I read an interesting article yesterday with some important implications for labor and birth. It was aimed at an audience of anesthesiologists, but it raises some important questions about how laboring women frame their own experience and how they're cared for.
The authors had conducted a study to determine the effect of language when checking in with post-cesarean patients. The assessors came into the room of the recovering patients in the first day after their cesarean. To half of the patients, the assessors asked the patients, "Do you have any pain at the moment?" 63 of the 116 patients (54.3%) responded that they did. To the other group, the assessors used more positive language, asking, "How are you feeling?" and "Are you comfortable at the moment?" In this group, only 28 of the 116 women (24.1%) reported that they were in pain. And these women were recovering from a major surgery!
For the most part, this study was well-conducted, although it did have a few limitations, which were acknowledged by the authors (like the fact that study's design meant that only the patients, and not the assessors, were blinded; and the difficult-to-define spectrum of pain and comfort affected the results). However, I think it offers important food for thought in the care of laboring women.
Imagine how a similar phenomenon might happen with a woman in labor. If asked how she's feeling and if she's comfortable, the laboring woman and her friends and care providers can work to help her find optimally comfort and find a rhythm with the work her body is doing. If confronted with the question of her pain, she may pause, get out of her body's natural rhythm, and focus more on the pain she's feeling. The authors of this article point out that, during pregnancy and the postpartum period, women are increasingly susceptible to the power of suggestion. This is acutely true during labor. We need to carefully consider how our language frames the mother's birth experience.
I certainly don't want to discredit women who have felt pain during childbirth. Although I believe there are ways to manage pain and increase comfort in labor, I feel that it would be more beneficial to reframe our perception of pain in labor. As the authors of this study pointed out, pain is defined as "an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage, or described in terms of such damage." This definition, and the common perception of pain, is that it indicates that something is wrong. Sometimes this is the meaning of pain in labor, as when the baby is malpositioned, or the mother is in an unfavorable position. This pain can alert the mother and her care providers to take action to correct this.
Often, though, the "pain" of contractions is a sign that everything is right, that the body is doing just what it needs to in order to birth this baby. For this reason, hypnobirthers have chosen to linguistically reframe many of the sensations of labor. Rather than "contractions," they refer to "waves" or "surges." These words are inspired by images of nature running its right and proper course, and help a laboring mother realize that her body, too, is doing what it naturally should. Many hypnobirthers speak of intense pressure, rather than pain, as they experience the sensation of the uterus working to open and thin the cervix.
Many women feel that hypnobirthing isn't for them. I still believe that these women benefit from linguistically reframing the sensation of labor and birth! If a mother says she's in pain, we should believe her and work with her to manage it! But if she hasn't said anything of pain, then let's not introduce the word into the vocabulary of the experience. Let's talk about optimizing comfort; let's compliment her for beautifully handling the intensity of the experience; and let's remind that her body knows what to do, and that she is doing just what she needs to be doing.
What terms or phrases have been helpful for reframing labor sensations for you?
Chooi C. S. L., Nerlekar R., Raju R., Cyna A. M. (2011). The effects of positive or negative words when
assessing postoperative pain. Anaesthesia and Intensive Care 39(1), 101-106.
Hi, I'm Sara. I'm a childbirth educator and birth + postpartum doula serving Utah county. I'm a twin mom (plus one!), natural VBACer, and birth lover!