Have You Ever Wondered How Will Labor Be for Me?
How am I going to be in labor? The fact that we wonder this shows that we have an intuitive knowledge that labor is different for everyone. Research shows that there are several personal factors, unique to each birthing person, that can affect how she experiences labor. Knowing about these factors is crucial to learning the tools that you specifically need in order to cope well and navigate the challenges of labor. The personal factors that influence the birth experience include certain personality traits, level of fear about birth, and amount of birth knowledge that you have. In this post, we’ll unpack the ways that personality has been found to affect birth.
There has been some research on correlating certain personality traits with the way women experience childbirth. The birth experience is very important in laying the foundation for mother-baby bonding, breastfeeding, and maternal mental health. With the growing body of research on personality traits and childbirth, women today have an unprecedented opportunity to anticipate and influence the way they might experience birth.
Personality is made up of very broad, deeply ingrained patterns of thinking, responding, and interacting with other people. Personality is thought to be the result of both genetics and early environment, including relationships with caregivers. These deeply ingrained traits are usually pretty stable over time. But they are not unchangeable; with the right tools, it is possible to adjust the way that you think, react, and relate to other people.
With this in mind, learning about how personality affects childbirth is crucial to preparing for labor. With this insight, you can gather the tools you need to use your strengths and balance any areas of weakness.
The personality traits that have been studied the most in relation to childbirth include conscientiousness, openness to new experience, and extraversion. These are from a widely-used personality model sometimes called the “Big Five Personality Model”. On the birth profiler that we’ve developed at Pregnancy by Design, we translated those traits to be a little more understandable and practical. So we measure Control, Flexibility, and Assertiveness.
How Does Personality Influence Childbirth?
No personality trait is all good or all bad. Being high or low on any of these three traits doesn’t make you a better birthing person or a worse birthing person. Each personality trait brings certain strengths, and also some weaknesses when it comes to giving birth. Women can learn and embrace feedback about themselves on these traits, and see how they are uniquely suited for giving birth.
A great example is the category of Control. This is roughly based on the trait of Conscientiousness in the research, so think about someone who is very goal-oriented, a go-getter, a woman who believes she has what it takes to influence her circumstances and her well-being. She prefers to be in the driver’s seat of her experience. She probably does lots of research ahead of time, so she also has a lot of knowledge about birth (another factor that we measure on the Birth Profile) and high confidence in the process (birth beliefs – another Birth Profile scale).
Research has shown that women higher in this trait tend to have lower rates of epidural use and higher satisfaction with their births. (Conrad & Stricker, 2018; Goodman et al, 2004) Those with high conscientiousness/control have also reported experiencing and remembering less pain during labor (Kwissa-Gajewska, 2017). A wealth of studies have shown that the higher a woman’s sense of personal control during her birth, the more satisfied she feels with her birth later (Simkin 1991, 1992; Fleissig 1993; Mackey 1995; Walker et al. 1995).
A woman high in control can leverage this trait as a huge strength. This is the easy part! She’s got a birth plan, she brought her essential oils, her hot packs, she’s got her birth ball, and maybe she’s even hired a doula. So she’s using all that great control mojo to feel like she’s got a plan for labor. Also, higher control sometimes means greater confidence and less fear. (Fear of childbirth is another personal factor that affects women’s labor and birth outcomes.) Her confidence and preparedness can help her to relax and experience less pain during childbirth, to boot.
But at the same time, that high level of control can work against her in some ways too. As you might know, labor isn’t a checklist of tasks to get accomplished. You don’t get to 3cm and check off that box, and move on to the next task. So that proactive, go-getter woman might struggle to surrender to the timeline of her labor, to relax and accept the way things unfold that she really doesn’t have control over.
So we would say to that woman, focus on what you can control: your mental coping, your use of comfort measures, your breathing and your rhythm. And also, arm yourself with specific mental tools to help you let go of control when you need to, and to know that that’s ok.
The second personality trait that we’ll focus on is called “Openness to Experience” in the research. This has to do with the ability to be flexible and welcoming of new experiences. Higher openness to experience has been shown to correlate with higher birth satisfaction. (Catala et al, 2019)
Just as with the trait of Control, the trait of Flexibility can be both a strength and a weakness during labor. On a basic level, a woman who is more flexible may have an easier time accepting the sensations of labor from the start. A woman who is less flexible may find she needs more mental and physical tools to help her accept and surrender to contractions. As labor progresses, flexibility greatly affects the birthing person’s ease of accepting the twists and turns of childbirth.
A person who is highly flexible might need to learn tools for staying focused on her childbirth goals. Meanwhile, someone who is less flexible could benefit from mental tools such as birth affirmations that help her to be open to following her path of labor. When women know where they score on this trait, whether high or low, they can focus on learning tools to help them balance out their strengths and weaknesses in flexibility.
Finally, research shows that Extraversion, or ease of connecting and communicating with other people, affects the childbirth experience as well. We have taken this trait and focused in on assertiveness, in particular. Studies have shown that women who are more assertive tend to have higher overall satisfaction with their births, and even have lower rates of c-section and birth complications (Johnston & Brown, 2013). This may be related to their ease in letting their birth team know how they feel and what they need. They may also be less likely to feel unsupported or overruled by their provider, since they are more likely to speak out and insist on being heard.
Women who are lower in assertiveness can learn valuable communication skills for labor. Knowing where you score on this trait can help you direct your time and energy to assertiveness skills as you prepare for labor. Women who are equipped with Collaborative Care skills may feel much more able to speak up for themselves, and see themselves more as partners in their own care. This can translate to better satisfaction with the birth experience, regardless of what choices the woman makes for herself (pain medication, etc.).
The Bottom Line
Personality is generally viewed as being stable over time. If we can’t change it, then don’t we just have to accept it and be at the mercy of how our personality affects our births? As we mentioned above, it is very possible to overcome and adjust certain aspects of our personalities. It might take work, but we can adapt the way we think and respond in order to help ourselves have better births.
At Pregnancy by Design, we help women to be aware of these aspects of their personality by offering the Birth Profile Assessment. Our resources educate mothers on how to use those traits as strengths, and offer insight and tools to help balance out possible weaknesses in those same areas.
If you’re curious about how you score on these traits as you prepare for labor, consider taking our Birth Profile Assessment included free with our Beyond the Birth Plan Childbirth Course!
Disclaimer: Pregnancy by Design’s information is not a substitute for professional medical advice or treatment. Always ask your healthcare provider about any health concerns you may have.
Catala, P., Peñacoba, C., Carmona, J., & Marin, D. (2019). Do maternal personality variables influence childbirth satisfaction? A longitudinal study in low-risk pregnancies. Women & Health. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/31084348
Conrad, M., & Stricker, S. (2018). Personality and labor: a retrospective study of the relationship between personality traits and birthing experiences. Journal of Reproductive & Infant Psychology, 36(1), 67–80. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02646838.2017.1397611?journalCode=cjri20
Fleissig, A. ( 1993) Are women given enough information by staff during labour and delivery? Midwifery 9, 70– 75.
Heinze, S. D., & Sleigh, M. J. (2003). Epidural or no epidural anaesthesia: relationships between beliefs about childbirth and pain control choices. Journal of Reproductive and Infant Psychology, 21(4), 323–333. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02646830310001622132
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Kwissa-Gajewska, Z., & Dołęgowska, M. (2017). Personality, cognitive appraisal and labor pain. Health Psychology Report, 5(4), 304–313. https://www.termedia.pl/Personality-cognitive-appraisal-and-labor-pain,74,29915,0,1.html
Mackey, M.C. ( 1995) Women’s evaluation of their childbirth performance. Maternal-Child Nursing Journal 23, 57– 72.
Simkin, P. ( 1991) Just another day in a woman’s life? Women’s long‐term perceptions of their first birth experience. Part I. Birth 18, 203– 211.
Simkin, P. ( 1992) Just another day in a woman’s life? Part II. Nature and consistency of women’s long‐term memories of their first birth experiences. Birth 19, 64– 80.
Walker, J.M., Hall, S. & Thomas, M. ( 1995) The experience of labour: A perspective from those receiving care in a midwife‐led unit. Midwifery 11, 120– 129.