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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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Natural relief for labor pain

You may want to experience childbirth as a natural process, without the use of medicine (drugs) for labor pain. This is called natural childbirth. It means you use methods other than medicine to help with labor pain. These methods may:

  • Help your body release its own natural pain relievers such as endorphins, which are proteins that help relieve pain
  • Distract you from the pain of childbirth 
  • Soothe and relax you as you go into labor 

You may want all of your labor to be natural. Or you may want to use natural pain-relief methods in the beginning of labor and then add pain medicine later. You can choose one main technique or use several together, and you can also combine them with medicine. And if you try natural childbirth and decide during labor to use pain medicine, it’s OK. Only you know how strong the pain feels. 

Talk about all your pain-relief options with your health care provider to decide which is right for you. Write your pain-relief choice on your birth plan and share it with your provider and with the 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 can a support person or doula help with labor pain?

A support person who stays with you throughout labor and birth may help increase your level of comfort. Many women have their partner as their support person. You may count on your partner for help with pain relief as well as for emotional support.

You may want to hire a doula to help during labor and birth. A doula is a person who has special training to help you handle labor. A doula can help support both you and your partner during labor, especially if labor is long or intense. 

What breathing techniques are used to help with labor pain?

Breathing is one the most common methods used for natural pain relief during childbirth. It uses steady, rhythmic breathing to help your body relax and distract you from labor pain. Breathing techniques can help reduce feelings of nausea (being sick to your stomach) or dizziness during childbirth. They also allow more oxygen to get to you and your baby.

Breathing techniques work best if you practice them before childbirth. Some, such as Lamaze, are taught in childbirth education classes. 

How does changing positions help with labor pain?

Changing positions during labor may give you comfort by helping to improve your circulation.  You may want to try:

  • Sitting upright. This may be the most comfortable position for you and help speed up contractions in early labor. 
  • Squatting may help you in later stages of labor. 
  • Sitting on a birthing ball (a large rubber ball)
  • On your hands and knees. This position may be helpful if your back hurts.
  • Rocking back and forth 

What is water therapy?

A warm bath or shower may temporarily help with labor pain. The feeling of warm water on your skin can help you relax and soothe some of the discomforts you feel. Water temperature should be 98F to 100F to help prevent you or your baby from getting a fever. Many hospitals and birthing centers have showers and soaking tubs for women in labor. 

What are hot and cold therapy?

You can choose to use hot or cold therapy during labor, or use both in combination. For hot therapy, using a warm or hot compress (a hot water bottle, a towel soaked in warm water) may help you relax and ease muscle tension. If you’re chilled, cover yourself in a warm blanket. If cold is more soothing to you, place a cold washcloth on your forehead or ice packs on your lower back to help you cool down and ease tension. Sucking on ice chips also can help cool you off. 

How can massage  help with labor pain?

Massage can help soothe your muscles and block pain. You can do massage yourself by gently rubbing your belly during contractions. Your partner or labor coach can give you a massage. You may find that using counter-pressure (having a partner push hard on a tense muscle) on an area like the lower back can relieve tension for a good amount of time. 

Try these tips as you learn to use massages: 

  • Warm the muscle with a hot towel or heating pad to help relax tension.
  • Use oil or lotion to help your hands to move smoothly across skin. If you’re doing self-massage, keep one hand on the skin as you reach for more oil or lotion. This can help you stay more relaxed. 

What relaxation techniques may help with labor pain?

Relaxation methods may help you release tension and pain. By relaxing, you give your body the opportunity to work naturally, and you save your energy for when you need it most. Instead of fighting pain, which may create more tension, relaxation techniques help you deal with labor pain by letting it come and go naturally. 

There are two kinds of relaxation techniques: 

  1. Progressive relaxation. This is when you relax groups of muscles one at a time during labor. 
  2. Touch relaxation. This is when your support person touches or massages a certain group of muscles, helping you focus on relaxation. 

Using relaxation techniques takes some practice. Try these tips as you learn how to use them: 

  • Be in a quiet space. 
  • Stand, sit or lie in a comfortable position. 
  • Breathe slowly and deeply. 
  • Focus on the areas of your body where you feel the most tension and try to relax them. 

How do meditation and guided imagery help with labor pain?

Meditation may help you manage pain by focusing on a certain object, picture or sound. By concentrating on a one main thing, you can help your mind think about something other than pain. To used meditation: 

  • Focus on a picture or image. Or focus on a certain word and repeat it over and over to yourself. 
  • Don’t worry if you become distracted. Just try bringing your mind back to that focal point. 

Guided imagery (sometimes called daydreaming with a purpose) is picturing yourself in a comfortable, relaxing place, like in a park or at the beach. When you feel labor pain, you let your mind wander to that relaxing place. When using guided imagery:

  • Focus on the details of the place you’re imagining—the air, the smell, the sounds, etc. 
  • Let your body relax as your mind takes you to the place. 
  • Play some soft music or other sounds that may help you feel like you’re really there. 

What are some other natural pain-relief methods?

We don’t know as much about these methods used for labor pain. More research is needed to find out how they work and if they help women in labor. If you’re interested in them, talk to your health care provider: 

  • Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese practice. An acupuncturist (a person with special training in acupuncture) places small needles into certain areas of your body, making your body respond a certain way. Although the idea of using needles to lessen pain may seem odd, you may find that acupuncture increases relaxation during labor, which may help you better handle labor pain. 
  • Reflexology is an ancient practice in which a reflexologist (a person with special training in reflexology) applies pressure to certain parts of the body, usually the soles of the feet. The pressure can affect other parts of the body. Reflexology may help relieve muscle tension and promote relaxation.
  • Hypnosis works by suggesting that you are in control. If you believe you can control your pain, then you may be able to ease it. Some women learn to use this method on themselves, called self-hypnosis. A specialized childbirth education class may teach you how to use self-hypnosis. 

Last reviewed January 2010

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.

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