Feeling in control during labor: concepts, correlates, and consequences

Birth. 2003 Dec;30(4):235-47. doi: 10.1046/j.1523-536x.2003.00253.x.


Background: Many studies have revealed that a sense of control is a major contributing factor to a woman's birth experience and her subsequent well-being. Since not all studies conceptualize "control" in the same way or distinguish between "external" and "internal" control, the purpose of this study is to advance understanding of how these senses of control relate to each other.

Methods: Questionnaires were sent to women 1 month before birth to assess their preferences and expectations and at 6 weeks after birth to discover their experiences and assess psychological outcomes. Data are presented from 1146 women. Three control outcomes were considered: feeling in control of what staff do to you, feeling in control of your own behavior, and feeling in control during contractions.

Results: Women were less likely to report being in control of staff (39.5%) than in control of their own behavior (61.0%). Approximately one-fifth of the sample felt in control in all three ways, and another one-fifth did not feel in control in any of them. Parity was strongly associated with feeling in control, with multiparas feeling more in control than primiparas in all cases. In logistic regression analyses, feeling in control of staff was found to relate primarily to being able to get comfortable, feeling treated with respect and as an individual, and perceiving staff as considerate. Feeling in control of one's behavior and during contractions were primarily related to aspects of pain and pain relief, but also to antenatal expectations of control. Worry about labor pain was also an important antenatal predictor for primiparas. All three control outcomes contributed independently to satisfaction, with control of staff being the most significant; relationships with emotional well-being were also demonstrated.

Conclusions: All three types of control were important to women and contributed to psychological outcomes. Internal and external control were predicted by different groups of variables. Caregivers have the potential to make a significant difference to a woman's experience of childbirth. The ways in which women are helped to deal with pain will affect internal control; the extent to which they feel that they are actually cared about, rather than care being something that is done to them, will affect external control. Both contribute to satisfaction and emotional well-being.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Attitude of Health Personnel
  • Educational Status
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Internal-External Control*
  • Labor, Obstetric / psychology*
  • Logistic Models
  • Nurse-Patient Relations
  • Pain / psychology
  • Parity
  • Pregnancy
  • Pregnancy Outcome / psychology*
  • Surveys and Questionnaires