A mother in labor thinks about the different ways to manage pain.

Useful tips for managing labor pains

There are options for moms-to-be to manage labor pains. Whether you want an all-natural childbirth or you want medication, moms can choose what works best for them.

Giving birth is one of God’s greatest miracles. It is a life-changing and life-affirming event. But there’s no sugarcoating it – labor is painful.

“Labor hurts,” said Robyn Lindenmeyer, director of Women’s and Children’s Health for OSF HealthCare. “I’m not going to lie to you and tell you that labor doesn’t hurt.”

So, how much do labor pains hurt? And is there anything you can do to relieve the pain?

The answers to those questions depend on the mom, her preferences and her goals.

“There are some people that go through labor and you would never even know that they’re having any labor pain,” Robyn said. “But then there are others who don’t tolerate it very well. So a lot of it has to do with pain tolerance.”

What is an epidural?

Pros and cons of an epidural
It is estimated that 60-70% of women in the U.S. opt for an epidural to control labor pains. 

Pros
•	Allows you to be awake, alert and to feel labor pressure
•	Is a safe, common procedure for mom and baby
•	Kicks in quickly – about 15 minutes
•	Medication can be increased or decreased as needed

Cons
•	Can lower mom’s blood pressure and slow baby’s heart rate
•	Possible sore back for a few days at site of injection
•	If the needle penetrates the spinal lining, it can cause a headache that can last for a few days if untreatedAn epidural is a common form of pain relief used for women in labor. Robyn estimated that about 80% of women in her area opt for an epidural.

So how does an epidural work? Epidural injections are given by anesthesiologists. They basically use a little needle to thread a thin tube, or catheter, into your spine. As soon as the catheter is in, the needle comes back out and medication is pumped in continuously to block the nerves and reduce feeling from your belly button to the upper part of the legs.

“We want to get it to the point where it is taking away the pain, but we still would like for you to be able to feel some of that pressure,” Robyn said. “When it comes time to push and deliver the baby, you can still feel a little bit of that sensation, and it helps you to be a more effective pusher.”

An epidural can be given at just about any point during labor, Robyn said. It’s not too late to get one until the baby’s out, she added.

An epidural does not prolong labor, according to recent research.

The epidural stays in place until you deliver your baby. Once you’ve delivered, the medication is stopped and the catheter is removed.

“The effects of the medication can last for an hour or two after delivery. But usually once we shut it off, within about the first hour, you start to be able to move your legs a little bit more. You start to feel some of that sensation come back. Usually within a couple of hours, you’re able to then stand and put pressure on your legs and go to the bathroom and do all that kind of stuff.”

Epidural complications are uncommon, but there is a low risk for them.

Pros and cons of an epidural

Pros:

  • Allows you to be awake, alert and to feel labor pressure
  • Is a common procedure that is very safe for mom and baby
  • Takes effect quickly – about 15 minutes
  • Medication can be increased or decreased as needed

Cons:

  • Can lower mom’s blood pressure and slow baby’s heart rate
  • Possible sore back for a few days at site of injection
  • Rarely, the needle penetrates the spinal lining, causing a headache that can last for a few days if untreated

Epidural vs. spinal block

While an epidural is a common pain reliever for vaginal births, a spinal block, often shortened to just “spinal,” is primarily used during Cesarean sections, where more complete pain control is desired.

“A spinal is really one dose of medication, and it kind of works a little bit more thoroughly, goes a little bit deeper into the tissue,” Robyn said.

There are occasions when a spinal is given to a woman during a vaginal birth, specifically in cases where a woman has breakthrough pain following an epidural. In those cases, labor and delivery teams may decide to use the epidural pump to increase the medication or they may use a spinal to make sure the mother doesn’t feel anything. Both are options open to women giving birth.

What is Lamaze?

The Lamaze method, and its emphasis on controlled breathing, is a natural pain management method for moms during childbirth.

As our understanding of the birthing process has improved since it was introduced to the U.S. in the mid-20th century, Lamaze breathing has evolved. Where there used to be a prescribed breathing pattern, Lamaze now promotes using the patient’s preferred way to take long, slow breaths. Controlled breathing “increases oxygenation, relaxation, and body awareness and mindfulness,” according to the National Institute for Health.

According to the official Lamaze website, the six Lamaze birth practices are:

  1. Let labor begin on its own.
  2. Walk, move around and change positions throughout labor.
  3. Bring a loved one, friend or doula for continuous support.
  4. Avoid interventions that are not medically necessary.
  5. Avoid giving birth on your back and follow your body’s urges to push.
  6. Keep mother and baby together.

More options to manage labor pains

If you are going for a natural birth with no medications, position changes, a birthing ball and just getting up and walking around are all things that will help reduce the pains of labor. Robyn said she has even seen videos of women dancing while in labor, and she believes that is a great option.

“The worst thing that you can do is get in bed and just lay in one position the whole time,” Robyn said. “Your body really needs to be able to move. It also facilitates labor and helps you get to the point where you’re going to deliver a little bit quicker.”

Some women also choose to use essential oils for labor. Are essential oils safe for pregnancy? Robyn said they are, though they are not guaranteed to be effective. Some women swear by them and some have found no benefit.

Robyn suggests trying out essential oils to see if they work for you before you go into labor. Chances are that if they work for you when you’re not in labor, they will probably also work for you during labor.

Be sure to include how you would like to manage labor pains during any discussion you have with your provider about your birth plan.

Last Updated: June 20, 2023

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About Author: Ken Harris

Ken Harris is the proudest father and was a writing coordinator for the Marketing & Communications division of OSF HealthCare.

He has a bachelor's in journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and worked as a daily newspaper reporter for four years before leaving the field and eventually finding his way to OSF HealthCare.

In his free time, Ken likes reading, fly fishing, hanging out with his dog and generally pestering his lovely, patient wife.

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Categories: Birth & Maternity