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Wait did you say orgasm during birth?

This is a very taboo topic, while writing this article anyone I spoke about it with was totally shocked and confused. Isn’t birth supposed to be painful? That is what you would think from the way that birth is portrayed in the media, but that isn’t always the case. In fact, according to Ina May Gaskin, up 20% of people experience orgasm during birth [1]. While that seems to be a staggering number, it’s important to remember that she was surveying parents who gave birth on The Farm, a birth centre run by midwives that highly valued privacy and intimacy during birth. I can imagine that it’s much more difficult in hospitals surrounded by doctors (many of whom you’ve never met) to feel relaxed enough to experience orgasm.

So, some people may orgasm during birth, what does that mean? Why should you care?

Let’s start with the definition of an orgasm, so that we’re all on the same page. Researchers on this topic have defined orgasm as:

A temporary peak in sensation that creates an altered state of consciousness which is accompanied by contractions of some of the muscles of the pelvic floor [2].

To be honest, that definition sounds a lot like childbirth already…

Okay, let’s move to a bit of physiology:

During labour, contractions are stimulated by oxytocin. This causes an increase in intensity of contractions, which results in an adrenaline surge. The stress hormone adrenaline causes a decrease in oxytocin so the contractions don’t get too intense. Meanwhile, your body is also releasing endorphins which increase your pain threshold and promote a sense of euphoria and sexual pleasure [2]. This is sometimes referred to as the oxytocin-adrenaline-endorphin cycle. From this you might draw the conclusion that orgasm (or sexual pleasure at least) is part of physiologically normal birth- and you’d be right.

 

 

Let’s look at some of the science!

First of all, the hormones that are involved in orgasm are the exact same as the ones involved in childbirth. This includes the well known “love-hormone” oxytocin. It is released from the brain in response to sexual stimulation. This is the hormone that causes the contractions in the pelvic floor muscles during orgasm and the contractions of the uterus during labour [2]. This is why you’ve probably heard of nipple stimulation as a way to get labour going- it stimulates the release of oxytocin. So, orgasm can help labour progress!

Ok, next let’s take a look at pain. What if I told you that there is an easy, drug-free way to increase your pain tolerance? You’d be all over that, right? Well here it is: orgasm. In a study measuring pain threshold in women who were performing vaginal self-stimulating, pain threshold increased 106% during orgasm [3].

Yeah, you read that right, orgasm caused a 106% increase in ability to tolerate pain.

This study was testing pain tolerance to finger crushing, not labour. But, I would argue that there are other hormonal pathways in place that help you tolerate pain even more (more on that later). In addition, there is some other good news from this study, even women who didn’t achieve orgasm had an increased pain threshold. Pleasurable genital stimulation resulted in a nearly 75% increase in pain threshold.

It appears that the nerves that transmit the pain signals up to the brain are the same ones that transmit the pleasure signal [4]. There is also evidence to suggest that there is an overlap in the areas of the brain that experience pleasure and pain [2].  This all means that science is suggesting that your body can only experience one of theses sensations at a time. If you are experiencing pleasure, your brain is distracted from feeling pain!

Orgasm not only helps to stimulate labour; it also helps with pain management! Why aren’t more people using this amazing tool? It is difficult for birthing persons, their partners and maternity staff to view birthing persons as sexual beings. So it’s hard to create an environment that is supportive of sexuality and sensuality during birth.

 

So how can you take advantage of your amazing physiology?

  • Give yourself time! That whole oxytocin-adrenaline-endorphin thing relies on time. Trust that your body is designed to give birth and it will birth in it’s own time without help. A continuous Pitocin drip doesn’t respond to adrenaline at all and won’t give your body time to adapt in the same way
  • Get your partner on board. Get the rest of your birth team on board as well. Speak openly about your desire to take advantage of your innate physiology. Put it in your birth plan that you would like to try self stimulation as part of pain management.
  • Cultivate intimacy early. Deep kissing is one of the best ways to move through labour. Ina May Gaskin suggests that if your mouth is open, so is your cervix [1]. Kissing also gives a sense of intimacy and security which helps to decrease adrenaline and stimulate endorphins.
  • Demand privacy. This is easier at home, but not impossible at a hospital. If you’re labour isn’t progressing or you’re feeling overwhelmed request some private time with your partner, or just on your own. Use this time to introduce some passion into your birth process: deep kissing, nipple stimulation and pleasurable vaginal stimulation works wonders.

 

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This article is meant to provide information only, it does not substitute for personalized medical care.

[1] Gaskin, Ina May. Ina May’s Guide To Childbirth. 1st ed. New York: Bantam Books, 2003. Print.
[2] Mayberry, L. and J. Daniel. “‘Birthgasm: A Literary Review Of Orgasm As An Alternative Mode Of Pain Relief In Childbirth”. Journal of Holistic Nursing 34.4 (2015): 331-342.
[3] Whipple, Beverly and Barry R. Komisaruk. “Elevation Of Pain Threshold By Vaginal Stimulation In Women”. Pain 21.4 (1985): 357-367.
[4] Komisaruk, Barry R. and Giorgio Sansone. “Neural Pathways Mediating Vaginal Function: The Vagus Nerves And Spinal Cord Oxytocin”. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology 44.3 (2003): 241-250.

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