Welcoming a baby into your life is one of the most profound joys you can experience. It’s understandable, though, that many pregnant individuals might feel a little anxiety when it comes to labor and birth. However, you’ll have multiple strategies and methods that can help you manage labor pain throughout the childbirth process.
The goal of labor pain management is to make you as comfortable as possible as safely as possible. Still, everyone’s labor is going to be a little bit different–and in general it’s wise to embrace a little bit of unpredictability.
When you know more about your labor pain management options ahead of time, you’ll be able to make more informed decisions should the birth process throw you a curveball.
Natural Options for Pain Management During Labor
It’s sometimes helpful to think of labor pain management options in two ways: natural options and pharmacological options. Both groups are effective–with their own benefits and drawbacks. And you’ll likely have your own preferences in terms of which you lean towards.
For example, some want to try using only natural options for managing labor pain during delivery. Among the most popular natural options for managing pain are the following:
- Massage: During labor, you can have your partner massage your back or feet. Once the baby is ready to be born, this might be a little more challenging, but massage is a great way to achieve a more relaxed state during labor.
- Hydrotherapy: Submerging yourself in warm water can help you relax and cope with discomfort during labor. Hydrotherapy is different from a water birth. During a water birth, the baby is literally delivered underwater in a special tub. But hydrotherapy occurs only during labor–not the actual birth. In some cases, hydrotherapy can be so successful that other pain relief interventions are not required.
- Doulas: A doula is a professionally trained companion that can assist you throughout the labor and birth process. Doulas can help you manage pain by being emotionally supportive and by advocating for your needs during labor.
- Breathing exercises: There are some breathing techniques which can help you cope with the pain of labor. They won’t necessarily ease the pain, but intentional and slow breaths or deep grunting can help you bear the discomfort during labor.
This list is not exhaustive. Anything that helps you relax will be useful during labor. Some people prefer mental exercises or meditation, while others might find relief and distraction in familiar music or the use of aromatherapy. Upright positions including walking, lunges, use of a birthing ball or birthing stool all can assist with coping during the labor and birth process. Talk to your OBGYN or Midwife about what your natural options for managing pain might be and how you can best prepare for them.
Pharmacological Based Labor Pain Management
Pharmacological-based labor pain management techniques can offer a significant relief of pain and discomfort. Many patients will plan on undergoing these pain management techniques immediately when labor begins, while others may wait to see if non-pharmacological techniques work first.
Some of the most common pharmacological-based labor pain management techniques include the following:
Among the safest and most common medicinal pain management therapies, an epidural will numb everything from the belly button down, so the discomfort associated with labor and birth will be greatly diminished.
During an epidural, a needle is used to insert a small tube called a catheter into your back. This catheter then provides the medication as necessary. It can take somewhere around 15 minutes to start feeling the numbing effects of the treatment. But once it begins, an epidural can basically go for as long as you need it to–so whether your labor is 4 hours or 36 hours, you’ll have relief.
An epidural is low risk, but your OBGYN or Midwife will still want to monitor your blood pressure and your baby’s heartbeat during labor to ensure complications don’t arise.
Another common labor pain management technique is a procedure called a spinal block. During a spinal block, an anesthesiologist will use a needle to inject medication directly into your spine. This has an immediate effect. You’ll feel numb (and won’t be able to feel pain) from your abdomen down.
This pain management method only lasts between 1.5-3 hours. So spinal blocks are typically used only when the duration of pain management needed can be reasonably estimated (for example, during C-Sections).
Patients who undergo full anesthesia are typically unconscious for the duration of childbirth. Full anesthesia is not necessarily routine for most births. In general, it’s only used for certain types of C-Sections and for urgent medical situations.
Your OBGYN or Midwife may recommend a variety of analgesics that can help minimize pain. Depending on your preferences, both opioid and non-opioid options are typically available. Some analgesics can be given via an IV. Others can be injected right into the muscle. You’ll want to discuss which analgesic is most appropriate to your needs and pain level.
In general, analgesics are not quite as potent as a spinal block or epidural. They can help you manage pain, but they won’t eliminate the pain altogether and they usually don’t work as long, often requiring multiple doses.
Often known as “laughing gas,” you’re probably used to thinking of nitrous oxide as something you’d receive for a dental procedure. But some providers will recommend nitrous oxide during pregnancy as well. Generally, you’ll still be aware of the pain you’re experiencing, but nitrous oxide will help you manage that pain more effectively.
Finding the Best Pain Management Path for You
It’s important to point out that these two pain management philosophies are not mutually exclusive. Patients can attempt hydrotherapy, but switch to an epidural if the pain becomes too intense (assuming there is time permitting).
For safety reasons, however, some pain management options cannot be combined. That’s why it’s always a good idea to discuss your plans and preferences with your OBGYN or Midwife well before labor begins.
When you talk about pain management options, you may want to ask some of the following questions:
- How long will the method last?
- Is there any recovery associated with this method? Will I have lingering symptoms?
- How will this method impact me and my baby?
- Can this method prolong labor?
- Can this method be combined with other pain management methods?
- What happens if this method does not work?
Plan Ahead to Help Manage Labor Pain
Knowing more information ahead of time can help you be better prepared for some of the unpredictable twists and turns that the labor and birth process might throw your way. With the right approach to pain management during labor, you can maximize the safety and comfort of your birth experience.
Which means you’ll be able to focus on what’s most important: welcoming a new addition to your family!