Labor is intensely painful. No matter how many breathing classes you attend; however much relaxation you practice; believe me – giving birth will hurt. A lot.
This article will take you through what both medical and natural pain relief for childbirth can look like and their pros and cons.
Many women take birthing classes and choose to forgo using medicine to help them deal with the pain. (I (almost) did this too, and I am completely happy about it despite the pain!)
Even if no pain relief is your plan, it is still wise to know both your medical and natural options for pain relief for childbirth before you go into labor. Labor can be unpredictable and you never know what will come up.
If you have a particularly long labor or if the baby is turned wrong, it can be very painful and your plans to give birth naturally may change.
Maybe you know already you want medical pain relief. That’s 100% fine too!
- A Parent's Guide to a Confident Birth (This is a FREE class by an experienced labor nurse. If nothing else, sign up for this one!)
- Childbirth Preparation: A Complete Guide for Pregnant Women
- Perfect Pregnancy Guide: Yoga, Meditation, Checkups and More
Either way here is some helpful information about your pain relief options – both medical and natural. You should also write about your pain relief wishes in your birthing plan. Find a detailed guide to writing your birth plan here.
Safe Medical and Natural Pain Relief for Childbirth
Medical Pain Relief During Labor
An epidural is probably the most popular of the medical labor pain relief options.
You will need to sit on the edge of your bed or lay completely still on your side with your back bare. The anesthesiologist will clean your back with an antiseptic solution. He will give you a small shot with a local anesthetic in your back. You will need to be absolutely still, even through any contractions.
Sometimes family members will be asked to leave during the procedure to minimize distractions.
This is how an epidural is given:
- A nurse will stand in front of you for you to lean on and to support you and give you instructions.
- The anesthesiologist will then tell you to put your head on your chest and bow out your back to separate a space between your vertebrae. He will insert a needle with a catheter that will be hooked up to a machine that can administer the epidural medicine.
- The needle will be removed leaving the catheter. You will feel a pinch and some pressure during the procedure.
The epidural will begin working in about 20 minutes or less and will last until the birth is over and the machine is turned off.
In earlier days it was common that the epidural would numb you from the waist down, making it impossible to stand up or walk. Now a “walking” epidural is the go-to method; taking away the pain but without making you paralyzed.
While in most cases, an epidural is a real comfort for the woman in labor, some women do experience severe headaches or that the epidural is not completely effective.
It can certainly seem scary to have a needle inserted deep into your lumbar. The video below will show the procedure so you know what to expect. It is a very common pain relief for childbirth, so it is not a high-risk option. And it is quite quick, as you can see.
Spinal blocks are another of the popular pain relief for childbirth. Like the epidural, a spinal block numbs the lower part of your body to relieve the pain.
A tiny needle will inject the medicine directly into your spine. It is one of the quickest pain relief options, but it only lasts about two hours, and can not be given more than once.
You will have limited mobility and it causes some women to feel shaky or itchy.
A narcotic such as Nubane may also be given. These types of drugs do not take the pain away. Instead, they simply take the edge off. There are significant side effects to these pain relief options. Nubane and Demerol will make the mother and baby sleepy.
It can have adverse effects on breathing and cause the Apgar score to be a little off. These effects are usually temporary, though.
Many women report that it doesn’t offer a lot of pain relief, it just makes you so tired or out of it that you don’t focus on the contractions. These do have their place, though, and many find them to be viable pain relief options.
Laughing gas or nitrous oxide can be quite effective at taking off the worst edges of the labor pain. It will definitely not take the pain away completely, however. An advantage of laughing gas is that it doesn’t affect your baby. To use it effectively, you might need some practice, so start using it before the contractions become completely unbearable.
What you do is that when you feel the contraction coming, you start breathing deeply in the mask immediately. Then you continue until the contractions are fading away.
Since the effect lasts for a little while after you start breathing air again, don’t use the gas all the way through the contraction. Both you and your baby need a lot of oxygen to be in good shape for the next contraction.
Some would probably argue that laughing gas is so mild that it would qualify for pain relief while giving birth naturally. I tend to agree. It gives a very short relief, but can certainly help to endure the worst pain peaks without any effects on baby or mom.
8 Natural Pain Relief Options During Labor
There are also a number of natural ways you can obtain some pain relief for childbirth.
1. Breathing and relaxation
Breathing and relaxation are very important. This is something you should carry out throughout the labor and delivery regardless of what other pain relief methods you may be using.
Take a breathing class, attend prenatal yoga, or buy a book or DVD on the topic and practice at home. Also have your spouse involved, so that he or she can support you during the labor. Acupressure can be quite effective, as well as hot water (in a bath before the water breaks or a shower).
2. Sterile Water Injections
Sterile water injections can be used for curbing back pain during labor.
The advantage is rapid relief without the use of drugs. Pure, sterile water is injected into 4 specific locations on the lower back of the mother. This may cause a stinging pain that lasts for 20-30 seconds producing plenty of natural pain relief hormones (endorphins) in the woman’s body, and the relief can last for an hour or more. The procedure can be repeated any number of times.
To be honest, mothers’ views on this type of pain relief vary from “great” to “never again”. Those that say never again usually feel that the pain from injecting the water was so bad that it was simply not worth it. It can be worth trying, though, because it is completely harmless and might be effective.
In this video, you can hear a midwife talking about her own experience from trying our sterile water injections, and why they work. You’ll also see how they are carried out. The midwife is positive to them and doesn’t find them too painful, but again, experience really varies here.
3. Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS)
Using a small apparatus that you can borrow or rent, this method of pain management uses electrodes, fitted to the woman’s back and lower part of the belly. The electrodes pass electric current into the body. This stimulates the natural secretion of endorphins, the body’s painkillers.
This method is usually used in the early stages of pregnancy and has no known side effects. The electric current isn’t painful, it is more like a strong tickling, but it is actually quite effective, particularly in the early stage of labor, which can take long and you really need to be able to sleep for example.
It can be a bit of a hassle to put the electrodes on yourself, particularly the first few times. Have your spouse help you! And be sure to follow your midwife’s instructions on where to place the electrodes.
In many places, you can borrow or rent a TENS apparatus at the hospital. If not, they are not very expensive. Check out Amazon’s TENS units here.!
My personal experience of using a TENS unit is quite positive. I used it in early labor and it made this first stage of labor more endurable. It was also nice to feel that I could do something about the pain and somehow control it. It did NOT eliminate the pain and I seriously doubt that it would have made any major difference when the labor pain was more intense.
There isn’t much research on the efficiency of TENS in labor, but a few studies, like, for example, this one, indicate that women do assess their labor pain less severe when using a TENS unit. With literally no side effects, it is certainly worth a try!
4. Heat Therapy
Some sort of heat pad or warm water pack placed on the lower part of your belly or back can help ease the pain a bit. Some hospitals provide these, but make sure to ask in advance! A heating pad can also be great to keep at home to help you during the first stage of labor.
Massaging the lower back or using acupressure is a great way to relieve some of the pain. This will be the most effective if your support person helps you during labor. Massage of your shoulders and upper back can also be great as the pain becomes more intense. In such a case, the massage will more than anything help distract from the pain and help you focus on relaxation and breathing. Just have your partner or doula try it.
You might find helpful – or not.
For more great tips on how your partner can help to reduce your discomfort naturally during childbirth, check out this online prenatal partner prep class. You take it together at home. A great way to prepare together!
Acupuncture is also getting increasingly common for pain relief during labor. This is not something you can’t practice yourself, but some hospitals do have access to a certified acupuncturist who can help you.
Self-hypnosis is actually quite a good way to help yourself focus and remain relaxed during childbirth. If you practice a lot before giving birth, you will have an effective tool to keep yourself from panicking and to think positively.
Self-hypnosis can be taught at various hypnosis training centers or special childbirth classes that teach the technique of repeating positive statements. You can also try listening to a hypnotherapy CD, or on Youtube or Spotify to help you feel more relaxed.
There are recent studies confirming that giving birth in water may actually an efficient natural pain relief for childbirth. Women giving birth in water are less likely to ask for epidural, for example.
Several physiological effects of water birth help explain its beneficial impact on the pain level. Women who have given birth in water have reported feeling safe, relaxed and in control – something that definitely mitigates the labor pain. Also, because of the hydrostatic pressure, the pressure in the woman’s belly is higher and that makes it easier for the mom to breathe and change position.
In addition, the water makes the pelvic tissues more flexible and elastic and that reduces the pain during the contractions.
A new research study on waterbirths and the effects on moms and babies came to the following conclusions:
- Childbearing women experiencing water birth were less likely to use pharmacologic pain medication.
- Women experiencing water birth were significantly less likely to experience an episiotomy or a genital laceration
- Women having a water birth were also less likely to experience a FHR (fetal heart rate) abnormality
- The occurrence of prolonged first and second stages of labor was lower in women having a water birth.
- Other significant findings include fewer shoulder dystocias for water births
- Postpartum hemorrhage was less likely to be diagnosed following water birth
- Babies born under water were less likely to be transferred to a hospital after birth than babies born on land
- Babies born in water were less likely to require admission to an NICU
- Babies born under water were less likely to experience respiratory complications than babies born on land
Quite a long list of benefits!
And here is a birth story from a natural water birth.
Conclusions on Pain Relief for Childbirth
No matter how you choose to give birth, it is good to know your options for pain relief during labor and delivery.
All of these pain relief options are considered to be safe for laboring mothers. Each one has its advantages and drawbacks. Only you can choose what pain relief options are right for you.
What types of pain relief for childbirth do you opt for? Why? I’d love to hear your thoughts!