One of the biggest sources of anxiety during pregnancy is pain during labor. “How will I handle it?”, “Will I be able to cope?”, or “I’m scared of the pain” are some of the most common thoughts that pregnant people have.
And for a good reason – birth is intense. That doesn’t mean you can’t handle it. Your body was made to birth, and one of the best ways you can support yourself before labor is to know what your pain management options are ahead of time.
Pharmaceutical Medications for Labor
Some of the most well known tools for handling labor intensity are pharmacological medications.
ACOG, The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, break these medications down into two categories: Analgesics which lessen pain without loss of muscle function, and anesthetics, which relieve pain, but also cause you to lose sensation. These options can be systemic working through the whole body, local: just offering pain relief to a specific area, or regional: providing relief to a larger area or region.
What sort of analgesics are used during labor? Opioids like morphine and meperidine are two medications that have been approved for use during labor.
You’ve most likely heard of epidurals. When someone is given an epidural, pain relief medication is delivered to them via a tube in their back. You will stay awake and alert but may temporarily lose the ability to move or walk. It’s common to still feel pressure during labor and pushing, although not necessarily pain.
This may be given in combination with a spinal block, which is given as a single shot directly into the spine, but only lasts about an hour. It’s common to be given a spinal block when undergoing a C-section.
Another option, sometimes available at birth centers and at home, not just hospitals, is nitrous oxide. Often called “laughing gas”, you may have been given this odorless gas by your dentist. It can provide short-term relief when inhaled shortly before a contraction.
General anesthesia, which causes people to go to sleep, is typically only used in an emergency situation and is not a common option for pain relief during labor.
Non-Medicated Pain Relief in Labor
There are plenty of non-pharmacological tools that can be used on their own, or in conjunction with medications, in order to help ease labor pains.
Here’s a list of reliable tips and tricks – from a doula!
- Switching Positions: Changing positions can help take the pressure off your back, pelvis, or wherever your baby is lying, and may offer some relief.
- Acupressure: There are specific points along the body, like the inside of your ankle, right above the knobby bone, that when pressed during a contraction, can help ease the pain.
- Counterpressure: Is usually done by squeezing the hips, or putting pressure on the lower back in order to counter the pressure a birthing person feels during a contraction.
- Ambulation: This is a fancy word for walking. Doing laps around your room, or even just around the bed, can help speed up labor. Just make sure you have somewhere, or someone, to lean on when a contraction comes!
- Visualization: Many birthing people find visualizations helpful, like imagining your baby coming down, or your body blooming like a flower.
- Labor Mantras: Or affirmations, are phrases that you say over and over to yourself, to help keep your mind centered and grounded during labor.
- Set The Space: Creating a comfortable environment to birth in, whether that’s at home, in a birth center, or in a hospital, helps you stay relaxed and comfortable.
- Water: Even if you’re not interested in having a water birth, you can use water to help with intense contractions by getting in a warm tub, shower, or using a hot water bottle or other sort of heat pack.
Hire a Doula
An incredible way to support you, your partner if you have one, and your budding family is by hiring a doula. Doulas are non-medical providers that offer you continuous support through labor, birth, and the immediate postpartum period. Your doula will help you come up with a game plan, and explain your pain relief options to you well before labor. They’re there to bring in pain relief tools, so that you don’t have to think about it when you’re in the heat of labor.
Childbirth Education Classes
There are all sorts childbirth education classes out there meant to help prepare you and your partner for this journey. Childbirth ed classes lay out pain management options, let you practice different techniques and tricks with or without a partner, and helps ease other common worries people have before birth.
Hypnobirthing is a technique that allows birthing people to change their perception of pain during labor by using practiced relaxation techniques. This may include changing the language they use around pain, breathing techniques, and visualization.
Holistic Health Providers
Certain holistic health practitioners make it their speciality to help prepare people for birth.
Seeing an acupuncturist can help the body prepare for labor by easing discomfort during pregnancy, and may even help with inducing labor. Acupuncturists are often licensed herbalists as well, and can prescribe herbal remedies that may help tone the uterus and prepare it for the marathon that is birth.
Chiropractic care can help ease discomfort during pregnancy. Many chiropractors believe that their services during pregnancy, allow the pelvis to get in a more aligned position, potentially helping ease and shorten labor.
There is no one right way to birth. How you choose to cope with the intensity of labor is totally up to you. Birth is unpredictable, and with that, it’s important to give yourself the space to adapt and change your plan if need be.
Natasha (she/they) is a full spectrum doula, reproductive health content creator, and sexual wellness consultant. Her work focuses on deconstructing the shame, stigma, and barriers people carry around birth, sex, and beyond, to help people navigate through their lives with more pleasure, softness, and sensuality. You can connect with Natasha on IG @spectrumoflovedoula.