Pain Science 101 for Birth!

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Mamas to be, do you have expectations about the sensations involved in birth?

How many stories have been shared with you by the mamas in your life who have walked before you, warning you about the pain involved in THEIR birth experience?

The intention often seems to come from a loving and caring place…

  • Perhaps the mama felt taken aback by her own birth and wished that someone could have told her exactly what to expect.
  • Perhaps she is still trying to process her own birth by sharing her story.
  • Perhaps her intent is to celebrate women for our miraculous, strong, life giving bodies.

No matter the reason and often without intent or malice, these stories come with some inherent misinformation about how pain works and can set us up to expect and experience pain during the birth process.

Huh? Are you saying that if I expect a pain free birth, it’ll be a walk in the park?


The reality is that PAIN is COMPLEX. We now know that when individuals who struggle with chronic pain learn about how pain is produced within their nervous systems and bodies, their experience of pain AND capacity to manage it can shift significantly for the better.

I firmly believe that expectant mothers, primed to expect pain, can also benefit significantly from some Pain Science 101!

So here goes…



“Labour pain” is actually a misnomer. Pain is much more complex than a simple signal to your brain as a result of a contraction. What does this mean? This means that 2 mamas WILL experience the exact same contraction in a very different way!

Pain is an output from our nervous system that occurs when the culmination of a number of different “inputs” into our system are integrated and subconsciously interpreted by our brains as dangerous. It is subjective. There is NO direct correlation between specific tissue changes (like those that are experienced in the labour and delivery process) and the experience of pain. The experience of pain is influenced by messages from our tissues/internal experiences, sensory inputs from our outer world (sound, smell, touch, taste, what we see and who we are surrounded by), memories, emotions, thoughts, expectations and perceptions.


Did you know that our cultures and how we talk about and treat birth has a major impact on how the women of that culture experience it? Expectation for pain and fearing birth can unfortunately (and often does) become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Pain is an important alarm system! It is meant to alert us when our bodies are at risk. Anticipation, fear, and insecurity, however, can prime our nervous systems to be on HIGH ALERT! As a result, our alarm system (Pain) is likely to sound much more readily than it would if we were feeling safe and secure. Like with a smoke alarm, we want it to sound when our house is ablaze. BUT a hypersensitive alarm that sounds when our toast gets a bit crispy can become problematic.


As discussed above, fear (or perception of risk) is closely tied to the experience of pain. Another factor that has a big impact on the experience of pain is our perception of our capacity to cope with the sensations we are experiencing. Understanding the purpose, function, and mechanics of contractions can help women to lean-in to and work with the sensations in their body through movement that creates space in the pelvis and using gravity to facilitate the process! These movements and positions often come intuitively when women feel safe, can tune into the sensations, and are provided with the freedom to move.

Check out this awesome video demo illustrating a uterine contraction! 

Beyond the mechanics of moving the birth process along! Contractions also serve a number of functions important to the health of our babes. Contractions help our babies to breathe (removing fluid from their lungs), increase blood flow to the brain, heart, and kidneys, increases energy supply to baby, and helps them to emerge alert and ready to bong and feed! Pretty cool huh?


While a healthy baby is ABSOLUTELY IMPORTANT, it is certainly not the only critical outcome of the birth process! Beyond having a healthy baby, a mama’s experience of the birth process can have a lasting impact on family wellness.

A fearful birth sets off a cascade of hormones that counteract the beautiful birth facilitating hormones that are supported by feelings of love, intimacy and safety. Many of these birth and mothering hormones that are meant to get a “blast off” during a safe and supported labour and delivery experience pour into the postpartum period and play an important role in things like breastfeeding, infant bonding, and maternal mental health.


Don’t get me wrong, birth is not a “walk in the park” even in the most ideal of conditions. It can be an incredibly INTENSE journey and it is only natural to experience a myriad of emotions throughout the process. Fear and pain are more likely to make an appearance when you anticipate pain, begin to interpret labour sensations or your environment as dangerous, you begin to feel uncertain about how to work with the sensations of labour, or you feel unsupported by your birth team.


  • Understand and prepare mantras focused on the function and benefits of the sensations of labour and delivery
  • Prepare a toolbox of coping strategies that you can use during labour – Movement, Scents, Music/Sound, Touch, Massage, Textures, Temperature, Rest strategies, Imagery and Mantras! Variety can be hugely empowering for both you and your birth partner.
  • Beginning to label contractions and the sensations of birth without “pain” re-enforcing language can make a difference! How do you want your support team to describe your contractions?
  • Birth Stories! Is someone sharing their story with you? Notice the impact it has for you. Is it helping you to feel supported and encouraged or is it eliciting fear and anxiety? Set your boundaries! It is THEIR STORY NOT YOURS! If you are interested in reading joyful, empowering stories of birth check out Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth
  • Your environment matters. Where will you feel safe?
  • Your support team matters! Choose wisely!
  • COMMUNICATE with your support team. Reflect on soothing strategies, your fears going into birth, your wishes for your labour and delivery experience and ensure that the members of your support team will support you and understand the strategies that they can use to maximize your feelings of safety.
  • Consider investing in a Labour Doula. Having someone who is knowledgeable, intuitive and continuously focused on supporting you throughout your labour can be invaluable! Find out more about the benefits and evidence to support the involvement of a Labour Doula HERE!

Want to Read More?

Check Out: 2 Powerful Exercises to Help You Prepare for Birth and Postpartum Recovery!

Lara Desrosiers OT Reg. (On.)