Study: For Some Women, Memory of Childbirth Pain Intensifies Over Time

Research shows that for about half of women who give birth, memories of the intensity of labor pain decline over time. However, for some women, their recollection of pain does not seem to diminish and for a minority, their memory of pain increases with time.

The study also shows that the memory of childbirth pain is influenced by a woman's overall satisfaction with her labor experience.

Dr. Ulla Waldenström, from the Department of Woman and Child Health at the Karolinska Institute, Stockholm and colleagues queried 1383 mothers about their memories of labor pain at 2 months, 1 year and 5 years after giving birth. Women who elected to have a cesarean section were excluded.

Five years after the women had given birth, 49 percent remembered childbirth as less painful than when they rated it 2 months after birth, 35 percent rated it the same, and 16 percent rated it as more painful.

"A commonly held view," Waldenström noted in an email to Reuters Health, "is that women forget the intensity of labour pain. The present study...provides evidence that in modern obstetric care, this is true for about 50 percent of women."

However, a woman's labor experience was an influential factor. Women who reported labor as a positive experience 2 months after childbirth had the lowest pain scores, and their memory of the intensity of pain had declined by 1 year and 5 years after giving birth.

"Memory of labor pain declined during the observation period but not in women with a negative overall experience of childbirth," the team notes in the journal BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology.

Roughly 60 percent of women reported positive childbirth experiences and less than 10 percent reported negative experiences. For women who said that their childbirth experience was negative or very negative, on average, their assessment of labor pain did not change after 5 years.

"A woman's long-term memory of pain is associated with her satisfaction with childbirth overall," Waldenström said, summing up. "The more positive the experience, the more women forget how painful labour was. For a small group of women with a negative birth experience, long-term memory of labour pain was as vivid as 5 years earlier."

The researchers also found that women who had epidural for pain remembered pain as more intense than women who did not have an epidural, suggesting, they say, that these women remember "peak pain." However, their perception of how painful labour had been also declined with time.

Waldenström and colleagues suggest that healthcare professionals take into account a woman's overall experience with childbirth when assessing whether a woman needs further support after she delivers her baby.