How your support person can help reduce the pain of labour

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When Susie felt her first contraction on a Monday, she had no idea it would be another three days before she finally gave birth to her baby boy, Thomas.

Though she was exhausted and in pain, Susie, 43, was comforted by the constant support of her husband, Johnny.

Johnny did all the usual things – telling Susie she was doing a great job, holding her hand, and so on – but he also employed another strategy that she loved.

That is, he quite literally coached his wife through her contractions - as though she was sweating it out at the gym.

"To some, that must sound horrendous. But for me, it was what I needed - [advice on how to] focus, overcome the pain, see it as a tough training session."

Susie credits Johnny's approach with making the experience more bearable.

"If I didn't have [that kind of support], I would have felt a whole lot more pain and distress."

Carol Wilson is an Associate Professor of Psychology who believes that emotional support can help reduce a person's perception of pain.

"People tend to think of pain as a purely sensory experience," she says. "It burns, or it hurts."

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"But there is an emotional aspect to it as well, and that's subjective.

"How you respond to the emotion can affect how you respond to the pain."

Wilson presented research on this topic as part of The Behrend College's Colloquium Series in Psychological Sciences and Human Behavior this year.

She came to these conclusions following an experiment that measured women's reaction to pain in the presence of their romantic partner.

The research found that those with supportive partners generally managed pain better. Meanwhile, women with partners who were not supportive (or who were inconsistent in their support) reported the most pain.

"If the partner is being supportive, they might do better [with pain]," said Wilson.

"But if the partner isn't there, or isn't helping, they can quickly feel overwhelmed."

Wilson said this wasn't just a subjective finding, with women showing a "clear physiological response" to her partner's level of support.

Clinical Psychologist Kirstin Bouse, author of The Conscious Mother, isn't surprised by these findings.

She says we're built to benefit from connection with others, especially during times of physical or psychological pain.

However, she's quick to note there isn't a "one size fits all" approach that suits everyone.

"What one person finds helpful and supportive, another person can find intrusive, patronising or simply irritating."

To make sure you feel adequately comforted in labour, Bouse recommends talking to your support person about your preferences before giving birth.

Discuss whether you'd prefer calm reassurance, an "enthusiastic cheer squad" approach, or simply comforting silence.

While you can't know for certain what kind of support you'll want before you're actually in labour, Bouse recommends thinking about other times in your life when you've been in pain or vulnerable.

Ask yourself what you did and didn't like other people saying or doing at those times, along with what you would have liked them to say or do instead.

By discussing your preferences with your support person before the big day, they can hopefully then provide you with the type of comfort you need.

Such support will not only reassure and encourage you, it may also take the edge off your labour pain, too.