Earlier this year, I volunteered to help my midwives staff their booth at a local birth and babies fair. I really like events like this, because you get to meet other families and help other moms learn about their various choices in childbirth. I also really like these kinds of events because there are a lot of things people don't realize happen during unmedicated births, and it's nice to be able to reassure women that if the interventions they normally hear about scare them, there are other possibilities besides unremitting suffering for hours (or days) on end.
A lot of people seem to think moms who choose unmedicated births are either alien beings who don't feel pain, or are biting down on a leather strap and hating their lives for the entire duration of their birth experience. Not so. Contrary to popular misconception, moms who choose unmedicated births are not so committed to doing things “naturally,” that we’ll choose injury or death over medical intervention. Whether they happen in a hospital, a birth center, or at home, moms who want unmedicated births typically just want to let our labors start and progress on their own if possible, and to use other means of dealing with pain and discomfort during labor. There can be a lot of reasons why, too: maybe we have a history of bad reactions to certain medications, or are concerned that certain meds could interfere with our ability to actively participate in the process or could necessitate additional uncomfortable interventions, or we're anxious about needles and other such things (or in my case, all of the above).
Now, to clarify: I'm discussing planned unmedicated births attended by licensed professionals (OB-GYNs, Certified Nurse Midwives, etc.). Some folks do accidentally have unmedicated births because their labors happen so quickly or other unforeseen circumstances result in them not being able to get pain meds or other medication. (Yes, that's a thing that happens, which is why a lot of childbirth educators and doulas will tell you it's a good idea to have at least some familiarity with how birth works and ways to stay comfortable without medications, no matter how you plan to give birth because, of course, birth doesn’t always go as planned.) There are also a small group of people out there who intentionally have unassisted births, but I can't speak to that experience, and none of the following is meant to refer to it. However, for moms who plan to have unmedicated births supported by trained professionals, the following things are typically true:
Laboring Moms Find Ways To Get Pain Relief…
There are hot packs, cold packs, massage, birthing tubs, giant balls, rebozo wraps, and more available to moms who want to labor and birth without medication. “Unmedicated” doesn't necessarily equal “no pain relief.”
...And Use Other Comfort Measures
Laboring moms and their birth teams also pay attention to the overall birth environment to make moms more comfortable. They may do things like swap out harsh fluorescent lights for smaller, softer lights or candles, play music and put up calming images, and — perhaps most importantly — limit who is allowed into the space. (Here's to not having overbearing extended family members or an endless parade of extraneous hospital trainees and staff moving in and out of the room while you squeeze whole people out of your most private parts.)
People Plan For Emergency Medical Support If Needed
Planning an unmedicated birth doesn't mean shunning appropriate medical intervention if a legitimate emergency arises. It just means not using emergency interventions unless an emergency arises.
Expecting Moms And Their Birth Teams Do A Lot Of Advance Preparation…
Folks who are really committed to having an unmedicated birth typically do a lot of reading, take childbirth classes, do relevant exercises, consult with knowledgeable birth workers, and otherwise prepare for the experience. “Going Natural” during birth is not something most people can do on a whim (at least, probably not successfully).
...And Expecting Moms Are Pre-Screened To Rule Out Any Problems That Could Put Them Or Their Babies At Higher Risk
Planning an unmedicated birth also doesn't mean moms just shun prenatal care, either, or that their health care providers would overlook glaring problems without suggesting interventions.
Laboring Moms Are Watched Very Closely…
In addition to making sure the mom and baby in question are healthy enough for an unmedicated birth throughout pregnancy, midwives and OB-GYNs attending unmedicated births pay attention during labor to make sure they're still healthy and tolerating labor well.
...And Are Referred For Emergency Intervention If There Are Red Flags
If they see signs that something is wrong, they make arrangements to get whatever medication or equipment is needed (and transfer to the hospital, if the birth is happening at home or a birth center)
Laboring Moms Can Feel Things Other Than Pain
Pain, stress, and fear aren't the only feelings that can happen during an unmedicated labor and birth. Birth can also be very sensual, funny, spiritual, weird, and lots of other things. Every birth is different.
Moms Sometimes Change Their Minds
Sometimes, moms decide that they don't want to continue having an unmedicated birth even if that was their plan, so they change their minds. That's totally OK, and it doesn't mean that either their previous or their ultimate choice was less valid.
Babies And Moms Are Checked And Rechecked To Make Sure They're OK Afterwards
Going medication-free doesn't mean forgoing all of the other screenings and examinations that typically happen post-birth. Regardless of how we birth, competent care providers check to make sure that everyone is healthy and recovering well afterwards.