If you try and ask your mamma friends about what labour feels like, you will probably get a vague answer about period pain or intense sensation. If they gave birth relatively recently, they may be able to provide detail that’s a little more graphic and in-depth about what it felt like.
You may even have paid a visit to a new mum friend, only to be told her entire birth story which concluded with the words, “Never again!” And yet, women who speak these words sincerely shortly after birth will often go on to give birth again in the future.
Why is this? Do we forget the pain of childbirth, or is the intense love we feel for our children simply strong enough to combat our fear of pain?
What The Science Says
A literature review carried out in 2000 to identify memory of pain during childbirth concluded that women do not forget pain during childbirth. Though the literature to review was limited, the researchers concluded that women are able to recall the pain of childbirth though perhaps not always accurately. The researchers also noted that most women discussed the pain of labour in a positive way, using it as evidence of how well they coped during labour.
A Swedish study published in 2003 analysed the women’s memory of childbirth over the course of a year. Over 2,000 women were asked to complete a questionnaire about labour and birth, including a 7-point rating scale for the intensity of the pain. The participants were asked to fill this in two months after the birth and again twelve months after the birth. Around half of the women were consistent in their assessment of pain intensity, and 60 percent felt the same about the overall labour. After twelve months, a third of the women recalled the pain as less severe, but one in six women remembered the pain as being more severe. A quarter of the women were more negative about labour and birth, but 16 percent recounted a more positive description.
The researchers later contacted the women again, and around half of the original participants filled in the questionnaire for a third time five years after the birth. They found that many of the women remembered the pain as less severe five years after the birth. This was not true for women who had a negative view of childbirth, however. This study also found that women who had pain relief in the form of an epidural rated higher levels of labour pain than those who did not have an epidural, indicating that these women remembered the peak pain of their birth experience.
The ‘Halo Effect’
The ‘halo effect’ is the term given to describe the positive emotions experienced by the new mother when the baby is placed in her arms for the first time. In that moment, amidst a rush of oxytocin and happiness, the mother is likely to have a more positive view of the birth experience than she did ten minutes earlier. Simply put, the happiness of holding her baby for the first time overpowers any pain or negativity from the birth.
It makes sense that this effect could influence how the pain of birth was remembered. The pain of birth may be remembered as less severe simply because the benefits of having a healthy baby are felt to outweigh the discomfort caused by childbirth.
Women who experience traumatic births and who are unable to hold their babies immediately after the birth may miss out on this ‘halo effect’. Though they will still experience the rush of love and hormones upon holding their baby for the first time, the delay can reduce the impact this has on their overall feelings about and memory of labour and birth.
What Do You Think?
For the women who say they will never put themselves through childbirth again but who later go on to have more children, it may not necessarily be that the perceived pain is lessened over time. It could simply be that these women feel that the experience of being a parent, the unconditional love and wonderful memories created with their child are worth those few hours of pain.
What are your thoughts? Has your recollection of labour changed over time, or can you still remember how those contractions felt? Does it put you off having more children, or was it all worth it in the end?