Narcotics for labor pain

When it comes to managing labor pain, some expecting moms prefer to deal with the pain of childbirth naturally, using breathing and relaxation techniques. Others decide from the start to use pain medication to help manage labor pain. One option for pain medication during labor is to use narcotics (also called analgesics or opioids).

How it works

  • Narcotics affect the whole nervous system, instead of just one area.
  • They are given through an intravenous (IV) catheter (a small tube that is inserted into a vein) or by injecting the medicine into the muscle.
  • The medication lowers pain and makes it easier to rest.

How it's given

  • Narcotics can be given anytime during labor, but work best during early labor when the cervix isn’t fully dilated.
  • The medicine can be injected into the buttocks or thigh muscles.
  • Narcotics can also be given through an IV catheter.
  • Sometimes, you may be able to control your own pain relief by pushing a button that releases a fixed amount of medicine through the IV tube and into your body.

How it affects you

  • Pain relief begins within minutes.
  • You remain conscious throughout labor and into delivery.
  • Pain relief can last between 2 and 6 hours, depending on how it's given.
  • Narcotics allow you to rest.


  • Narcotics lessen your pain and take effect quickly.
  • They help you rest without causing muscle weakness or lowering your ability to push.
  • In some cases, you can control how much medication you use during labor.
  • Narcotics can be used with other pain medications like an epidural or spinal.


  • Narcotics may leave you feeling sleepy.
  • They may cause nausea.
  • If too much medication is used, it can temporarily slow down breathing for both mom and baby.
  • The medication cannot be given right before delivery because it may slow the baby's breathing and heart rate at birth.

Changing your mind after natural labor
Labor pain affects each woman differently. Some women may have a mild discomfort and others may experience intense pain. If you try natural childbirth and during labor you begin thinking about using pain medication or anesthesia to cope with labor pain, know that it's okay to change your mind. Don't feel like you let your baby down or gave up. Only you know how strong the pain feels. It's okay to talk with your provider and do what you think is best.

April 2010

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).