Dear Expectant Mama: What You Should Know about the Benefits of Natural Birth {An Introduction}

I am not a medical professional. Please research your options and discuss them with your care provider when making health decisions. This post may contain affiliate links. This means that if you make a purchase, I may make a small commission at no additional cost to you. Thank you for supporting this free resource! See full disclosure here.

This post is the first in a series on the benefits of natural birth. I have purposefully allowed for flexibility in the term “natural”, as we will specifically be examining the benefits of each of the main components of what is usually considered a natural birth.  See full disclosure here.

Natural birth.

It’s a term that can elicit all kinds of feelings. Often seen as an ideal, women sometimes feel pressure to try for a natural birth while others are happy to avoid it at all costs. For those who do want a natural birth, there are many barriers that may stand in the way, so actually achieving it usually takes some preparation and determination.

For those who want to avoid a natural birth, there is sometimes a lack of knowledge of the benefits and a perception that a medicated or surgical birth is safer. And some are aware of the benefits but consider the benefits of medicated birth to be greater (which is fine!).

If you’re expecting a baby, knowing the benefits of natural birth is part of being able to make a thoughtful, well-informed decision about your care and your birth.

So, what makes a birth “natural”?

Usually when someone tells us she had a natural birth, we make a few assumptions.

1) We assume she had a vaginal birth.

2) We assume she had an unmedicated birth. Or that even if there was some medication involved, such as Pitocin for an induction or antibiotics for group B strep, she didn’t have an epidural or other pharmacological pain relief.

3) Some of us also assume that she had a low-intervention birth.

These are some pretty fair assumptions to make, but let me be clear, “natural” does not equal “better”. Nor does having a natural birth guarantee a joyful birth, a fearless birth, a satisfying birth, an empowering birth, or any other positive quality we might hope for. A natural birth may be all of those things. But it might not be. And having a medicated birth or a surgical birth also has every potential of being a positive, joyful, empowering experience.

Additionally, it’s pretty natural to want to avoid pain, especially here in the US where most of us are slow to embrace the value of pain and its transformative power. The pain of birth is pain with a purpose. It’s pain that you can handle. It’s pain that can empower you. But it’s still pain. And unless you’ve got some pretty compelling reasons, it’s not the kind of pain that you’re probably gonna just breeze through.

It’s also really natural to want to protect yourself and your baby from harm. Self-preservation is a normal and healthy instinct, and while medication and surgery during birth are currently overused in the US, in the face of a birth-related emergency they can truly save your life or the life of your baby. I don’t know one mother, even the most committed to a natural birth, who wouldn’t willingly undergo surgery or medication or suffering if it truly meant saving the life of her baby. We mothers are fierce protectors of our young.

So my intent here is never to cause a mother to feel guilt or shame because she doesn’t want or didn’t have a natural birth, whatever the reason. It’s not to crusade for a certain kind of birth. There are so many facets of what makes a birth safe and satisfying and joyful, and human beings are so complex with their own sets of experiences, fears, and desires, that I am not willing to say natural birth is best, or even good, for everyone. The risks and benefits of any birth choice go beyond the physical health of the mother and baby to encompass the emotional health of both of them.

I want you to be aware of the benefits of natural birth, and from there, examine your own heart and your own values and make choices that are good for you and good for your baby. You are capable of that and it is your right as a woman and a mother. Even when aspects of birth don’t go as desired, being an active part of the decision-making process is key in producing a satisfying birth experience. And what I want for you, dear expectant mama, is a satisfying birth.

Resources:

Painless Birth and Pain Perception During Childbirth podcast from Evidence Based Birth. Though the focus of this podcast is painless birth, it includes a ton of fascinating information on maternal satisfaction during birth.

References:

Romano AM. First, Do No Harm: How Routine Interventions, Common Restrictions, and the Organization of Our Health-Care System Affect the Health of Mothers and Newborns. The Journal of Perinatal Education. 2009;18(3):58-62. doi:10.1624/105812409X461243.

Goldberg H. Informed Decision Making in Maternity Care. The Journal of Perinatal Education. 2009;18(1):32-40. doi:10.1624/105812409X396219.
Cook K, Loomis C. The Impact of Choice and Control on Women’s Childbirth Experiences. The Journal of Perinatal Education. 2012;21(3):158-168. doi:10.1891/1058-1243.21.3.158.

BirthTruths: The Truth About You

I am not a medical professional. Nothing on this website is meant to treat, diagnose, prevent or cure any disease. Please research your options and discuss them with your care provider when making health decisions. This post may contain affiliate links. This means that if you make a purchase, I may make a small commission at no additional cost to you. Thank you for supporting this free resource! See full disclosure here.

Giving birth is a huge challenge, no matter how you do it. But sometimes our preconceived ideas about ourselves limit what we think we’re capable of in birth. So, dear expectant mama, here are a few truths in case you’re in need of encouragement.

#1 Your body is designed to birth babies. As Ina May says,

“Your body is not a lemon. You are not a machine. The Creator is not a careless mechanic.”

The fact that you exist proves that you have come from a long line of women who successfully gave birth. Genetics are on your side. Just like any other function of the body, the function of birth usually works like it’s supposed to, just like your heart beats like it’s supposed to and your lungs breathe like they’re supposed to. Of course, complications can arise, and it’s smart to be prepared for them. But until there is a complication, there’s no reason to think that you won’t be able to give birth the way you want to.

#2 You are capable of making good decisions about pain relief, medical interventions, and any other aspect of your care during pregnancy and birth. You are smart and loving and have more invested in your baby than anyone else does. You can choose a good care provider and the right birth setting. You can make educated decisions about risks and benefits of a medicated or an unmedicated birth. You can choose how to prepare for birth, both for how you want it to happen and for how it might happen. Birth is unpredictable, and nothing can guarantee it going the way you hope for, but that doesn’t mean your choices and the way you prepare doesn’t make a big difference. The decision-making power is yours.

#3 You are capable of meeting the challenge of unmedicated birth, including the pain. You don’t have to be extraordinary to give birth without pain medication. Women with many different strengths, weaknesses, personalities, and pain tolerances have been giving birth for thousands of years before you. It’s not an unusual thing. A hard thing, yes, but so very normal. It’s ok to not want to give birth naturally, to not want to experience the pain. But if you do want an unmedicated birth, know that you have it in you to do it.

#4 The way you think about pain matters. Your expectations can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. It will be hard, but hard doesn’t have to mean horrible. Labor will probably start out simply uncomfortable. There’s no need to think of it as painful before it actually is.

Sometimes the language we use around labor and birth feels negative and changing some of the common vocabulary can help to reframe the pain. Some women choose to call contractions “surges” or “waves” instead of contractions, carrying the idea of needing to ride it as a powerful force. There is a climb, a peak, and then a downhill that gets easier.

If I may quote Ina May again, she calls it “an intense feeling that requires all of your focus.” Thinking about pain and contractions in a more positive way may not eliminate the pain, but it can make the intensity feel less overwhelming and something you’re able to flow with and surrender to with more ease.

#5 Your values around pain matter. In American culture it’s very common to avoid pain and discomfort as much as possible, to assume something that is uncomfortable to feel is necessarily bad, abnormal, or harmful. Especially in women, it’s common to medicate normal feelings away. Mayim Bialik touched on this when she wrote,

“The vocalizing and emotional experience that is commonly referred to as “complaining,” “screaming,” or “suffering” is a normal part of labor. Birth is not neat and fast and quiet: it’s gritty and primal. But it’s nothing to fear unless you also think we ought to fear women crying when they are sad or laughing when they are happy.”

In her book, “Natural Hospital Birth”, Cynthia Gabriel shares her experience of observing childbirth in Russia.

“… our culture doesn’t teach us that birth pain leads to something valuable. Our society fails to recognize the merit of most pain, not just birth pain, and we go to great lengths to avoid unpleasant feelings. So many North American women have experienced the pain of labor, and then an epidural, that our collective memory about birth is now full of hurt but is missing the feelings of ecstasy and success that natural birth provides. In Russia, by contrast, suffering is considered an admirable pathway to becoming a better person. Russians from all walks of life can speak eloquently about positive transformation through pain. Russia is not unique. Most other cultures in the world provide a lifelong message to girls and women that the physical labor of birth is not just valuable, it is heroic.”

It’s rare in American culture for pain to be seen as a valuable experience, something you can grow from, or a journey of transformation.

#6 You can experience pain and joy simultaneously. They are not mutually exclusive. Pain may very well be part of your birth experience. Even if you are planning on an epidural or other pain relief, you will likely feel some discomfort.

But pain is not all there is. So many other feelings can coexist alongside and intertwined with pain. Some, like fear, dread, and anxiety are not pleasant to feel, and can even make your labor harder. But they may be part of your journey, and there is no shame in that. Walk that hard path if you need to.

But other feelings can coexist with pain, too.

Excitement.

Courage.

Empowerment.

Pride.

Confidence.

Connectedness.

Joy.

Feel what is real. Don’t let the difficult feelings crowd out the beautiful ones. Let them intermingle. They are all transformative.

If you would like to delve deeper into these topics, subscribe here for a free Brave Womanhood Reflection Worksheet!

BirthTruths: The Truth About Pain

I am not a medical professional. Please research your options and discuss them with your care provider when making health decisions. This post may contain affiliate links. This means that if you make a purchase, I may make a small commission at no additional cost to you. Thank you for supporting this free resource! See full disclosure here.

All women have a pool of knowledge, beliefs, and ideas around childbirth that come from a variety of sources. We consciously or subconsciously receive messages from the media, entertainment, our family, friends, and peers, and from the collective memory of the women around us, and those messages influence our own thoughts and feelings about giving birth. Within this pool of knowledge, the fact that childbirth is painful is often at the forefront.

Barriers

Many women express a desire to have a “natural” birth. The definition can vary woman to woman, but often what is meant is an unmedicated, vaginal birth.

A lack of realistic expectations about pain in birth and about the determination required of you to move through labor without pain medication can create a barrier to achieving this desire. As can a lack of knowledge of your own capabilities, a lack of a confident and supportive birth team, a lack of physical and emotional preparation, and a lack of effective coping measures during labor. But those are posts for another day.

So if you’re hoping for an unmedicated birth or if you’re just thinking about it and you’re wondering what to expect in the pain department, read on.

#1 The pain of birth is normal and purposeful. It’s normal because bringing a baby into the world is intensely hard work for your body, along with your mind and heart. It’s hard like running a marathon is hard or like completing a thesis is hard or like facing great uncertainty is hard. But every contraction brings your baby closer, and pain is just a sign that your body is doing that hard work.

#2 The pain of birth is really intense and legitimately one of the hardest things you’ll probably ever do. Though some women experience painless birth, that is not the norm. There will be times when you will want to give up, and that’s totally normal. Overcoming the painful and overwhelmingly difficult parts of labor will require determination, endurance, and courage from you.

#3 The pain of birth is temporary. It may feel overwhelming and never-ending, but taking labor moment by moment instead of thinking about how long it might last can help it feel less so. In the grand scheme of things, the pain of labor is relatively brief. It won’t last forever. You can do anything for five minutes. And then you can do it again.

#4 Your perception of the pain of birth is dramatically influenced by your hormones and emotions. The physical pain of labor is real, but feeling helpless, afraid, unsafe, or stressed can drastically intensify those feelings. Feeling fearful inhibits the helpful hormones of labor and increases pain. Feeling safe, supported, and respected helps your body produce the oxytocin and endorphins that help reduce pain and make labor effective.

#5 Most women will experience parts of labor as not painful. Usually there is a break between contractions that may be uncomfortable but not painful. Those breaks will give you a chance to catch your breath and perhaps rest a little.

Note: There are some factors that can reduce those breaks, such as having a posterior baby or being on synthetic oxytocin. Having back pain in between contractions with a posterior baby is not unusual, but it’s rarely as intense as contractions. Leaning forward over a bed, counter, or exercise ball can help your posterior baby turn and take the pressure of your back.

If you are on synthetic oxytocin (Pitocin) to induce labor or speed it up, your contractions may be longer, stronger, and closer together with little break in between. You may be able to have the Pitocin turned down, and if you want an unmedicated birth, you may want to consider avoiding induction and augmentation altogether if there is no medical indication.

#6 The harder it gets, usually the closer you are to giving birth. When those breaks do start getting shorter or disappearing completely, you are probably getting really close to pushing. During transition (the last phase of active labor and final few centimeters of dilation before pushing) you may feel like you simply can’t do it even if you’ve been coping really well up until that point. You may cry, feel overwhelmed, and be ready to throw in the towel. Be prepared for this. Some women feel the emotions of transition as they go from early labor to active labor as well. This is all a very normal part of the process and can be seen as an encouragement that you are going to meet your baby soon!

#7 Sometimes the pain of birth is unusually difficult. There is such a thing as an unusually painful labor, and there is a difference between pain and suffering. There are times when pharmacological pain management is absolutely the best thing for a mother and helps to facilitate a safe and satisfying birth. It’s ok to want and plan on medical pain relief. And if you were hoping and preparing for an unmedicated birth and end up needing or wanting medical pain relief, it’s ok to be disappointed. It’s also ok to feel happy and at peace with your choice. To face choices and circumstances in birth that you had hoped to avoid takes its own kind of courage and endurance.

I want to hear about your experience! Was the pain of labor what you expected? Let me know in the comments!

Recommended Resources

Pain Medications Preference Scale by Penny SimkinThis tool is great for helping a woman think about her pain medication preferences during labor and communicating about them with her birth team.

Pain Management Series from Evidence Based Birth This podcast series is full of great information about scientific research on various aspects of pain and pain management during labor.