Every pregnant woman is wondering how painful is childbirth in a natural delivery. Being a mom of three beautiful daughters, I exactly know what it felt like to push another human being out of my vagina.
Childbirth through vaginal delivery is as painful as breaking 20 bones all at the same time. Although there is no unit measurement for pain, most hospitals use the Wong–Baker Pain Faces Rating Scale. The scale shows a series of faces representing 0 for no pain and 10 for the worst pain imaginable.
Childbirth through natural delivery will hit the scale of ten, and most women would agree with it. Moreover, there is no way we can explain the pain of childbirth. The pain varies based on a variety of factors.
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Factors that Affect How Painful is Childbirth In Natural Delivery
We always hear every childbirth story is different. The pain that comes with it also varies based on various factors, which include the following:
- The shape of your pelvic bones. There are different pelvic shapes. Some are ideal and easier for childbirth; others are not.
- The birthing position. One of the significant factors that affect how painful is childbirth is your position when you give birth. Most women lie on their back which closes their pelvis by 30 percent, making labour longer and painful compared to women who give birth in ‘squatting’ position.
- Your baby’s position. Whether your little one is cephalic, breech, head down or head up will have an impact on how painful is childbirth through vaginal delivery.
- The timing of when your water broke. Usually, before active labour begins, your water will break. When that happens, the liquid will help ease baby slowly down the birth canal. Contractions can become less painful and less intense, making it easier for you to deliver your baby.
- Stress levels. Mental stress can add up to the physical pain you are experiencing during natural birth. Women who are restless during delivery will have a hard time dealing with distress.
- Dehydration. Water plays a vital role in natural childbirth delivery. Keeping yourself hydrated is a must. Dehydrated women often experience more painful and intense delivery.
How Does Your Body Prepare for Childbirth?
Childbirth is an extraordinary and fulfilling moment, but it is not as easy as it sounds, and it is not for the faint-hearted. Complications may arise during delivery, but don’t worry: our body is designed to give birth. Your hormones, powerful muscles, pelvic bones, and more are working hard to deliver the baby you’ve carried for nine months inside your womb.
Here are some of the preparations your body has done in order to prepare both your body and your baby for the big day:
Braxton Hicks Contractions
Known as practice contractions, this is your uterus having contractions from time to time. They are not painful, and it can happen anytime during the last few weeks of your pregnancy. It is our body’s way to prepare our uterus and the muscles around it for labour.
You will have Braxton Hicks regularly as you get closer to the big day. But unlike labour, these practice contractions do not affect the shape of your cervix. First-time moms often mistake Braxton Hicks as the ‘actual’ labour. Moms often rush to the hospital when they feel a series of contractions within an hour, only to be sent back home because these are just Braxton Hicks.
By doing a vaginal examination, your doctor can tell if you are really in actual labour or it is just some Braxton Hicks. Inserting two fingers in your vagina is their way of knowing how thin your cervix is and how wide is the opening of your birth canal. The procedure is a little bit painful, and doctors do these vaginal exams regularly up until you are in actual labour.
Effacement and Dilation of Cervix
In preparation for childbirth, your cervix and the muscles around it softens and become thinner, which is also known as effacement. The dilation of your cervix follows, where cervical muscles will open and widen, making it easier for your baby to move into the birth canal.
During the last few weeks of your pregnancy, your baby will head down and engage into your pelvic area. Also known as lightening, this is your baby’s way of positioning itself and getting ready for birth. The engagement of your baby down to your pelvic area relieves the pressure on the lungs and diaphragm. When this occurs, your body will feel relief. Moms will feel that they have more room to breathe. It usually happens two to three weeks before the big day.
Rupture of the Membranes
Usually, at the beginning of your labour, your membranes will rupture. It is also known as your ‘water breaking’. For most women, regular and painful contractions can be a warning that your water will break soon. For others that are already in the active labour phase, the pain that comes with active labour can distract moms from noticing that their water is breaking.
When this happens, you will feel like something inside you has popped, followed by a slow trickle or a gush of fluid. For strangers, it will look like you peed in your pants. No matter how surprised you are at this moment, take note of the fluid coming out from you. The colour is usually light yellow. If you see it is greenish or reddish, be sure to inform your doctor right away. It is typically a sign that something’s wrong inside, and your baby might be having some problems in there.
If your water broke and regular contractions did not start in the next 24 hours, your labour will be induced to minimise the risk of infection.
Early Signs Of Labour
We always hear and read the phrase, ‘Every labour is different’. I couldn't agree more. Technically every woman is different in our unique way. Most women would like to know exactly when their baby is coming, how long will labour take and how painful is childbirth. It’s hard to provide a categorical answer to these questions because every birthing experience is different.
But nothing beats a prepared and well-informed mom. No warrior will fight a battle without proper preparation. Being on top of your pregnancy and childbirth journey is a rewarding feeling. It gives a sense of empowerment and can minimise the pain that comes with childbirth.
Be mentally prepared and pay close attention to these early signs. It will help you know if it’s almost time to meet your little bundle of joy!
Have you had sudden urges to clean and organise everything? Nesting instincts usually happen weeks before delivery. It is an irresistible urge to clean and arrange everything in sight. You will set up the nursery again, throw out some things, mop the floor twice a day, and do the laundry.
Considered one of the less known early signs of labour, nesting is your body’s way of telling that the baby is coming and you need to prepare for its arrival.
Usually, your baby will drop and engage down to your pelvic area three to four weeks before your labour begins. It will make you feel ‘lighter’. The pressure on your lungs and diaphragm starts to diminish, making it easier for you to breath.
The downside that comes with lightening is that you’ll have more trips to the bathroom as your baby adds more pressure on your bladder.
As part of your body’s preparation for birth, you will release a hormone that will make your tummy and pelvic muscles relax including those muscles around your rectum, causing you to have diarrhea. Amazingly, it is your body’s way of clearing up your bowels and preparing every muscle down there for labour and childbirth.
Stay away from dehydration by keeping yourself hydrated at all times. Dehydration is one of the factors that affect how painful is childbirth to you. It will get annoying because this means additional trips on top of your frequent trips to the bathroom.
Lower Back Pain
To gear up and prepare for childbirth, your muscles and joints will start to stretch and shift. Your little one will drop lower and will add extra pressure to your pelvic area. As labour approaches, you will notice an increase in pelvic pain as well as increased lower back pains. The way your muscles, your joints and your bones shift and adjust plays a big part in determining how painful is childbirth for you.
Stronger and More Frequent Contraction
One of the most manifest early signs of labour is contractions. But you need to know the difference between real contractions and Braxton Hicks contractions. Braxton Hicks contractions are pain-free and irregular. Real contractions, on the other hand:
- get stronger, instead of easing up, when you move,
- do not go away no matter how much you change your position, and
- come in a regular rhythm, get more painful, and builds up in intensity as time goes by.
When I was in early labour, the contractions felt like a strong menstrual cramp. I also lost my appetite that day because my stomach feels funny, and I felt like throwing up every time I put something in my mouth. To divert my attention and relieve the discomfort, I tried walking it off at a nearby park. Unfortunately, the pain won’t go away, and it intensifies every time I move around.
Dilation and Effacement of Your Cervix
Everything in your body is preparing for the big day. Your cervix is very busy preparing for delivery. The dilation (opening) and effacement (thinning) of your cervix also play a big part in determining how painful is childbirth for you.
The last few weeks of your prenatal will include a vaginal exam to measure how thin and dilated your cervix is. When I was carrying my first kid, I find this procedure nasty, embarrassing, and a little bit painful. Your OBGYN will grab some gloves and stick two fingers in your vagina. Your doctor will twist, dig and expand their fingers inside to physically examine how thin and how dilated your cervix is.
I have some spotting and some vaginal pain after the procedure. Try not to worry: the spotting will stop after a day. The pain is minimal, and it’s nothing compared to the actual childbirth pain you’ll experience in the next coming days.
Changes in Your Vaginal Discharge
You’ll observe an increase in vaginal discharge a few days before your labour starts. This thick, pinkish discharge is called the bloody show. It could mean that labour is only a few hours away and your uterus will start to dilate to three or four centimetres.
As your cervix becomes thinner, you will also lose your mucus plug. It is the cork-like sealing of your uterus. The mucous plug is like a barrier, and it protects your baby from the infections outside. As soon as lose your plug, contact your doctor and prepare to go to the hospital.
Most women have their water breaking when they are in the active labour phase; others have it early. When this occurs, you will lose control of the fluid that’s coming out of your vagina. It’s yellowish, but it does not smell like urine. It is one of your body’s way of telling you that labour is just around the corner and it will start at any time.
Childbirth Stage 1—The Three Phases of Labour
When the big day comes, you will go through the three stages of childbirth: labour, the birth of the child and the delivery of the placenta. Except when there is a need for C-section, all women will experience labour, the first stage of childbirth. The three phases of labour are early, active and transitional.
Each phase will bring emotional and physical challenges to you. Be mentally prepared and think of those phases as mini-adventures. Your mindset affects how painful is childbirth for you.
Phase 1: Early Labour
This one is the most protracted phase of labour. Fortunately, it is the least intense among the three. You will have contractions, and your cervix will start to dilate (open) up to three centimetres. Try to relax during this phase as much as possible. There is no need to dash to the hospital. Conserve your energy, eat a small snack, and drink lots of water.
The most important thing to do at this time is to keep track of your contraction. Take note how long each contraction lasts and how long is the interval before another contraction kicks in.
Here are what to expect:
- Early labour phase usually lasting eight to ten hours
- Lower back pain and some pressure/tightening in your pelvic area
- Contractions that feel like menstrual cramps
- Contractions lasting 30–45 seconds, with five- to 30-minute intervals.
- Your cervix dilating up to three centimetres. If you’re in a hospital, the doctor will send you home for now.
- Indigestion and diarrhea
- Blood-tinged mucus discharge, also known as the ‘bloody show’
- Your water breaking. It is a sign that phase 2/active labour is coming your way.
When you’re having contractions, notice if they:
- occur with a regular pattern,
- last longer,
- increase in intensity, and
- become closer together.
When your water breaks, take note of the following:
- The exact time when your water breaks
- Colour of the fluid
- The smell of the fluid
At this stage, excitement, fear and anticipation have taken over me. All I could think about is if I’m ready to deliver my baby. I was chatty and tense; for some reasons, I kept mopping the floor. Every woman may feel excitement and anxiety at this point of their childbirth journey, and it is typical. Remember to conserve your energy and rest as much as you can. Visualise the battle, and remember that you are about to do a fantastic job.
Phase 2: Active Labour
Now is the optimal time to go to the hospital. The active stage of labour lasts at about three to four hours. At this point, your contractions are becoming more intense. They are now longer, stronger and have shorter intervals. Breathing techniques will be beneficial at around this time. Prepare a few relaxation exercises that you can do in between contractions.
At around this time, you’re starting to feel how painful is childbirth. Prepare your mind for more intense pain and keep yourself hydrated at all times. Switching positions and having a warm bath will help ease the pain and discomfort at this point of your childbirth journey.
Here are what to expect:
- Your cervix will dilate from three to seven centimetres.
- The active phase usually lasts three to four hours.
- Painful and intense contractions will last 45–60 seconds with three- to five-minute intervals.
At this point, contractions are coming at shorter intervals. You’ll look like stressed and worn out. Your hair is a messy bun, and your face is puffy and red. Nurses and doctors will take turns in doing vaginal exams. Your vagina will be displayed in front of several people if you give birth in a teaching hospital: that would be a minimum of ten people. A stranger will also shave it.
You’ll start to cry and pee at the same time during some intense contractions. Your birthing partner’s hands are red because of your excessive squeezing. You’ll groan, howl and shout during contractions. It will feel like your energy is being squeezed out, and you will look like a mess.
Your confidence will start to wear off, and you’ll begin to curse in your mind that you’re not going to have another child. You’ll look at your partner, and you’ll start realizing how useless his balls are. You’ll get angry, impatient and tired.
These are all PERFECTLY NORMAL. Try to relax and take deep breaths. Know that you are doing a good job and you are equipped to do this. Emotional stress is one big factor in determining how painful is childbirth for you.
It will help a lot if you try to focus on the big picture because a few moments from now, you’ll be able to hold your baby in your arms. You’ll always be gorgeous no matter what, and don’t worry: those nurses will forget what your vagina looked like immediately after your delivery. They will be so busy shaving other vaginas that they completely forgot what yours looked like.
Phase 3: Transitional Labour
This one is the most intensive phase of your labour. It is the shortest yet the most challenging stage of labour. On a scale of one to ten, most women would say that the pain is at 11–15. At around this time, you’ll be able to find out how painful is childbirth in a natural delivery.
Here are what to expect:
- Transitional labour usually lasts from 30 minutes to two hours.
- Your cervix will dilate from seven to ten centimetres.
- Intense, painful contractions will last 60–90 seconds with 30-second to two-minute intervals.
Most women would like to have their husbands around during this phase; others don’t. Your legs will tremble uncontrollably. You’ll be exhausted, and you’ll also experience drowsiness in between contractions. You will feel a sharp rectal pressure, with or without the urge to push. At this phase, your cervix will fully dilate, and you will be ready to push your baby out.
Childbirth Stage 2—Pushing Your Baby Out
Your cervix has fully dilated at 10 centimetres. You are now ready to push and help your baby move through the birth canal. It usually lasts 30 minutes up to 1 hour. At around this time, you’ll start to feel a strong urge to push (this does not happen if you are on epidural).
You’ll feel like your vagina will explode and will be ripped out to pieces. You will feel a tingling, burning or stinging sensation as your baby’s head come out of your vagina. It is also known as the ring of fire. You’ll realise at this point that there is no way you can describe precisely how painful is childbirth.
Here are what to expect:
- Pushing and delivering your baby can last 20 minutes up to two hours.
- You’ll feel intense pressure on your rectum, and you’ll have the strong urge to push.
- Your surgeon will tell you when to push and when to hold.
- You’ll feel a burning, tingling and stinging sensation in your vagina when your baby’s head comes out.
- Nurses will help your baby move down to the birth canal by pushing your belly down.
Here’s what you need to do when you are pushing and delivering your baby:
- If possible, use gravity as an advantage. Push your baby while you are in an upright position. Have your hospital bed adjusted in an upright position.
- Rest between contractions and relax your pelvic muscles as much as you can.
- Once you feel the urge, push.
At around this time, I shouted my lungs out and cursed everyone in the room. My legs were shaking, my eyes were red and puffy from crying, my voice is hoarse and I pooped. Everything is hazy, and all I can think about is my baby. I told myself that in a few more minutes, my baby would be here.
While you’re doing all the hard work, your baby is also busy helping you. Here is what your baby is doing during delivery:
- Your baby’s chin will rest to its chest while he/she turns to the other side. It will help him/her head engage further into the birth canal and out of your vagina.
- As your baby passes the birth canal, it will turn its body face down to your back.
- Your baby’s head will start to come out of your vagina.
- When your baby’s head is out, he/she will turn again to his/her side making it easier for his/her torso to slip out.
If at some point your baby got stuck, your doctor will perform some procedures like:
- Episiotomy - After they give you local anesthesia, the doctor will cut your vagina’s skin all the way down to your rectum. Once the baby is out, they stitch it back.
- Vacuum Extraction - To help guide your baby out of your vagina, your doctor will attach a metal or plastic cup onto your baby’s head. The vacuum extractor will keep the baby's head from moving back into the birth canal during delivery.
- Forceps - These are the long pairs of metal spoon that the doctor will clamp into your baby’s head. It will help the baby to go down through the birth canal during delivery.
If any of those procedures would not work and the baby is still stuck inside, then a C-section will be recommended.
What’s Next For Your Baby
Once your baby’s head is out, your doctor will suction the mucus from your baby’s nose and mouth. Your little one’s umbilical cord will be clamped and cut too. Finally, they will hand your baby to you to initiate the skin-to-skin contact between mom and baby. Amazingly, your pain will be gone as you hold your beautiful baby in your arms.
The pediatrician will examine and evaluate your baby’s condition using the Apgar scale. Your baby’s weight is noted, and to prevent infection, they will apply some ointment in your baby’s eyes.
Your baby will be wrapped to regulate his/her body temp. If all is well and assuming you are knocked down from exhaustion, your baby will be given back to you so you can breastfeed.
He/she will be brought back to the nursery to do some routine procedures. Your baby will receive vitamin K and Hepa B shots. Once your little one’s temp is stable, he/she will have his/her first bath. If you are already in your room, your baby will be given back to you as soon as possible.
Childbirth Stage 3—Delivering Your Placenta
The hard and challenging part of childbirth is now over. You’ve finally got the chance to hold your baby in your arms. You are now in the last stage of delivery where you need to deliver your placenta. It usually lasts from five to 20 minutes. It is a very symbolic part of your childbirth journey because the placenta provided protection and comfort for your baby in the last nine months.
There will be small contractions that signal the separation of the placenta from your uterine wall. You will not feel these contractions. Your uterus will be massaged by your doctor to apply some pressure, and then your umbilical cord will be pulled out slowly out of your vagina.
You may experience your body shaking and shivering once your placenta is out. No worries: this is just a typical body reaction.
Once you’ve gone through the three stages of childbirth, you will be monitored in the next few hours to make sure that you are not bleeding too much and everything is well.
What are the Benefits of Natural Childbirth?
No matter how hard and challenging a natural vaginal delivery is, it has a lot of health benefits for both mom and baby. Here are some of the benefits natural childbirth could give you and your baby:
- Natural delivery boosts healthy gut flora. Healthy gut flora is essential in sustaining a robust immune system. It aids in digestion which helps your baby absorb nutrients well.
- Better brain development. Natural childbirth causes your baby’s brain to produce a protein that improves brain function in adulthood. This protein will help enhance your baby’s memory, learning and stress response.
- Shorter and easier labour. In natural childbirth, your body will produce a large amount of oxytocin. It makes your uterus contract and sends a message to the brain to produce endorphins, also known as nature’s pain killer.
- Quicker recovery. Women who experience natural childbirth can recover quickly. There’s no need to recover from pain drugs and the soreness of surgery. Amazingly, moms who had natural delivery are high in oxytocin. Immediately after birth, oxytocin is responsible for mom’s boost of energy. This energy is the reason why they can cuddle, breastfeed and bond with their baby the soonest time possible.
- Free from surgery related risks. All major operations have hazards, including Cesarean section. Some of these complications are blood clots, infection and hemorrhaging. Your body may also have an adverse reaction with anesthesia. By having a natural vaginal delivery, you free yourself from these complications.
What are the Pain Relief Options?
Natural childbirth is not for everyone. It’s painful, challenging and hard. Luckily, your doctors can provide you alternatives should you not want to experience the pain that comes with natural childbirth.
The excruciating pain that comes with it is the number one reason why most women choose to have a medicated birth. And before committing in any labour pain management techniques, make sure to consider your pain tolerance level. Even if you initially plan to go for natural childbirth and intend not to have any pain medications, know that it’s okay to change your mind during labour.
It’s also essential that you get familiarised with different pain medications that you can have. Here are the most common pain reliefs during childbirth:
- Epidural. The doctors will inject a mixture of narcotics and anesthetics into your spinal canal. The medication numbs the nerve fibres in your spine so you won’t feel any pain during contractions.
- Spinal Block. This very similar with epidural, except that this medication is injected further in your spine, closer to the spinal nerve. It causes your lower half body to go numb faster.
- Opioids. They also help ease labour pains by aiding the nervous system in blocking the pain. Unlike epidural and spinal block, there’s no need to inject medication directly into your spine.
- Nitrous Oxide. Also known as laughing gas, it lessens the anxiety in moms who are in labour, making labour pain tolerable. Moreover, you are in control of using nitrous oxide unlike other pain medications. During labour, you can use the gas whenever you like.
Keep in mind that you do not have to go all “natural” to get the benefits. It’s okay to ask for a pain relief medication if you need to. Like pregnancy, every labour journey is different, and our pain tolerance varies. Prepare yourself physically and mentally. Focus your mind on the prize. Believe it or not, you will forget how painful is childbirth as soon as you get a hold of your beautiful baby.