How to make childbirth hurt less
by Claire Spreadbury
No one expects having a baby to be easy. And yet there are women who go through labour virtually unscathed, while others are scarred for life (literally), having undergone a very long and excruciatingly painful experience.
As the Duchess of Cambridge prepares for her third birth, she's clearly well-versed in the events that take place in the lead up to a baby being born, how to stay calm and the pain-relief methods that work for her. But what about everyone else?
As a mum of two, I couldn't have had two more different birth experiences.
My firstborn, Rosie, arrived after more than 24 hours of full-on labour. It was exhausting, painful and felt - to me - a bit of a failure. Of course it wasn't, I had a healthy baby at the end of it, but after a failed attempt at both a ventouse and forceps delivery, the surgeon performed an episiotomy and had to cut my baby out.
Second time around, you could argue that your body knows what it's doing. But petrified of a repeat performance, I did natal hypnotherapy in an attempt to stay calm (adrenaline during labour can really be your enemy). So when I gave birth to my second daughter, Poppy, I felt so in control of my pain, I didn't get to the hospital quite as early as I should have. After falling to all-fours in the car park, I just about made it into A&E and with one push, she was born - no stitches required (smug face).
So, just what is it that makes the difference between a straightforward and a complicated birth?
"Far from bringing us pathological pain, labour and birth washes us with intense waves of physiological pain (think of the difference between the pathological pain of breaking a limb, and the physiological pain of running long and hard)," says Rachel Fitz-Desorgher, a midwife with 30 years experience and author of Your Baby Skin To Skin: Learn To Trust your Baby's Instincts In The First Year (£12.99, White Ladder Press).
"In the quiet and gentle atmosphere of a midwife-led unit, or at a home birth, free to move, eat, rest and bathe, our bodies will produce natural oxytocin and endorphins, which can ease labour along and keep us in a state of focus. Anything which pushes up our anxiety level, such as loud noises, unfamiliar equipment and a room full of new faces, will quickly raise our adrenaline levels, causing a fight and flight reaction. This can cause labour to be slower and more complicated."
Fitz-Desorgher recommends a lower-tech venue for giving birth, but what about other mums? Here, six parents, who've all given birth naturally - with or without drugs - reveal their top tips for minimising pain during labour.
Sign up for natal hypnotherapy
There are lots of different types of natal hypnotherapy - also called hypnobirthing. Essentially, it teaches self-hypnosis techniques for controlling pain in labour, and the benefits can include shorter labours and less intervention.
"Natal hypnotherapy is all about staying calm and focused.," says Claire Richardson who saw practitioner Sandra Bush when she was pregnant with her second child.
"Both myself and my husband were hypnotised in our sessions (he couldn't actually believe it worked...) and during labour, I focused on a serene scene, while he counted 'Three, two, one... relax' and I concentrated on breathing. Other people I know have done hypnobirthing and believed they would breathe their baby out while focusing on breath and mantras."
"Each contraction is a step closer to meeting your baby," says Catherine Fletcher, remembering her sessions. "It really helped me to understand the pain and the process."
Opt for a water birth
"My top tips include drinking raspberry leaf tea (which is said to help your labour progress at a steady rate) and perineal massage to ease the stretch of the skin, and then having your baby in water," says mum-of-two Lucy Fearn.
"I think the water made a massive difference," agrees Vicky Etchells.
"I had to get out to be examined at one point and the pain was excruciating - and exhausting, because you're trying to support your own body weight. I couldn't get comfortable in a position that wasn't agony. In the water, you can move about and find an open and forward position, so you can give the baby more room."
Use your gas and air
"Gas and air is amazing!" Vicky continues. "Breathe in as much as you can. Take a deep breath as soon as a contraction starts and stay calm."
Some people are less keen on the dizzying feeling gas and air can give, but if you work with it, the pain relief can genuinely be phenomenal, agrees Claire.
"Right up until the most painful point - when I'd used up every ounce of energy I had, and asked for an epidural because my labour was lasting so long, I thought gas and air was great. If I'd had a shorter birth, it would have been all I needed."
Think of it as positive pain
"I know it sounds strange, but if you think of it as positive pain, it helps you get through," advises Catherine.
"Like when your muscles ache from exercise, it reminds you that you've done something good for your body, when you're in pain during labour, it means you'll soon get to meet your baby."
"And remember, the contraction pain will pass," adds Vicky.
"I kept saying that to myself, and by the time you've said it 10 times, it has! Concentrate on your partner and get them to tell you the things you really need to know. Then you can block everything else out and focus on you. The only thing you need to think about is breathing through the contractions and the midwife will sort everything else."
"The midwife can make a huge difference as well," says mum-of-two Natasha Neil.
"They can play a real support role. My sister had a doula and she really helped, giving massage in the right place and at the right time, and talking her through the pain."
Try acupuncture or acupressure
Acupuncturist Sally Brooks, who runs the Natural Health Space, admits she's slightly biased, but says that treatment can really help with labour.
"Acupuncture before and/or during labour can really help with pain and anxiety," she says.
"I needled myself (which isn't the best idea) when my contractions stopped, and it started them back up again. Simple acupressure is really useful and can easily be shown to and used by birthing partners."