Orgasmic Birth: Trading Pain for Pleasure

Health & Wellness on 03.23.11
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Photo: Michael Dunning/Getty Images

The first time I heard of the 2008 documentary "Orgasmic Birth" I was eight months pregnant, and I was getting the heebie-jeebies about my impending nonepidural, drug-free birth. I couldn't square the premise of the documentary in my mind -- somehow psyching yourself into enjoying a pleasurable birth. My reaction: "Ha, ha, hee, hee!"

I had watched "The Business of Being Born" and somehow I thought I had the psychophysical prep thing down cold, but I was still curious and so I watched a video clip of "Orgasmic Birth." There were lots of "oohs" and "aahs" coming from women writhing ecstatically in birthing tubs. It reminded me of the Saturday Night Live "My Love-ah" skit -- but not in a good way. (Probably didn't help that I was watching the clip at work.)

Then there's even trying to utter the words "orgasm" and "birth" in the same sentence, which seems, well, just wrong. After all, mothers-to-be have been told that giving birth -- the moment when you bring your child into the world -- is sacred, and the last thing that's on anyone's mind is riding the wave of the big O while a doctor, a midwife, or you (if you're, say, Kourtney Kardashian), pull your little one out of your uterus.

The Molecules of Ecstasy

Turns out you can climax during birth. Says Dr. Christiane Northrup in the "Orgasmic Birth" documentary: "When the baby's coming down the birth canal, remember, it's going through the exact same positions as something going in, the penis going into the vagina, to cause an orgasm. And labor itself is associated with a huge hormonal change in the body, way more prolactin, way more oxytocin, way more beta-endorphins -- these are the molecules of ecstasy."

The Journal of Perinatal Education describes these "molecules of ecstasy" as the oxytocin-pain-adrenaline-endorphin cycle. Essentially oxytocin (the "love" hormone) is released and causes uterine contractions. In turn, adrenaline is released and inhibits oxytocin. Simultaneously endorphins kick in and helps ease the pain. Then the adrenaline decreases and more oxytocin is released. Repeat and wash until at the end of labor "the pressure of the baby's head stimulates stretch receptors in the lower vagina, stimulating the fetal ejection reflex," which helps quickly ease out the baby.

Whoa, who knew there were stretch receptors hanging out in lady town?

What we're seeing here is a delicate dance of hormones, something that can be manipulated by our emotions or even the introduction of pitocin (which artificially stimulates contractions) by doctors. The thing is that even if you're informed on how to positively tap into the oxytocin-pain-adrenaline-endorphin cycle, it's no guarantee that you'll reach a sexual climax. The point of the orgasm-birthers is to become more comfortable with the natural rhythms so you can avoid any freak-out moments.  

In terms of emotions, think of the difference of being surrounded by strangers in a bright, sterile environment, as opposed to being in a dimly lit room filled with your favorite music and knowing and expecting every contraction to rise and fall. Which scenario is more likely to feed into fear?

The Fear-Tension-Pain Cycle

For most first-time mothers, giving birth is one of the most frightening propositions we could ever enter into. We've all heard the horror stories. In fact, one of the worst stories I heard was passed down to me by our childbirth class instructor. It involved a great deal of pain, a baby leg dangling out of a uterus and said leg being covered in tinfoil by a befuddled dad in an effort to keep it warm. This was told to us by a woman sporting a mile-high beehive and an accent straight out of "The Dukes of Hazard."

But I digress. All expecting moms fret about the possible loss of bodily functions (I'm talking scat here); and we've all almost passed out at the sight of the "money shot" shown to us in our childbirth class. (Or was that just me?) The fact is that the fear factor is central to the way most of us are taught to prepare for childbirth.

Turns out that my own midwife-assisted birth was a breeze --  except for the moment that I thought I was going to shrivel up and die and there was no one there to tell me it was OK and quite normal. Seriously, the midwife was somewhere else; the nurse who was with me told me I had four hours to go and that I was just being dramatic. Her response made the pain shoot through me to the point that I thought I was detonating an atomic bomb in my body.  In reality I was T-minus 20 minutes to pushing and T-minus 40 minutes to my daughter actually emerging. My mind was telling me "four hours of atomic-bomb-detonating to go" while my body was saying "No, it's go time now!"

Now I'm not claiming that I would have been able to reconcile the feeling of detonating an atomic bomb with a sexual climax, but now that I've been through the big moment of childbirth, I can't help wonder if the big O-birthers are on to something much more important than climaxing. Something along the lines of not just trusting science and medicine, but of really and truly trusting your mind and body to do the work it's supposed to do.

So with that in mind, I'll be looking into Sphincter's Law and what it has to do with childbirth. Turns out just about everything. Yeah, the sphincter.

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