New research shows the importance of finding a purpose in labour pain

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Fascinating new research from a labour pain expert has found that women who were able to think of the pain during childbirth as “purposeful” and were able to remain focused had more positive experiences.

Dr Laura Whitburn, a physiotherapist who teaches anatomy in La Trobe’s School of Life Sciences, undertook interviews with new mums at Mercy Hospital for Women and Sunshine Hospital in a bid to understand how women feel pain differently during childbirth.

Women who did not make a link between the pain and its role in labour were more likely to feel distressed or overwhelmed by the pain, or to use medical interventions.

“Labour pain is very different to other pains because it arises during a natural process in which a woman’s  body is doing what it should be doing, rather than by something going wrong,” she said.

“There’s no denying labour contractions are extremely intense. The pain is very good at capturing the labouring woman’s attention, and motivating her to seek safety and care during birth.

“Women who labour with the mindset that there is a purpose to their pain appear able to make pain part of the experience.

“They are less likely to need interventions such as an epidural or C-section.”

She said the messaging around labour is also important, as well as how they are supported and cared for during childbirth.

“It seems that one key element to remaining focused and resilient during labour is who is caring for you – having a midwife or support person who you know and trust, and who is sending positive messages about your body and your progress can boost a woman’s sense of ability to cope with the pain,”  she said.

Dr Whitburn hopes her research can help change the discussion around labour and help empower women.

“Unfortunately, the way labour is portrayed and communicated can suggest to women that they are not capable of coping. Instead of supporting women to work with their bodies during labour, our current birth culture undermines them,” she said.

“By re-framing the way we think and talk about that pain, we may be able to reduce medical interventions and improve women’s experiences.”

Below are some of the responses from women interviewed by Dr Whitburn:

• “I remember thinking ‘this hurts, but it also feels awesome!’”

• “As soon as I found out I’d need a caesarean section it felt more painful because I knew that it wasn’t working towards giving birth”

• “…you had it in your mind the whole time that the contractions were good even though they were painful it was good because it was sort of tracking your progression.”

• “They assessed me and told me that I would need a forceps delivery so they were going to give me an epidural…So then I thought, ‘Oh well, the epidural is going to take care of the pain and the contractions now so I can stop focussing. It’s going to be easy now’. And as soon as I lost my focus I started getting pain. I became more focussed on the room and the people around me. I was focusing on all the outside stuff instead of focussing on what was going on inside me. I had more of a normal everyday mind.”

• “It didn’t feel like a sick pain, it felt like a productive pain”