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How bad is labor pain? Why does giving birth hurt so much? What are some tips for labor pain management? Find the answers to these questions and more here.

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What Does Labor Pain Feel Like?

It’s one of the biggest questions that people have about the childbirth process: What does labor pain feel like?

Much is made over the pain that women experience when giving birth, from Biblical tales of sin repentance to horror stories told to teenagers to dissuade from unprotected sex. There’s a lot of mystery about labor pain and childbirth, especially from those who have never or will never experience it. But, how bad is labor pain, really?

Like many aspects of pregnancy, the answer is: It varies. Every woman’s pregnancy and childbirth experience is unique, and so is her personal level of pain tolerance and what she feels while giving birth.

The best person to answer your questions about the level of pain during childbirth that you may experience will always be your personal obstetrician. They will know best what you can expect from your upcoming labor and delivery process and can best prepare you with proper pain management during labor. While the information below can be helpful, it should never be taken as medical advice. Always talk to your doctor for more information about your personal pregnancy.

In the meantime, we’ve answered some of the biggest questions women (and men) have about childbirth pain level to help you learn a bit more.

Does Giving Birth Hurt?

While we hesitate to ever give one answer about an experience that can be so different for different women, we’ll be honest: Without any medication, yes, it does hurt when you give birth. It’s completely normal and to be expected; your body goes through great changes during the labor and delivery process and you will, in turn, feel the effects of those great efforts.

So, why does giving birth hurt so much?

When you go into labor, the muscles in your uterus contract and put immense pressure on your cervix. The repeated contractions of these muscles will fatigue your body, both around your abdomen and elsewhere as your body tries to compensate. Muscle fatigue can be felt in the abdomen, groin, back, sides and thighs.

In addition to this fatigue, many women say the worst part of labor is when their baby’s head crowns — named by many “the ring of fire.” During this period, the tissue and muscle surrounding your vagina has to stretch, often to its maximum stretching capability. Many women feel like their skin is burning at this time, hence the nickname. Once the baby’s head emerges, the worst is over; there is usually a great relief from the pressure of pushing, and the baby often is born with only one or two more pushes.

You can see how the efforts of vaginal labor can cause pain, stress and fatigue for delivering mothers. However, the level of pain during childbirth that each woman experiences will depend upon her own preparation for labor and her pain tolerance during the childbirth process.

What Does Labor Pain Feel Like?

If you’ve been researching childbirth pain, you may see comments from women saying it’s unlike anything you’ve ever experienced or that the pain level is hard to describe. This can be frustrating if you want to know what to expect when you give birth.

So, what is childbirth pain compared to?

Many women compare childbirth pain level to other cramps in the abdomen: menstrual cramps, stomach cramps, diarrheal cramps and more. However, they describe the cramps during childbirth as much more intense than their worst menstrual or stomach cramps. Some describe the pain as the feeling of a deep internal “pulling” — like someone is trying to pull their internal organs outside their body. For many, the hardest part of the amount of pain during childbirth is that, as the contractions become closer together and last longer, there is little to no relief from the waves of pain.

As far as the actual delivery process, the pain of delivering the baby depends upon whether the baby is delivered vaginally or surgically through cesarean-section.

How Much Pain is Natural Childbirth?

As mentioned above, natural childbirth can be extremely painful, due to the “ring of fire” experience of birthing a baby’s large head through a much-smaller vaginal opening. There is always the potential for tearing of tissue during this moment, which can be painful both during and after the labor process.

However, many women who experience vaginal pain during labor do not experience it completely naturally. Many women utilize certain medications, such as epidurals and other analgesics, to numb the pain according to their desires. These medications can only be used when labor reaches a certain point, and many women report that they were incredibly relieved when the medications did kick in.

Like all medications, there are some pros and cons to using these kinds of anesthetics during labor, so always speak with your doctor to determine which options are right for your labor.

How Much Pain is a C-Section?

In contrast to a vaginal delivery, a cesarean delivery is completed when an expectant mother is completely anesthetized. This is because a C-section involves the cutting of your abdomen and moving of some internal organs while your baby and the placenta are lifted out. There will also be a curtain up between your face and the doctors by your abdomen to prevent you from seeing the more disconcerting parts of this surgery.

For many women, the only “pain” they feel during this procedure is a slight tugging and pulling in their abdomen as the surgeons do their work. However, there will be substantial recovery instructions as your body heals from the incision. You can expect varying levels of pain during your postpartum recovery; your uterine wall will still have to heal itself after the placenta has been detached, as well as the abdominal muscles that were cut to access your baby. Because of this, you may experience increased pain when coughing, sneezing and laughing.

Tips for Labor Pain Management

Preparing for childbirth can be an overwhelming process in itself but, when you are worried about how bad labor pain is, it’s hard to focus on anything else. Fortunately, there is labor pain relief available to you — you just need to learn more about pain management during labor when you are still in your second and third trimesters.

Childbirth classes and advice from your medical or delivery professional can be helpful in learning how to manage labor pain. In the meantime, here are some tips to keep in mind:

1. Focus on your breathing techniques.

Just as you would if you were exercising with weights or doing a cardio workout, it’s important to pay attention to your breathing while you are in labor. Proper breathing techniques can help you relax through the worst contractions. When you are focusing on your breath and slowly releasing it, you are focusing less on the pain you are feeling.

Attending childbirth classes and learning about helpful breathing techniques can be a great way to learn tips for painless delivery.

2. Relax your mind.

Breathing can help your body relax, but you need to let your mind relax as much as possible, too. It’s easy to get stressed out during labor, especially if this is your first delivery, but mental stress can lead to physical stress that affects your ability to safely deliver your baby. For example, when you tense up in anticipation of your next contraction, you actually make the pain worse. Focus on keeping your mind relaxed; turn down the lights in the room and turn on a soothing playlist to help you keep calm during your pregnancy labor pain.

3. Get moving.

Sometimes, sitting still and trying to relax leads you to focus more on your pain than you would otherwise. If this is the case with you, get up and start moving around. When you walk, sway, or change positions to ease labor pain, you focus on something other than the pain and help your labor progress by taking advantage of gravity. Try different labor positions to find out which is most comfortable for you; you may find yourself changing positions several times!

4. Use massage or water therapy.

Sometimes, you need outside factors to help you relax during labor. Many expectant mothers find that warm water and pressure of massage can relieve some of the worst labor pains. When you are making your birth plan, ask your delivery professional about the possibility of water therapy, or make notes about what kind of massage you want your partner to use while you are in labor (and make sure they practice ahead of time!).

5. Use your birthing partner.

Finally, remember that your birthing partner is there to serve as a helpful resource for pain relief during labor. If they attended childbirth classes with you, they will remember the techniques you both practiced, and they’ll be able to advocate for you during the most painful parts of the labor. You don’t have to go through labor alone; many women find that their birthing partners serve as their rocks during the hardest parts of childbirth and give them the physical and mental support they need as part of their labor pain management.

Want more labor pain management tips? Speak with your doctor or your delivery professional well before your third trimester to help prepare for this difficult but life-changing experience.