Be ready for your child’s birth by knowing what to expect

Quick notes

  • Breathing exercises, soothing music, meditation (or gas and medication) can help with pain

  • The brain is programmed to forget the intensity of pain during childbirth

  • Recover from pain or difficult labor by seeking the right support

If you’re reading this, it’s fair to assume you’re either pregnant for the first time or are planning to conceive. And of course, you can’t have a baby without the labor!

For almost all women, childbirth is the most intense pain to be experienced. For women who have a cesarean, only the cervical pain and contraction pain stages will be felt, which are still significant. However, in a complete vaginal birth, there are several stages, including the delivery of the placenta.

How much pain will I be in?

Whatever the stage of labor, your pain experience will depend on your thresholds. This is determined by your genes. For example, red-headed people have been observed to have lower pain thresholds.

Around 40 percent of women say it’s the most intense pain they’ve experienced.

Your life experiences (whether you’ve experienced painful conditions or injury in the past) will factor also. Lack of social support, and anxiety, or anticipation of high pain could also intensify your sensations.

Other things that can affect the intensity of labor pain are, of course, the length of the labor, your energy levels, whether your baby is face up or down (face down is the preferred position), and whether you have Pitocin, which is a condition that causes stronger contractions.

David Swift / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

When labor begins

Early labor pain starts when your cervix slowly opens to around three to four centimeters. Pain is often felt in the abdomen or back as contractions, which last 30-60 seconds, begin. They happen every 20 minutes at first, getting closer together as the labor progresses.

Early labor pain lasts for around six hours on average, and you will probably still be at home at this stage until the contractions increase in intensity and frequency.

The next stage of your labor can last between two to eight hours. As contractions become longer and stronger, around 5 minutes apart, your cervix has dilated to approximately 7 centimeters. At this stage, the pain has moved down toward the pelvic and vaginal area and is more intense. If you are planning on taking pain medication, this is the stage that it is typically requested.

Transition time

Next up is the transition labor pain – the last stage before you start to push. Your cervix has finished dilating to 10 centimeters, and contractions will be very close together. You might be feeling nauseous at this point, as well as experiencing pain through your groin, back, sides, and sometimes thighs.

This part usually lasts around an hour before you need to start pushing. For some women, the pushing only lasts a few minutes (especially if it’s not your first), but often, you’re usually pushing for an hour or so.

It’s important to follow the instructions of the medical team.

The intense pain of the increased contractions usually ease a little at this stage, and you will experience more pressure. There is usually a lot of relief felt when pushing. However, it’s essential to follow the instructions of the medical team, as pushing too hard too soon could cause tears.

The delivery

When your baby’s head crowns or starts to become visible, you may experience a burning, stinging sensation around the vaginal opening, perineum, and anus as the skin stretches.

Finally, after the hardest bit is done, you will need to deliver your placenta. This is usually done pretty quickly, with no longer than half an hour of mild cramps.

How can I prepare before I go into labor?

Childbirth classes are a must while you are expecting. There is no such thing as a stupid question in these sessions, and you will be surrounded by women who are in the same situation.

Classes will often cover dealing with pain during natural birth, as in one without medication. Strategies include walking about and the best positions to move around in, including a squat and child’s pose, the benefits of warm baths, and how you can practice rhythmic breathing exercises, hypnosis, relaxation, and massage.

Childbirth classes are a must.

Visualization is a popular method – for example, imagining your contractions as a beautiful, opening flower. Of course, childbirth with medication will be discussed, along with the pros and cons.

Don’t feel alone

As we mentioned above, company and support can help with pain during childbirth. So, consider a doula, which is sometimes provided by the hospital, or you can ask for recommendations at childbirth classes. Studies show that women who have doula support report to taking less pain medication and have a reduced chance of cesarean intervention than women who don’t.

This is because a doula is specially trained to bond with the mother and provide emotional care when she is at her most vulnerable. There are also lots of books and podcasts on the childbirth experience, but nothing beats real human contact.

What medical interventions are there?

With the best will in the world, medication-free births are not always possible. Nitrous oxide, or gas and air, is usually the first port of call, as it’s quite a weak form of medication.

Sometimes, just a small dose is needed to take the edge off contractions and help you relax.

Or, the doctor may intravenously provide painkillers. Sometimes, just a small dose is needed to take the edge off contractions and help you relax. The tenser you are, the harder it will be for your body to push the baby out. The use of IV medicines, however, make some people feel nauseous or sleepy, and could also make the baby drowsy.

What’s an epidural?

The most common form of pain relief is an epidural, with more than half of women having one during labor. An epidural is where a needle with a thin, plastic tube inside is inserted into your lower back. The tube remains by your spinal cord, with pain medication fed through to numb nerves that cause pain.

An epidural almost completely stops the pain, but around one in 10 women will still get a little. The most popular type of epidural is a walking epidural that allows you to wander around during labor.

“The tenser you are, the harder it will be for your body to push the baby out.”

You may long have held ideas about whether you were going to have medication or not, but when it comes down to childbirth, go easy on yourself.

The most important thing is to recognize the difference between pain and suffering. Pain can be managed, but if it becomes overwhelming and turns into suffering, it’s probably time to request help from meds.

The aim is the same: a healthy delivery. And whether you experience pain or not, you’ll still be left with the satisfaction that you achieved something great.

A deeper dive: related reading on the 101

How a doula can help you from pregnancy to motherhood | Parenting 101

What a doula does, and how one can help keep you and your baby healthy.

What to avoid when you’re pregnant | Parenting 101

Diet and lifestyle advice for a happy, healthy pregnancy.