The first moment you see your baby’s face is an amazing one!
So cute and squishy, and strangely shaped – and covered in goo.
That face is beautiful to you, of course, but it might show some alarming evidence of the difficult journey from inside to outside.
Clearly, it’s a tight squeeze for a baby to navigate the birth process.
What does it feel like from the baby’s perspective? Do babies feel pain during birth?
We’ll explore what babies go through in the experience of childbirth and what it feels like from start to finish.
Do babies decide when to be born?
The womb is designed to be a pretty comfy environment for the baby. Amniotic fluid provides protection from the outside world, and the placenta delivers round-the-clock nutrition.
So what triggers the time for the baby to make an exit?
If labor starts spontaneously, it’s because the baby is ready for life on the outside. The baby’s body has sent hormonal signals to his mother to initiate labor and birth.
In the case of a planned c-section or labor induction, it’s a health care provider who initiates the process.
If a health concern, for you or your baby, has made it dangerous to prolong the pregnancy, your doctor might decide when is the appropriate time for you to give birth.
Are babies awake during labor?
When in the womb, babies go through sleep and wake cycles. A 2010 study of fetal heart rate tracings of pregnant women between 30 and 40 weeks showed cycles of quiet and active states.
By 38-40 weeks of pregnancy, babies can spend up to 95% of their time sleeping.
These wake and sleep patterns seem to continue throughout labor.
You can’t be completely sure if a baby is sleeping in utero without studying the baby’s brain waves. Quiet and active states, though, can be observed by changes in movement and heart rate variability.
Even during labor, an awake baby often kicks, stretches, rolls, or wriggles. Along with extra movement, an awake baby also has more heart rate accelerations.
Based on the estimates of 95% of time spent sleeping, your baby might snooze right through a lot of the birth process.
Some studies even suggest babies remain in a sedated state until the moment of childbirth.
Be sure to read Are Babies Awake During Labor? for more information.
Do babies feel contractions?
Imagine living your best life in your watery womb home, floating and being rocked to sleep by your mother’s motions. Then, one day, the walls begin to tighten around you with ever-increasing intensity.
There’s no doubt baby can feel touch before he is born. Women and their partners can clearly see a baby’s response to touch during pregnancy when they push on the belly.
For more about what babies can feel in the womb, check out Can Baby Feel When I Rub My Belly?.
When contractions happen, what exactly can a baby feel?
The uterus is made up of layers of muscle that contract to expel the baby through the birth canal. Amniotic fluid provides a layer of protection from the pressure the baby is probably feeling during those contractions.
When a mother is hooked up to continuous electronic fetal monitoring (EFM) during labor, the tracing often shows a change in the baby’s heart rate in response to contractions.
This shows how your baby is feeling the squeeze.
Do contractions hurt the baby?
If the laboring mother is feeling pain during labor, she’s probably wondering what it’s like for her child.
Do the contractions feel reassuring, like a snug swaddle? Or do they feel alarming, like a too-tight hug?
At the beginning of labor, women experience contractions that are usually infrequent and mild. These are unlikely to cause any pain for the baby, but are more like gentle pressure.
Using breathing techniques and concentrating your attention on your breath during childbirth helps to relax tension in your muscles; this also stimulates endorphins.
As your endorphins rise, so does oxytocin. Oxytocin is the hormone that stimulates uterine contractions. Endorphins and oxytocin essentially egg each other on, making labor progress.
As labor progresses, contractions intensify. They start to come more frequently and last for a longer time.
The baby’s head begins to descend into the pelvis. The baby must rotate his head and shoulders through the tight pelvic space surrounded by the mother’s bone and ligaments.
As the baby is being pushed down through the pelvis and also through the dilated cervix, contractions put more pressure on the baby’s head.
It’s hard to know exactly what the baby is feeling at this stage, but the baby’s head is squeezed enough to cause the skull bones to overlap.
Ouch! We can’t help but wince when we see a baby emerge with a cone-shaped head and a bruised little face.
Pain itself can’t be measured objectively. And babies certainly can’t tell us how their journey felt.
The good news is normal birth is designed with built-in pain protection.
The endorphins we mentioned earlier are nature’s pain killers. These naturally occurring hormones provide pain relief and an altered state of consciousness.
Could endorphins also provide pain management for babies during labor and birth?
Endorphin levels have proved to be higher in newborns who have experienced distress in labor. This suggests a level of protection from possible pain.
When do babies actually start feeling pain?
Science has come a long way in understanding when babies can feel pain.
As recently as the 1980s, doctors were taught in medical school that newborn brains weren’t developed enough to process pain. Because of this belief, painful medical procedures, such as circumcision, were often performed on infants without the use of any pain medication.
Scientific literature now shows babies are able to experience pain before they are born. There is still some controversy, however, about exactly what gestational age babies can feel pain.
In 2017, in the US state of Utah, a law was passed requiring doctors to administer anesthesia directly to fetuses undergoing a medical procedure after 20 weeks of gestation.
However, not all doctors or scientists believe babies can feel pain that early.
It’s clear babies respond to stimuli as early as 7 weeks. A great deal of development needs to take place in the brain, though, for the stimuli to be interpreted as pain.
A 2010 review of the research on fetal awareness by The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) states, ‘The lack of cortical connections before 24 weeks implies that pain is not possible until after 24 weeks’.
The problem with making any statement about what a baby feels is the very subjective nature of pain.
The structures in the brain that we need to receive and interpret pain signals from our nerves are certainly in place by the third trimester of pregnancy.
After birth, it’s easier to observe what babies might be feeling, from their response. They cry when hungry, when having an injection or when they want to be held.
For more information on your baby’s pain experience after birth, don’t miss Pain and Feelings In Newborns – 7 Things Parents Need to Know.
Is birth stressful for a baby?
Because there are so many ways the birthing process can play out, and because babies have such different temperaments, it’s hard to know what stress levels babies might experience.
One thing is certain in all births: a baby goes through a massive physical transformation.
Moments after birth, the baby must adapt from living in a dark, warm, and watery environment to one of light, noise, and air.
Newborns separated from their parents in a high-stimulation environment like a neonatal intensive care unit often have higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol in their bodies.
This shows us that although we can’t know a baby’s stress level during the process of birth, we can ease any potential stress with a gentle and loving transition into life outside the womb.
Read more about this in 7 Huge Benefits of An Undisturbed First Hour After Birth.
What does the baby feel during a c-section?
With a c-section, the baby exits through an incision in the uterus instead of through the birth canal. How does this affect the baby’s perspective on being born?
The c-section might happen before or after labor has started, and the two experiences have some similarities.
Babies might feel contractions before surgery and then feel a squeeze as they are brought out through a small abdominal incision.
Babies born by c-section generally have rounder heads, as they haven’t been molded to fit through the pelvis and birth canal. They possibly feel less pressure than babies born vaginally.
Contractions help to push amniotic fluid out of a baby’s lungs during labor. Because babies born by c-section haven’t squeezed their bodies through the birth canal, they might have more trouble transitioning to breathing air.
Generally, a baby born in the operating room might have a more abrupt transition to life on the outside.
Higher stress levels lead to higher pain sensitivity, which can be greatly diminished by immediate skin-to-skin contact with a parent.
When surgical birth is necessary, a gentle c-section is always best for mother and baby.
Why do babies cry when born?
Of the 9 Instinctive Stages of the Newborn, the first stage is the birth cry.
It’s the moment that brings the most celebration into the birth room: baby is here! The cry signals life and vigor, and is encouraged by the attending doctor or midwife.
The baby’s first cry has more function than simply a way to express feelings.
The lungs have previously been filled with amniotic fluid, which is squeezed out through the pressure of contractions in the birth canal.
The cry helps expand the lungs and fill them with air.
What can we do to make birth better for a baby?
The sad truth is about 7 in 1,000 babies born in the United States are injured in childbirth. And at least 50% of these injuries are avoidable with proper care and planning.
We can’t always control the risk factors and the outcomes, but women and babies do much better when the normal process of birth is respected.
Normal birth, according to the International Childbirth Educators Association (ICEA):
- Happens when labor starts and progresses without interventions
- Includes the physical and mental/emotional conditions that promote labor
- Has vaginal birth of baby and placenta as its outcome
- Involves normal blood loss
- Allows for skin to skin and no separation so the newborn can transition to life outside the womb
- Supports early breastfeeding initiation.
Since a mother’s wellbeing has a direct effect on her infant, her birth experience and the baby’s can’t be separated.
Benefits of normal birth include:
- Less postpartum pain
- Quicker physical recovery
- Enhanced bonding with baby
- Reduced likelihood of post-natal depression
- A calmer, more settled baby
- An easier breastfeeding experience
- Better newborn transition for the baby.
When parents follow their instincts during labor, they often feel more confident about trusting their instinctual parenting.
We can trust the labor pain women feel during normal birth is functional, and not caused by illness or injury. And this in turn reassures us that whatever a baby feels during the process also has a purpose.
Pain, after all, is a part of life as a human being.
We can’t completely take pain away from our children but, as parents, we can provide comfort, love, and safety to make it feel better.