Birth Hormones: How Labor Pain Prevents Permanent Injuries

Birth pain, though at times excruciating, is actually good for the birth of a child. Birth pain helps prevent many of the dangerous effects of drugs and hospital procedures that can lead to birth injuries in the mother and infant. It also releases hormones that promote the unique bond between mother and child.

Birth pain, like other forms of pain, never occurs in the abdomen, vagina, or perineum. Pain is a sensation of the brain. Though this may seem obvious, medical science and hospital doctors often treat the phenomena of pain and the mother in labor as two separate entities.

Hospital Doctors’ Position on Birth Pain

There are number of factors that doctors believe help a woman in labor and, if the doctor believes him or herself a better judge than the mother, that may violate her birth plan. While some try to “do no harm,” other doctors have a more self-serving reason for putting a woman out of her pain: their own comfort.

A mother in pain is not the easiest patient to deal with, and it is not uncommon for doctors and their helpers in a delivery room to feel personal discomfort. Although evidence shows its dangers of mother and infant birth injury, many hospitals still prefer mothers to remain stationary on their back in the bed with their legs in the air for hours of labor, despite the problems this position brings.

Pain increases with this supine birth (sometimes called the “lithotomy” or “dorsal” position) and birth injuries can occur when labor is forced or rushed.  For a woman in labor, this loss of control and a hospital’s treatment of pain as a disease can increase a mother’s experience of pain during birth.1

Awkward Hospital Position Promotes Birth Injury (or: Supine Birth is a Real Pain in the Backside)

The pain of birth is reduced when adopting a vertical (sitting and walking) position during labor. A vertical birth position has both the benefit of gravity and the body’s muscles to push an infant downwards. This increases the ease of birth, power of contractions, and helps put the infant in that necessary head-down position. Standing, squatting, or being on all fours—almost any position except being supine—during labor also helps reduce perineum tears2 and subsequent the need for an episiotomy (enlarging the vaginal opening by cutting the perineum).

Most other modernized countries (which have fewer birth mortalities than the U.S.) have returned to vertical births. That the U.S. hasn’t despite scientific evidence suggests a number of things about the role of the doctor and the mother during childbirth. American hospitals’ mechanical approach to birth and health may explain why, despite having equal or better quality of care as other countries, America’s infant birth injury and mortality rates are so high.

A supine position also increases the need for drugs, surgical intervention, and other medical practices that carry the possibility of malpractice, doctor negligence, and birth injury.

Birth Hormones, Better than Epidurals: The Release of a Mother’s Medicine Chest

Saying that birth is painful is not the best wording or understanding of the biological process that brings a new life into the world. Our body does not produce pain for everyday functions, such as waking or going to sleep. Rather, pain is a response to extreme circumstances such as childbirth that allows the body to release appropriate hormones to avoid further injury.

Labor pain releases special neurochemicals including endorphins, oxytocin, and prolactin. Endorphins are the chemicals released during a “runner’s high” and act to block sensations of pain by providing a sense of ecstasy. Both oxytocin and prolactin are released during orgasm in both sexes and are responsible for sensations of pleasure and peace respectively. Oxytocin is also responsible for causing contractions. Under ordinary circumstances, these chemicals react to another’s pain to regulate contractions, have a healthy baby ready to nurse and identify with his or her mother, and reduce birth injuries.

Often hospitals and doctors prefer these hormones’ artificial equivalents. Pitocin is a birth drug that increases oxytocin levels to increase the power of contractions, but natural oxytocin contains hormonal painkillers which aren’t released if pitocin is used instead. To deal with this pitocin pain, birth doctors often use epidurals that can keep a mother confined supine on a bed and weaken contractions, resulting in more pitocin being needed. Together, this trio of supine position, pitocin, and epidurals3 raise the likelihood of a c-section and its dangers for birth injury.

More than Keeping Birth Injury-Free

Epidurals and other painkillers during birth may do more than increase birth injuries. Such birth drugs may cause other injuries less severe than cerebral palsy or uterine scarring or the sepsis dangers of a cesarean section but still damaging nonetheless to the relationship of a mother and infant and the experience of birth.

The hormones released during birth do more than prevent unnecessary birth injuries. These birth hormones promote an altruistic (“mothering”) relationship between the mother and newborn and heighten the experience of joy and triumph. Additionally, the experience of labor allows for a first-time mother to feel a transition into motherhood, remaining lucid to feel and touch her infant and to breastfeed post-birth. 

Non-Drug Means of Reducing Birth Pain

Many pain-relieving options outside of epidurals such as hypnosis and the Bradley Method are available to mothers. Additionally, various birthing techniques like the use of water births and birth balls lessen the need for medication and medical intervention (and thereby less chance of human-error birth injuries).

These drug-free, noninvasive birth practices are slowly gaining support by American hospital birth doctors, such as discussed in this Austin American Statesman article about how an Austin, TX-area hospital has urged its doctors to intervene less to reduce birth injuries.4


Lawyers for Change.
If you suspect unnecessary doctor intervention or hospital delivery room malpractice has led to cerebral palsy or other birth injury, contact the Consumer Justice Group. Our lawyers are experienced in taking legal action against hospitals and insurance companies to make sure our clients receive the financial restitutions they need to help rebuild their lives.

1) Ashford, Janet Isaacs. 1996. Sitting, standing, and squatting in childbirth. Mothering. In this comprehensive article, Ashford gives a history of birth in the West and suggests why natural birth positions reduce birth injury and pain.
2) Soong, Barbara and Margaret Barnes. 2005. Maternal Position at Midwife-Attended Birth and Perineal Trauma: Is There an Association?  Soong and Barnes studied 3,756 births and found that giving birth on all fours reduced incidents of perineum tears and other birth injuries.
3) Dozer, Joanne and Shannon Baruth. 1999. Epidural Epidemic. Mothering. Article details the increased risk for birth injuries from epidurals.
4) Roser, Mary Ann. 2006. Traumatic birth injury grows rarer. Austin American Statesman. Roser, a staff writer Austin American Statesman, examines how a local Austin maternity ward by giving mothers more birth options is reducing traumatic birth injuries.


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