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.
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
- 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,
- 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
- 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
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.