Coping with labor pain

You can't wait to meet your baby. But if you're like most first-time moms, you may be worried about labor and birth. Just how much does labor and birth hurt? And how will you cope with the pain?

Labor pain feels different for every woman. Some women feel a lot of pain and others can cope more easily. The size and position of the baby and the strength of your contractions also affect the amount of pain you have. Some women can manage their pain by using breathing and relaxation techniques they learned in childbirth education classes. Other women find they need extra help to ease the pain.

Which pain-relief method is right for you?
Here are some questions to ask as you explore pain-relief methods:

  • How does the method work?
  • How will it affect me and my baby?
  • How quickly will it work?
  • How long will the pain relief last?
  • Can I combine the method with other types of pain relief?
  • When during labor is the method available?
  • Is the method available at my hospital or birthing center?

You can ask for pain relief at any point during labor and birth. The more you know about your choices, the better you can make decisions that help you have a more comfortable labor and birth.

Last reviewed July 2012

See also: Epidural block, Spinal block, Narcotics for labor pain, Natural relief for labor pain

Most common 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.

©2013 March of Dimes Foundation. The March of Dimes is a non-profit organization recognized as tax-exempt under Internal Revenue Code section 501(c)(3).