During the final year of the Bachelor of Midwifery at Griffith University, midwifery students are asked to write an opinion piece focussed on normal birth that could be published. Dr Jyai Allen convenes this course and supported the students to complete this work. Several of these were of such good quality that we offered students the option of having them published here. This is the fourth articles in a series of five. This article was written by Monique Matthews.
No Pain, No Gain?
Many women express wanting a ‘drug free labour’ or a ‘natural/normal birth’. The International Confederation of Midwives (ICM) definition of normal birth, requires the process to occur without any surgical, medical, or pharmacological intervention.
Pharmacological pain relief are interventions that include, epidural, opioids (morphine) and nitrous oxide (happy gas). Women not using pharmacological pain relief have many options. These include heat, hydrotherapy/water immersion (shower/bath), acupressure and acupuncture, hypnosis, relaxation, breathing, massage, yoga, transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS), aromatherapy, sterile water injections, and a birth ball. These techniques are termed non-pharmacological pain relief.
In 2018 in Australia, 21% of women exclusively used only non-pharmacological pain relief, whereas, 78% of women used pharmacological pain relief during labour. With a high rate of pharmacological pain relief and the known negative impacts of these techniques, the question needs to be asked: why have non-pharmacological techniques, that are less invasive and more natural, become the alternative rather than the standard option?
Techniques for pain relief in labour have changed throughout history, largely influenced by their availability and the values of practitioners. The earliest techniques were midwifery based, which facilitated the natural physiology of labour in the home with family support and only intervened in life threatening difficulties. Many of these non-pharmacological techniques are still used today.
In the early 1700s birth moved from midwifery to obstetrics as formal biomedical training started institutionalising birth in the hospital. Doctors perspectives became greatly influential. Doctor Joseph Lee likened women’s experience of childbirth to falling on a pitchfork and he wanted to rid childbirth of “unskilled” labour assistance. This enforced the idea that women were unable to cope with labour pain and they required professional help to survive. Pain became a target of medical intervention.
Pain relief techniques in labour through the 1800s and 1900s introduced pharmacological pain relief such as chloroform, nitrous oxide and a mixture of morphine (pain relief) and scolimeine (memory loss) coined ‘twilight sleep’. Women were barely conscious while giving birth, dehumanising the process and causing extensive trauma. In the 1960s, epidural pain relief gained popularity. An interest in returning to non-pharmacological birthing practices also emerged around this time, as the experience of pain was considered empowering for women. By 1990, women’s rights to pain relief were again promoted for a technological, pain free birth.
Today, the primary healthcare provider for a woman in labour in Australia can be a doctor or midwife. Women’s views on what techniques they will use during labour are diverse, as they are impacted by their social and cultural learning, the media, and the ongoing medicalisation of birth.
While the ICM’s definition of normal birth excludes the use of pharmacological intervention, the Queensland Clinical Guidelines definition includes the use of nitrous oxide, normalising pharmacological pain relief. Within the guideline the term ‘non-pharmacological support’ is consistently used. This situates these techniques within a biomedical paradigm, with risk and pathology as the dominant discourse. This implies that these natural and traditional techniques are inferior, by stating that they are ‘other’ than the dominant pharmacological techniques.
This position is often supported in media representations where women are unrealistically shown lying on a bed, out of control, screaming for pain relief. Today, this is a more common source of information than having been present at an actual birth. The expectations women form, impact their experience of pain as it is a subjective experience, influenced by social and cultural learnings.
Physiological vs medical approaches to pain
When women experience uterine contractions, the pain is physiological rather than pathological. This pain is considered beneficial, as it emphasises the need for support, heightens elation and triggers hormones to support wellbeing. During labour, women naturally produce hormones (oxytocin and endorphins) that counter the intensity of the pain experienced. Stress hormones (catecholamines and cortisol) can override this natural pain relief when women experience fear or a lack of trust. If women and midwives understand these hormonal processes and use non-pharmacological techniques to enhance them, the fear cascade can be avoided.
If labour pain is a subjective experience, why is a medical approach, based on objective principles, used?
The biomedical paradigm views birth as a mechanical process requiring intervention for efficacy and safety. Using pharmacological pain relief changes labour from a physiological process to a medical procedure as side effects require management.
Nitrous oxide can cause nausea, vomiting, dizziness, and drowsiness. Morphine crosses the placenta lowering the baby’s breathing rate and alertness at birth. Women can also experience excessive sedation, a lowered breathing rate and nausea. Epidurals increase instrumental vaginal birth rates by 500% and can increase the use of synthetic oxytocin, length of labour, low blood pressure, and a less positive birth experience.
As non-pharmacological techniques have less side effects, why are they not better promoted? The answer may lie in the cost effectiveness of these techniques, which do not make manufacturers as much money, causing them to be understudied, which lessens practitioner’s confidence in the techniques. Sara Wickham articulates this point well when she said “Ethically, medical intervention has to prove itself against nature. Not the other way around”.
Women can be empowered during their birth experience through woman-led, self-generating techniques that involve partners. However, pharmacological pain relief shifts power from the woman to the practitioner. This phenomenon occurs as standard monitoring is required to deem whether the situation is ‘safe’ to continue labour, creating parameters that may exclude women from decisions.
The power of suggestion can impact which techniques women use during labour. If midwives and practitioners are afraid of being with women in pain, they may offer increased pain relief when they feel the woman needs it, rather than upon request. Women have described feeling coerced and being presented with false dilemmas with limited choices. Consent is not valid in these situations if the risks of pharmacological pain relief are not fully disclosed, or the information is tailored by midwives. Research on epidurals, found they are sometimes used as a substitute for continuous support.
This raises the question: Is pain relief used more often for the convenience of practitioners, rather than to meet the needs of women?
Pain relief is a human right!
Access to pain relief is considered a human right. Some women accessing maternity care may state that they want an epidural immediately or make the decision to use pharmacological pain relief when they were not initially planning to. This is their right. However, pain perception is influenced by social and cultural learnings, medicalisation, and the media. This may not include evidence-based information on birth physiology and adequate support for non-pharmacological pain relief techniques.
A study on pain relief in labour found epidurals were considered the most effective pain relief, nonetheless, water birth was associated with higher levels of satisfaction than epidural use. Predictors for a positive birth experience include a positive attitude and support from midwives, ability to mobilise, confidence & autonomy, inclusion of partners and a safe birthing environment. Birth satisfaction does not solely depend on the level of pain experienced, but the care provided. Women’s autonomy is promoted when non-pharmacological techniques are appropriately explained and used.
Reframing non-pharmacological pain relief
Non-pharmacological pain relief needs to be reconceptualised. Labour is not a problem to be solved but an experience to be worked through. Non-pharmacological techniques enhance this experience and most are easily implemented, affordable, and effective in helping women and their partners actively engage in their care. Midwives, as the protectors of normal birth, should be confident to inform, promote and facilitate the use of non-pharmacological techniques during labour.
Pain relief techniques offered to women during labour are influenced by the opinions and values of their care provider. A mindset change in the way midwives and practitioners present choices to women could increase understanding of the benefits of non-pharmacological pain relief in labour. Discussing non-pharmacological pain relief options not defined by the medical paradigm, but rather, validated in their own right, could improve women’s confidence in their labour choices. Using words such as intuitive or natural techniques would be more appropriate.
Women’s decisions are influenced by social and cultural norms. Birthing choices can be positively influenced, by providing information around birthing techniques based on evidence, that focuses on women’s needs. Comprehensive discussion during antenatal care of physiology in labour and all of the pain relief techniques available, including the risks and benefits, would ensure women are adequately informed.
Current labour care is not always focused on women’s needs. Social and cultural learnings from media sources informed by a biomedical paradigm have influenced midwives and women to discount the benefits of non-pharmacological pain relief. Pharmacological pain relief techniques are being used in a majority of births without necessarily providing the best experiences. Non-pharmacological pain relief techniques, which have been effective since traditional midwifery care, enhance the physiological process, support women’s autonomy and can facilitate a positive birth.
So, I challenge you, instead of questioning whether non-pharmacological pain relief techniques are adequate labour care, question whether all pain relief techniques are being adequately facilitated and ask – who is benefiting from these choices?
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