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Vaginal birth

  • Most babies are born through vaginal birth.
  • Labor feels different for every woman.
  • You may decide to have medicine to help with labor pain.
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Narcotics for labor pain

A narcotic is a drug (medicine) that changes how you feel pain. Narcotics affect your whole nervous system instead of just one area. Your nervous system includes your brain, spinal cord and nerves. The medicine lowers pain and makes it easier to rest. 

You may want medicine like narcotics to help with labor pain. Or you may want to have natural childbirth without medicines. Talk to your health care provider about your pain-relief options to decide which is right for you. Write your pain-relief choice on your birth plan and share it with your provider and with staff at the hospital or birthing center where you plan to have your baby. A birth plan is a set of instructions you make about your baby’s birth. 

How do narcotics work? 

Your provider gives you narcotics through a tube inserted into a vein (called an IV) or a shot you get in a muscle, like in the buttocks or thigh. If you get an IV, you may be able to control your own pain relief by pushing a button that releases a fixed amount of medicine through the IV into your body. 

You can get narcotics any time during labor, but they work best during early labor when the cervix isn’t fully dilated (open). The cervix is the opening to the uterus that sits at the top of the vagina. They also can be used with other pain medicine, like an epidural or spinal block

What are some pros and cons of using narcotics for labor pain?

Learning about pros and cons can help you decide if narcotics are right for you.


  • Pain relief begins in minutes. It can last 2 to 6 hours, depending on how you get the medicine.
  • You stay awake and alert.
  • They help you rest without causing muscle weakness or lowering your ability to push. 


  • They may make you feeling sleepy.
  • They may upset your stomach. 
  • If you get too much, they can slow down breathing for both you and your baby. 
  • If you get them too close to birth, they may slow your baby's breathing and heart rate.

Can you use narcotics even if you try to have natural childbirth? 

Yes. Labor pain affects each woman differently. You may have mild discomfort or you may have intense pain. If you try natural childbirth and decide during labor to use pain medicine, it’s OK. You can ask for pain relief at any time during labor and birth.

Last reviewed June 2014

Frequently Asked Questions

What is an epidural?

An epidural is the most popular and effective kind of pain relief for labor. You get a needle with a small tube attached placed in your lower back. Medicine goes through the tube while you're in labor. It numbs your lower body so you can't feel the pain from your contractions. The medicine doesn't make you go to sleep, so you can be wide awake when your baby is born!

What is fetal-scalp blood sampling?

Fetal-scalp blood sampling is a quick test your health care provider can use to check if your baby is getting enough oxygen during labor.

During labor, your cervix dilates (opens) to let your baby out. Your cervix is the opening to the uterus that sits at the top of the vagina. In order to have fetal-scalp blood sampling, your cervix must be dilated enough that your provider can reach your baby’s head.

The test may remind you of a pelvic exam. It takes about 5 minutes. You lie on your back with your feet in stirrups. Your provider places a plastic cone in the vagina that fits up against the baby’s head. Your provider pricks your baby’s scalp and takes a small amount of blood. The blood is tested, and results are ready in a few minutes.

You may feel some pressure during the test, but it shouldn’t hurt. Your baby may have some bruising or bleeding at the spot where he’s pricked.

If you have an infection, like HIV or hepatitis C, your provider may not recommend fetal blood sampling. This is because you can pass these infections to your baby through the spot where he’s pricked.

What is oxytocin?

Oxytocin is a hormone your body makes to help start labor contractions. Contractions are when the muscles of your uterus get tight and then relax. They help push your baby out of your uterus (womb).

Your body also makes oxytocin during breastfeeding. Oxytocin helps your uterus shrink back to its original size after giving birth.

If labor is slow to start or your contractions stall, your health care provider may give you a medicine called Pitocin. Pitocin acts like oxytocin and can help start contractions or make them stronger.

What is Pitocin?

Pitocin is a medicine that acts like oxytocin, a hormone your body makes to help start labor contractions. Contractions are when the muscles of your uterus get tight and then relax. They help push your baby out of your uterus (womb). Health care providers often use Pitocin to:

  • Help induce labor
  • Help labor move along if your contractions slow down, or if they aren’t strong enough

You may start having labor contractions shortly after you get Pitocin. It can make your contractions very strong and lower your baby's heart rate. Your provider carefully monitors your baby's heart rate for changes and adjusts the amount of Pitocin you get, if needed.

Have questions?

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