For some lucky women, labor is a breeze. For others, it can be very uncomfortable and painful—but it doesn't have to be. There are lots of ways to make yourself more comfortable during labor. You can learn and practice natural pain-relief techniques prior to labor, and you can try others as your labor progresses. Drugs and medical procedures are also available as needed.
You'll want to weigh the benefits and risks of each before deciding which measure or combination of measures to go with on the big day. Here are your choices:
Nonmedical Pain Relief
Medication and Anesthesia
Nonmedical Pain Relief
- Relaxation techniques. Childbirth educators, nurses, and women who've used this approach recommend it more than any other as a noninvasive way to reduce muscle tension and pain in childbirth. Progressive body relaxation — taking a tension-reducing "walk" through your body — is something you can learn and practice ahead of time so you'll be comfortable using it in labor.
- Massage. Have your partner massage your arms, legs, or back during labor to help you relax and to decrease tension and pain.
- Rocking. Spend as much of your labor as possible in a rocking chair, gently moving back and forth as you breathe and relax.
- Walking or "slow dancing." Walking, or even just pacing right by your bed, decreases discomfort while helping your contractions become stronger and more regular. Or you could try "dancing" with your partner, leaning on him and swaying back and forth.
- Changing positions. Don't stay in the same position for more than an hour, and don't lie flat on your back. Instead, try sitting up in your bed or a chair, lying on your side, squatting and rocking on a birthing ball, or leaning forward over the back of a chair or your birthing bed.
- Hydrotherapy. Try sitting in a shower with a jet spray against your back, or lying in a Jacuzzi tub. Not all birthing centers or hospitals have a tub or shower in the room, so if you want to use this method of relaxation during labor, make arrangements beforehand to give birth at a facility that offers it. (For more information on hydrotherapy, see Water, Water Everywhere.)
- Application of heat or cold. A heating pad or ice pack placed against your back can reduce muscle tension, improve circulation, and numb pain.
- Paced breathing. Specific patterns of breathing help keep you relaxed and focus your attention on something other than pain during a contraction. Three techniques (slow, modified, and patterned) are used as labor progresses.
- Visual imagery. Practice visualizing a beautiful scene in your mind, one that makes you feel safe and relaxed. Focus your mind on this place when you have contractions.
- Music. Make sure you have your favorite, relaxing songs on your phone, iPod, or laptop. Don't forget your headphones or earbuds.
- Aromatherapy. Wonderful smells help you relax and feel better, so take fragrant lotion or potpourri for your room to give yourself a lift.
Many of the above measures are taught in Lamaze classes or childbirth courses. For more information on these classes, visit the Web sites of Lamaze International and the International Childbirth Education Association . Also, see the article What to Look for in a Childbirth Course .
If you'd like more detailed information on progressive relaxation, slow-paced breathing, or visual imagery, see our article on Life Skills.
Medication and Anesthesia
- Relaxant medication. Drugs such as Phenergan, Vistaril, or Largon can be given as a shot to help you relax if you're feeling tense, although they can make you drowsy. They can be used at any time during labor. Sometimes, a relaxant, along with the nonmedical techniques listed above, is all you need to get you through the contractions.
- Narcotic pain medication. Also given as a shot, these medicines (Demerol, Nubain, Stadol) will make your contractions feel less intense. Because narcotics are potent, however, they can affect your baby and must be used carefully, and they may make you drowsy and nauseated. Narcotics can be given only during the active phase of labor. They are not offered during early labor, since they may slow or stop contractions, nor are they given once a woman is pushing, or they may affect the baby after birth.
- Epidural anesthesia. An epidural—an injection of medication into your spinal column—removes most sensation of your contractions. It takes effect in about 30 minutes. While epidurals offer nearly complete pain relief to most women, there are risks: If given too soon, before you're in good active labor, an epidural can slow down or stop labor, requiring other interventions (like the administration of Pitocin or the breaking of membranes) to keep things progressing. An epidural may cause your blood pressure to drop, and it increases the chance that your provider might need to use forceps during the birth, due to increased abdominal relaxation and your diminished ability to push. This diminished ability to push and abdominal relaxation may even result in the need for a cesarean if progress in labor is blocked. Epidurals may also raise the mother's temperature, requiring that she be separated from her baby following birth until infection is ruled out. Be sure to discuss the pros and cons with your provider before labor begins.
It's hard to know in advance which nonmedical comfort measures or medical pain relief you will want to use. Once you're in labor you can make decisions as you go, according to the intensity and length of your labor. The important thing for now is to do your homework. Find out all you can about your options, talk to your health care provider, and trust yourself to make the decisions that will work best for you and your baby.