectancy. This can be good of course if someone shares positively about the sensations and you set up an expectancy of having similar feelings and that’s what happens. Not so great if the opposite occurs though. Also, no matter how you prepare for birth there is never a 100% guarantee that everything will go as you hoped because life throws us curve balls sometimes doesn’t it? The problem with this then is that you haven’t prepared emotionally for how to handle the curve ball(s) and so you can inadvertently exacerbate the ‘problem’.
Point 3 is linked to both your learnt behaviour around how you experience sensations in your body and the expectancy someone may have set up for you, as they can affect the emotional state you go into labour in. Your emotional state then impacts on how you experience the sensations in your body. If you think for a moment about times you’ve been in pain and you’ve been distracted by something that you’ve found funny it makes you momentarily forget doesn’t it, as does something that causes your mind to be fully immersed in a task or if something important needs your attention (assuming the pain isn’t physically affecting your abilities that is)? Labour and birth is the same. If you go into your birth experience fully focussed on how painful it is going to be then you are more likely to feel pain. That is the psychology of pain.
Point 4 is both linked to points 1 to 3 and stands alone in that no matter how we prepare birth will follow its own unique path. That sounds contradictory for someone who has written a birthing programme to help you prepare for birth doesn’t it, because if birth is always going to follow its unique path, why bother preparing at all? The reason being is that points 1 to 3 can inadvertently cause you to have a difficult birth and that is what preparing for birth in the right way can help you avoid. You see your mind through your emotional state can cause difficulties during labour through its impact on your hormones. The good news is that for the same reason your mind can also help you have a more positive experience too. It doesn’t stop the curve balls though. And it’s the curve balls that have women believing that they failed because traditional hypnobirthing and other birth preparation classes don’t talk to you about that. They say if you prepare and practice, practice, practice you will have a great birth. I am here to tell you though that just isn’t true.
As I’ve have said above though your mind can absolutely hinder or help your birth experience and never more so in fact when life throws you one of those curve balls. Because if you are able to remain emotionally in control when they turn up you are in the best position to stay in control of the direction that your birth takes, by being able to ask questions and making informed decisions.
This makes a huge difference on how you feel about your birth experience and can be the very real difference between feeling traumatised by that experience or not.
That is why when I wrote The Wise Hippo Birthing Programme my focus was you having ‘the right birth on the day’. This is how I answer the question “how can I be best prepared to handle my labour and birth experience?”