TED Conversations

Philip Welford

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Why birth labour (labor) pain might be essential to infant survival.

Just an offering. Discomfort in labour may have a purpose.
Pain is nature's way of making sure the mother to be is awake and aware and in a safe place, to provide immediate protection, care and bonding on emergence from the womb. If it was painless e.g. during sleep, the infant could die from exposure, starvation or be taken by a predator. There's even the possibility the mother might not realise it's her baby, and ignore it. Some women who've given birth under general anaesthesia say, "I couldn't believe he/she was mine!"
Perhaps animals other than humans aren't even aware they are pregnant. An animal in pain will take refuge in a quiet safe area which is why a prolonged labour is advantageous, giving time to find such a place. Without this alert they could give birth instantly wherever they are and just carry on walking. The pain also concentrates attention on the relevant area where the infant will emerge.
If this offering has some truth it may give ideas for reconsidering the ambience of birthing rooms. eg. less open, not so bright lights, but also, if women have an idea why birth labour happens, that there's a point to it, it may make it easier to cope with.

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    Mar 26 2013: says the guy
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    Mar 27 2013: Pain from contractions causes increased adrenalin which crosses the placenta to stimulate the babies metabolism in preperation for birth. In the non-human world a drowsy mother giving birth to a drowsy baby would be a recipe for disaster.
    • Mar 27 2013: A recipe for disaster which nature has solved?
  • Mar 26 2013: I can understand the impulse to find an explanation for this extreme pain during a normal and natural activity.

    On the other hand, the human reproductive process is not one of the gems of the evolutionary process. It is fraught with all manner of risks. Until the advent of modern medicine, childbirth was one of the leading causes of death among women, and it is still risky. It is likely that the pain is a side effect of an imperfect system, and has no useful purpose.

    The best guess of another male.
    • Mar 26 2013: There wasn't a search for an explanation it was one of those click into place moments. I doubt it's an imperfection, it's something evolution has solved that civilsation perhaps doesn't need anymore. Without it a cat would just stop in the street and have its kittens. Think about it.
      • Mar 26 2013: Evolution has developed all manner of clever and complex behaviors that do not involve pain. If labor pain is an evolutionary "solution" it is a very clumsy solution, and will probably always remain a mystery.

        The pelvis area of humans changed quite a bit when we evolved upright, bipedal walking, and these changes might be part of the reason that women's reproductive functions have become so risky. Rather than an evolutionary solution, labor pain might be the downside of an evolutionary trade-off.
        • Mar 27 2013: Pain or discomfort may be the body's only way of deliberately waking someone up or making them alert and aware. It may be a unique instance of deliberately caused pain. Toothache doesn't count, it's caused by circumstance.We've had several queen cats over the years and they all let us know birth was imminent by persistent attention seeking and a mewing/purring sound peculiar to being in labour, prompting us to put a basket on a safe high shelf where they'd happily give birth.
        • Mar 31 2013: Good point. The human body is full of examples where pain is not useful and non-pain where it could have been helpful. Chronic pain and phantom pain for one example and pain asymbolia on the other.
          I have seen better designed creatures give birth (sea lions) and it does not seem to be much of an issue to them. I don't know for sure but I do think I can recognize distress when it occurs.
          If you were an animal living in lion country, then being disabled by pain during child birth might not be considered much of an evolutionary force.
        • Mar 31 2013: Perhaps labour pain isn't just a pain. It seems to be a sequence, that first organises, or causes, a safe place for child emergence, then protection for the infant the moment it emerges from the safety of the womb.
          As I said earlier, do animals know they're pregnant especially if it's a first birth? Perhaps labour pain it isn't as much of an issue for animals because they don't spend the prior time worrying about what is to come or what it will be like.
          From what I remember of nature programs sea lions collect on land or an ice floe to give birth, (saftey in numbers?).
          You've set me off thinking about pain now. Pain isn't just pain, it has varying levels. There's internal pain from an injury but I also see pain as nature's teaching tool for the young including smacking (I shall await the brickbats for that!). Children can have, "That'll teach him, he won't do that again!" accidents which, if they happened to an adult, could severely maim or kill, all of which are preparation for adult life.
          Pain also teaches us to rest an injury hence the seeking of somewhere protective whilst recovery can take place.
          For me, nature has solved problems we wouldn't realise existed or that we don't even realise exist.
          We didn't lose our animall nature the day we invented the first wheel and set it on fire.
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    Mar 26 2013: Are you kidding me??? I cannot believe TED allowed this topic as presented!

    General anaesthesia is not usually given for births, so I don't know how you got your silly statement...."I couldn't believe he/she was mine"!

    There is pain in giving birth, because a bundle of joy is traveling through a narrow birth canal...stretching the bones and tissues.

    Animals, including people, are usually aware that they are pregnant, and my observation in participating in births with horses, cows, dogs and cats, is that they also experience pain and/or discomfort with the birth process, for the same reason.

    Prolonged labor is NOT advantageous for animals, including humans, because this can cause too many complications.

    The pain "concentrates attention on the relevant area where the infant will emerge". That is a true statement....maybe the only true statement you have presented! PLEASE, inform yourself with accurate, appropriate information before starting a conversation.
    • Mar 26 2013: The "silly statement" came from a "Tommy's" booklet which I which I was reading whilst in the waiting room for one of my grandchildren to be born. Tommys is a highly respected "UK charity that funds medical research into miscarriage, stillbirth and premature birth and provides information on having a healthy pregnancy." (From their website), and struck me as having some significance in mother baby bonding. Just search "Tommys" on the internet. I've looked about why childbirth might be painful or uncomfortable and there's nothing other than you've said, i.e. "That's just the way it is."
      If you want to disagree, fair enough but what would be the point of TED only allowing things that people wholly agree with?
      This is a platform for discussion. I'm offering something for discussion.
      http://www.tommys.org/
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        Mar 26 2013: Congratulations on your new grandchild. I sincerely hope everything went well.
        • Mar 27 2013: Thank you Colleen. Alfie Rocco ( I'm still getting used to the name ; o) ) is one at the end of April. He and his mum are both fine. He's grandchild number 5.
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      Mar 26 2013: I think when people say "I couldn't believe she was mine" at the birth of a gorgeous bundle of new life, they don't mean it literally. It's more like a comment on what feels like a miracle- bringing a child into the world with eyes, nose, mouth, fingers, toes...

      As there are, indeed, cases in which babies are born under general anasthesia (as my sister and I were and we certainly survived), I think we have proof that labor pain is not essential to infant survival.

      Those who have carried growing babies within them can attest to the bonding that takes place even before the child is born, so I am doubtful that the use of anasthesia during delivery truly affects bonding.
      • Mar 26 2013: There's plenty on the internet about it. Search, "c section bonding issues"
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          Mar 26 2013: If you provide a link to something that you think is reliable (like research comparing the mother-child bonds among those in c-sections and those who delivered in the conventional way with and without anaesthesia of any kind), I would look at it. Even in that case, many c-sections follow a labor in which safety for mother and child was in doubt, so there would likely have been plenty of stress/pain leading into it.

          I see only one study of twenty four women and that one says researchers saw no difference once one month had passed.
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        Mar 26 2013: I agree Fritzie, there are indeed cases in which babies are born using general anasthesia, which is why I said it is "not usually given for births". If I believed it was never used, I would have said that.

        “General anesthesia causes a total loss of both sensation and consciousness. It is rarely used for childbirth because a mother’s conscious participation is regarded as highly important for a safe and efficient birth.” That being said, there is more information on this web site.

        http://americanpregnancy.org/labornbirth/generalanesthesia.htm

        As a person who has carried, and given birth to children while aware and alert, I wholeheartedly agree that we can feel the bonding even before the child is born. That is why the statement ""I couldn't believe he/she was mine!" seems silly to me, and that is my own perception. However, based on research and evidence, animals in the wild recognize their own offspring even when they have been seperated.
        • Mar 27 2013: I've read the link but it's more about the anaesthesia than anything. My wife gave birth twice, both times emergency c sections. She did mention at times feeling removed from the birth experience but she didn't deeply discuss it. It was her health experiences following the births that started me thinking about birth and how, for some women it has long term (lifelong) effects. I don't move in any circles to discuss my thoughts and ideas so they remain unexplored. This current topic is a fairly recent logical idea, nothing else.
      • Mar 27 2013: Not sure how to add a link but if it works this is the first item that came up on my search but there are also many other sites following it, with women saying they have, or are having bonding problems. I'm not on a crusade here I'm just offering an idea.
        http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn14662-csections-may-weaken-bonding-with-baby.html

        Heyy it worked.
        Just one of the other sites
        http://forum.baby-gaga.com/about2183499.html
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          Mar 27 2013: I saw that account, though I had thought it was 24 women rather than only twelve, six who delivered by Cesarian and six not. It seems in that research the difference washed out by the time of the second measurement one month in. I don't know that one can attribute the difference to anesthesia rather than, say, post-surgery issues.

          I understand that you are putting forward a theory. I think it is difficult to understand what is going on from personal anecdotes of women who share bonding problems online, because those who are having smooth sailing will probably not be online much. They are then invisible to anyone forming an impression from online posts.

          This is always a problem- regardless of issue- in judging the way the wind is blowing from online posts.
      • Mar 27 2013: First, before I get my legs smacked, it's a hypothesis not theory (something I've been told before).
        They aren't just anecdotes, they are women with a problem which seems little researched. Women without a problem aren't going to be posting on websites looking for help they don't need.
        What I'm offering is that labour may be a nature evolved safety procedure, not just for bonding, but to provide immediate care on emergence from the womb. It is not just a nuisance associated with childbirth. It has a purpose.
        Even the appendix, long regarded as defunct may have a function
        http://www.newscientist.com/blog/shortsharpscience/2007/10/appendix-good-for-something-after-all.html
        I understand I may not be presenting this very well but I'm not an academic and it's many years since I finished school.
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          Mar 27 2013: Please don't worry about getting "legs smacked!" You are just thinking aloud and looking for feedback on your idea. That is exactly what TED Conversations is supposed to be for.

          When I referred to these as anecdotes, it was not to minimize the importance of any person's post-partum experience. It is only to say that such data as appear to us in that form are not ideal for drawing sound conclusions about the question of whether those who have had c-sections are more likely than those who haven't to bond poorly with their babies.

          I am comfortable with the proposition that labor, along with the other characteristics of our bodies, have evolved with the female bodies of mammals. Which aspects of the process are the compelling ones from an evolutionary standpoint and which are just "along for the ride," I don't know.