When you fear birth, because you know birth

As a birth doula, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat across the table from a mama with a belly full of baby and eyes full of tears. I can hear her breath dragging into her body, and its almost like she holds it there for a minute, before she exhales her next whispered word.

At nearly every meeting I have I sit across the table with my cup of warm coffee in my hand, I nod, I soothe, and sometimes I even cry. I don’t do this because I was ‘trained’ to react this way. I do this, because I feel these mamas, I know where they are, because I have been there too.

They are afraid.

These sweet mamas don’t fear the unknown of what birth will feel like or do to their body or mind. These mamas are the ones who have birthed before and are facing it again without the gift of the unknown.

Once you have felt the rocking waves of labor coursing through your body, you never forget it. Even if you had a magical, empowering birthing experience the first time, the all-consuming intensity of the experience cannot be denied. It embeds itself not only into your mind, but every fiber of your being. Sometimes if you close your eyes, you can be in that moment again and feel the waves pounding against the shore of your body and mind. It’s so real you can taste it, smell it, touch it.


So how do you move past this full-body knowing of what your body will do … MUST do … again, to bring forth life? For some, the past birth is described as pain. They think I’m absolutely off my rocker if I suggest that perhaps ‘pain’ is not the right word for these pulsing sensations of bringing forth a baby. “No, it was definitely PAIN!” some reply.

What is pain? In the English language, pain is a sensation of the body that is defined as suffering or discomfort caused by illness or injury. Bringing a baby to the world is certainly not an illness or an injury — so by definition this word does not suit birthing.  

This sensation that birthing can bring to our bodies has been described in many different ways to me. I have heard it called: pressure, cramping, tightening, squeezing, intense, and heavy, to name a few. I always ask my doula clients after their first experience with birth what they would call the sensations they felt. I have only heard the word ‘pain’ a few times. It’s almost always associated with some other adrenaline element.

“When I wasn’t getting a break in transition and I was afraid it was going to last so much longer, then I felt pain.”

“Only when I was driving in the car and trying to sit in the seat, then it felt like pain.”

“When I had to lay on my back for the XYZ, that was painful.”

Almost always the pain is associated with FEAR. Usually the body senses something new (pressure, intensity, surging) and when the mind translates that new sensation to FEAR, then we have PAIN enter the picture. Other times its an external thing that causes the uptick in the ‘pain’ quotient. Riding in the car, laying on the back or being restricted to any one position, a cervical check, or other procedure are just a few.

Grantly Dick-Read was an obstetrician in the 1800’s, and the first to suggest that maybe it’s the fear that’s causing the description of pain, instead of the bodily sensations themselves. He was the first to introduce the Fear-Tension-Pain cycle. The theory suggests that when a woman is fearful of what is happening or about to happen to her body, that her body responds by flooding with adrenaline (the fight or flight hormone), which causes her to tense up. When a woman tenses or becomes rigid in labor, she almost always reports feeling pain. We must break down that cycle, by providing education and support, to assure mama that all is normal and right with her body and her process.

Yes, it’s true that birth can be painful and you certainly aren’t doing it wrong or bad if that’s the way you describe it. It is a personal experience and we all describe all sorts of things differently. I personally describe running as pain, but my best friend says it feels good! Having felt both versions in my own body, pain during the first birth, intense pressure during the second, I certainly can understand that both can, and do, exist.

If pain was part of your first birth experience, how can you work through your fear of that pain to make space for your next birthing experience, to let it unfold as its own story? 

Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • Hire a doula to help with comfort measures, encouragement and those all important words “this is normal”
  • Replace the word “pain” with words like “intensity” or “pressure” (this one takes practice!)
  • Make sure you decline the pain scale in your birth plan and instead request a “coping scale”
  • Open your mind to the possibility of pleasure during parts of (or all of!) your birth. Read Ina May’s Guide To Childbirth and Orgasmic Birth. Watch Orgasmic Birth, and subscribe to Debra Pascali-Bonaro’s blog for inspiration and tips
  • Listen to relaxation CDs designed for pregnancy and birthing (even if you’re not practicing hypnosis for birth, the relaxation CDs are great for anyone!)
  • Prenatal exercise, yoga, meditation, and finding a good therapist to talk through your first birth

I cannot offer any magical method or trick. I do not have a crystal ball to tell you how it will go, how long it will last, or what it will feel like. The twists and turns of your birth are, as always, yet to be discovered.

The one absolute promise I have for you as you embark on this next birth is …


You are a different woman, your body has new knowledge, as does your mind and spirit.  I refuse to take the fear away with a flick of my wrist and quick answer. The truth is I cannot take the fear away, I can only shed light on the possibility that this can be different.

That THIS birth can be a strong, intense, sensation that has value and purpose.

Fill your body with the breath of knowing.

Knowing that you can and WILL do this.

Embrace that knowing and transform it into wisdom.

You can do this.