Thoughts on Labor Pain from a Mom Who Birthed Naturally

My beautiful, big baby boy!
Photo courtesy Evie Marie (www.eviemarie.com)

For those of you who don’t know me, I had a beautiful, big baby boy last September. Not in a hospital, but in a birth center with a fantastic midwife, her student, an assistant, my husband, my doula, and my birth photographer there to cheer me on. You may very well think that I sound a little crazy, but birthing outside of a hospital with midwife was hands-down a choice I would make over and over again! Birthing outside of a hospital means doing it naturally–vaginally and without an epidural–which is something I have been asked about a lot in personal conversation and via email. I’ve written a similar email to several women who have birthed in both hospitals and birth centers that have asked for my opinion around a natural birth, so I thought I would blog the email, as it may come in handy for other mamas who are curious about what birth might look like without an epidural and what other options you may want to consider. And I’m not your doctor or your midwife, so obviously this is not me giving you medical advice! Rather, these are some of my thoughts from my pregnancy and labor that may give you ideas to help ask additional questions! So here it goes:

I’m really excited that you are taking some time to explore your options, rather than just doing what is “normal” across the US! We decided that a hospital birth was not a good fit for our family, so I knew early-on that I would not have the option of any pain medication, and I was originally very nervous about it. I ended up doing a TON of research when we were looking at an out of hospital birth, so I apologize ahead of time if this is more than you were hoping for! Bottom line (in case you get bored half way through this and decide to stop reading!) is that contractions were not NEARLY what I thought they would be (they felt like strong period cramps), and you can ABSOLUTELY do it without an epidural (and if anyone tells you otherwise, then they have no idea what they are talking about!). Ok, so here’s the long-winded version:

First, I wanted to tell you how flattered I am that you are even asking for my opinion! I absolutely love love LOVED my birth experience (every minute of it), so I am so grateful to get to share it with others. Also, please know that my experience was just that: MINE–that means that I made the decisions that I felt were best for me and my family, and your birth will belong to YOU and YOUR family, so no matter what you decide after reading this long essay that is about to follow 😉 I will be excited for your decision because I know it will be what you and your husband feel is right for you guys! And in the end, the most important thing is that your baby arrives on this earth healthy!

Second, I am very pro-natural birth and I feel that all women should be encouraged in their decision to go that route, so WARNING: you’re not going to read a lot of positives below about epidurals from me! In order to give you my opinion, I’m going to have to start from the beginning:

I have always had very painful menstrual cramps, and growing up, people used to tell me that meant that I would have a much harder labor (which I now know to be false), so my feelings on epidurals have always been “Sign me up! I don’t like pain, and if you have a way to get a baby out of me without pain, then please proceed!” As per the usual, enter The Chiropractor–My husband has a very holistic approach to health because of his chiropractic background, and he didn’t want me to have any drugs. Before we got pregnant, I told him I would consider it, but ultimately it was my body and my decision (which I now see was very selfish of me because Luke is his baby too; not to mention that my decisions were going to affect Luke, who wasn’t big enough to make decisions on his own!). So, when we got pregnant, I started looking for the right doctor or midwife to deliver my baby in a hospital. We went to several interview appointments, and every hospital we visited had a very cold feeling to them, and I was having a hard time finding anyone that I wanted to help deliver my baby because I felt like “just another patient.” That was when we started looking outside of a hospital. I knew that if I chose to birth outside of a hospital that drugs wouldn’t be an option, so I had to decide what was more important to me: personalized care for 40+ weeks, or pain relief on a single day. To me, the long-term care was more important, so we went with a birth center and a midwife that I LOVED.

Birthing at a birth center seemed right to me, but I had two major fears: pain during labor and birth & the fear of something being wrong with the baby. The birth center we chose was just a few minutes from a hospital with a well-respected maternity doctor & NICU, so that cleared up fear #2 for me (and, as I learned throughout my pregnancy, child birth is not an “emergency” situation; it is very natural–after all, women in Africa have been giving birth to healthy babies in fields for years! I know that is the extreme, but it still made me feel better!). All I had left to do was tackle fear #1, which proved to be a long road for me. So the first thing I thought I should do was to understand what I was “missing out on” with an epidural, and what I found shocked me. Every doctor and midwife in a hospital setting that I had talked to had reassured me that epidurals were extremely safe and would not affect my baby. That didn’t really make sense to me because I knew that I was spending so much time watching what I was eating and drinking for 40 weeks because the baby was getting all of its nutrients from me…how could the drugs not affect the baby in some way? Of what I read, here are a few things that stood out to me the most:

1. Epidurals can cause longer labors with slower progress: this makes sense because you can’t feel what you’re doing. If you can’t feel when to push and rely on machines to tell you when to do so, you sometimes aren’t able to give extremely effective pushes (which can lead to further complications like fetal distress). I don’t know about you, but I wanted labor to be over as quickly as possible (before I was in it!), and I trust my body more than a machine anyway 🙂 It is really amazing how you just “know” how hard and long to push (I would also advise to ask if you can push as you feel it necessary, rather than pushing for counts of 10 like you often see on TV or in the movies)
2. When you have an epidural, you can no longer walk around: for me, movement during labor was a key way to reducing my pain (more about that later)
3. Epidurals can cause initial latching problems when breastfeeding: The drugs absolutely get to your baby, and it can make babies kind of lethargic. Check out the video showing the “breast crawl“–babies actually have the ability to crawl toward their food source shortly after birth (it is pretty crazy and really cool!). When babies are put on momma’s tummy after birth and allowed to crawl, it also help to expel the placenta faster, as well. There is another video out there called Delivery Self Attachment by Lennart Righard, M.D. It shows epidural and non-epidural babies, and the non-epidural babies perform the crawl beautifully, while the epidural babies kind of just lay there like beached whales…it made me sad 😦

Ok, so I decided that maybe I wasn’t missing out on much with an epidural–EXCEPT THE PAIN RELIEF! I was still not looking forward to being in pain, so now what was I going to do? My midwife explained to me the benefits of laboring in water, which was a great relief for me! Also, being allowed to labor in whatever position I wanted to (standing, kneeling, walking, on all fours, etc) made a HUGE difference for me. I don’t know if I would be having the same conversation with you if I “had” to lay on my back. You may want to check with your doctor/midwife to see what restrictions the hospital has as far as movement goes so you know ahead of time. I put “had” in quotation marks because I want you to understand that this is very much YOUR birth…the hospital may try to put restrictions on you, so you may want to write a birth plan ahead of time about what you do/don’t want, and if you (or your husband) need to raise a little hell to get what you want while you are in labor–DO IT! You won’t regret it! I would also encourage you to hire a doula, who is there to offer you support during labor and make sure your wishes are carried out. She in no way replaces your husband’s important role, but she acts as a support and allows him to not have to worry about “in the moment” decision-making. Andrew was so thankful for our doula after our labor because she took some of the pressure off of him, and he was really just able to focus on me and the baby! She can also come to your house before you go to the hospital to help you decide when it is time to go so you don’t get sent home for not being far enough along, and she can show you different positions to labor in as well as pain-relief techniques. Another thing that I really encourage you to do ahead of time is decide whether or not you want the epidural…it is a lot harder to say “no” when someone offers you pain relief when you are IN pain. I didn’t have the option of that extreme of a pain reliever, but I believe it would have been more difficult to refuse it had I been asked while I was in labor. (I read one time about a mom who put a sign on her hospital door that said “Labor in progress: please do not offer pain medication, but love and encouragement are welcome!”–I love that!)

Complete relaxation is a great way to relieve pain, as well. Here is an exercise that I learned while I was pregnant: spend 5 or so minutes laying on your bed, floor, wherever is comfortable and COMPLETELY relaxing. Have him slowly squeeze your thigh just above your knee starting lightly and ending as hard as he can over the course of about 30-40 seconds and just breathe through it (simulating feeling pain for the duration of a contraction). Then, sit up and have him do it a second time. What you should find is that the second time, it will hurt more because you are more aware of your surroundings and not completely relaxed. If you have trouble areas that you hold tension in, have your husband remind you to relax those points during labor, as well.

Ok, so we talked about all of this pain relief for contractions, but I didn’t really tell you about my contractions (maybe this part should have been first!). This is where I was thankful for my painful menstrual cramps! My contractions felt like strong menstrual cramps, so I feel like all of those years of having periods MORE than prepared me for labor! The benefit of contractions is that they aren’t constant: they only last for short bursts and then they go away. I found a lot of comfort in focusing only on the contraction that I was having in that moment and not worrying about how many more I would have to endure. And when each one was over, I tried to remind myself (and Andrew helped remind me) that I would never have to have that contraction again and I was one closer to meeting my baby. You know your body best, but my vote is that you can TOTALLY handle the pain! Our bodies were made to do it! There are some great articles out there about the purpose of pain during labor that really helped me.

I told you about epidurals and contractions, but another one of my fears was the pain of crowning. Luckily, my doula reminded me that crowning and stretching can last only 5-10 minutes if you are pushing effectively (which you can do without an epidural blocking your sensations of when to push!), so the good news is that this is the shortest part of labor (yay!). I will tell you that this is where I felt the most discomfort, but again, it was not unbearable. I have heard it described as a “ring of fire,” and I think that is a pretty accurate description. One thing that my midwives did to relieve pain was to apply warm compresses to my perineum as I pushed to help the skin stretch slowly. It never hurts to ask your doctor/midwife if he/she knows about these compresses, as well.

The key to making this as comfortable as possible is having the skin stretch slowly, as fast stretching can cause tearing. Your skin is able to stretch better when you have taken good care of yourself throughout pregnancy. A healthy diet (like 85% fruits and veggies, lean protein, and very little carbs), TONS of water, and exercise can go a LONG way here! Also, I am a big fan of not only prenatals, along with fish oil, but also high-dose vitamin C. I was taking around 8000 mg/day by the end of my pregnancy, but I built up to that over 40 weeks. Taking too much at once can cause diarrhea, but you could start by taking 1000-2000mg/day which will help the integrity of your skin (it also has been shown to shorten labor duration, as well). The skin will also stretch slowly if you can feel yourself pushing…you can control how hard you push and when you need to pause! Slow stretching can minimize tearing, as well.

You may also be wondering about an episiotomy. An episiotomy was explained to me this way: think of trying to tear a piece of fabric into two pieces–it is hard, but you can do it. Now cut a slit at the top of the fabric and then try tearing–it will happen much easier. An episiotomy is the same way: if you are cut, you can tear much easier, as well (which doesn’t sound fun to me!). Also, it is easier for the skin to heal from tearing as jagged skin intertwines back together easier than straight edges made from scissors, so you may want to talk to your doctor about what his/her feelings on episiotomies are (how often he/she performs them; when he/she feels they are necessary; and make sure that he/she knows that it is only ok to cut one if YOU give permission!)

Finally, above everything else, my pregnancy, labor, and delivery were a spiritual journey for me (especially in the 15 days after my “due date”). I was able to offer my pregnancy up to God in thanksgiving for everything he had given to me. I learned so much about humility, trust, and surrender. God is incapable of creating anything that is imperfect (although we, as humans, are VERY capable of creating imperfections!). He created us in His image and likeness, and He created our bodies to be able to bear children. He allowed us to conceive, helped us to carry a child for 40+ weeks, so I cannot imagine how he would create a child that was too large to emerge from our bodies. He has created your baby to be just the right size to come out of your body, and He has given you the strength and grace to birth your baby. God is so amazing and so great! I am a testament of His complete love for us: He gave me extra time to grow my child, helped me through a beautiful 8 hour labor, and met me on the other side to deliver an 9lb 6oz baby boy with absolutely no tearing (and no episiotomy). He has now given me the opportunity to share my story with you, for which I am so thankful. You absolutely can do anything that you set your mind to with God’s grace to guide you.

And know that you are already and AWESOME mommy to your baby because you are working to understand all of your options before making an informed decision. Way to go, momma!

Also wanted to include links to a couple of short, well-researched articles for additional information (also check out the purpose of pain during labor link in the body of the blog):

Epidurals: Facts, Implications, and Alternatives by Kate Englehardt, DC, DACCP

The Epidural Epidemic by Jeanne Ohm, DC, FICPA

A Great Example of a Shift in Opinions

I started this blog last week, and have just now gotten around to finishing it! Earlier in the week Time Magazine put out a cover (along with an article) that is certainly making waves. It depicts a blond mom, breastfeeding her son–who happens to be 3 years old and standing on a chair in front of her:

Time Magazine, May 21, 2012

This photo is an awesome example of my shift in perspective, so I felt like it was worth a blog post. The photo is meant to catch your eye. A couple of years ago, I would have responded with “ewww–this is so wierd!” I pretty much thought that breastfeeding, in general, was weird. Every baby I had ever babysat and every baby in my family had been formula fed: you put filtered water in a bottle, added powder, and shook it–and ta-da, baby was happy! Because that is what I knew, that is what I assumed I would do when I had children. Of course, “the chiropractor” had different thoughts about my plans!

In school, he got to learn about all of the benefits of breastfeeding (and “extended breastfeeding”) that I didn’t know existed. Also news to me was that the number of nutrients in breast milk is much higher than those in formula (the formula marketing campaigns totally had me believing that formula was like a powdered version of breast milk!). So he had some very strong arguments for breastfeeding, but if you know me, you know that practicality is what makes something “golden” in my book, so initially, the benefits that I saw in breastfeeding were that a) it was supposed to be healthy for my baby, b) it didn’t cost me a thing, and c) it was going to help me lose weight after the baby was born! Sign me up–this was going to be easy!

Since this blog is all about my eating my words, you won’t be shocked to learn that breastfeeding was not easy for me. Luke had lip and tongue ties (the most helpful, mom-friendly information I have found on this issue has been on my friend Dr. Cindy’s blog), and he was also a pretty big baby (9lbs 6oz), and he was a little squished inside of me, so his jaw was misaligned when he was born, making it nearly impossible for him to latch. We struggled…oh, boy, did we struggle! (In fact we struggled so much, that I think there will be another post about that down the road…).

Basically, I hated breastfeeding. I resented it. I saw moms breastfeeding their babies, and this silent jealousy came out of me. I didn’t know how I would ever keep going. For some reason I had put this deadline in my head of “I will breastfeed until my baby is one year old,” but I didn’t see how I was going to make it a month!

While “the chiropractor” has never breastfed a baby (**giggles** the thought of “the chiropractor trying to breastfeed a baby…teehee), he offered tremendous amounts of encouragement to keep me going. My doula was also an amazing source of help and comfort, and at some point, I realized that Luke and I might just have a tricky nursing relationship, and we would just have to learn to deal with it! I kept going because I knew it was the healthiest option for him.

So will I stop nursing him on his first birthday? Unless he decides to stop, no. First of all, we’ve worked too darn hard (and we’ve both cried too many tears!) over breastfeeding to stop after a year, and second–wouldn’t that be the WORST birthday ever?! I mean, “Happy birthday, Luke! Now that you are one, I am going to take away your main food source and a good source of comfort! You’re a big boy now–good luck!” Eh, I think I’ll wait a little longer. Do I have an end-date in sight? No, but it will happen when it is time.

So as for that picture on the cover of Time–maybe that momma and baby had a tough nursing relationship, too; who am I to judge? If they need a little longer, go for it. We all have to do what we feel is best for our babies. I’m not sure that Time was trying to bring up lots of positive breastfeeding sentiment by publishing that cover, but at least they have people talking.

And (I can picture my family cringing as I write this!), if you run into me still nursing Luke in another year or two, know that I am doing what I feel is best for his little immune system and his growth (physically and emotionally). And if in a year or two, I’m NOT still nursing him, more than likely Luke has told me, “Momma, I’m a big boy now–good luck!”