No two labors are exactly alike — and no two women have the same degree of labor pain.
The best approach to labor pain relief depends on your preferences and on how your labor progresses. Sometimes, you won't know what kind of pain relief you want until you're in labor. Still, it's a good idea to think about your options for managing labor pain ahead of time. Find out what's available at your hospital or birthing center, and discuss your preferences with your health care provider.
There are many ways to address labor pain without medications. These techniques won't stop the pain of contractions, but they might help you feel more relaxed and better able to cope with labor pain. Options include:
- Relaxation exercises
- Breathing techniques
- Walking, moving or changing position
- Continuous labor support, either from a professional labor assistant (doula) or a loved one
- Touch or massage
- Applying ice packs or heat to your back or other body parts
- Acupuncture and acupressure
- Listening to music
- Water immersion
As labor progresses — and contractions become stronger and more frequent — some women choose medication. Options include:
- A regional pain blocking procedure that can be used during labor (epidural block)
- A pain blocking procedure that's typically used shortly before delivery (spinal block)
- A local anesthetic used shortly before delivery to block pain between the vagina and anus (pudendal block)
- An inhalation analgesia that can be used during labor, such as nitrous oxide
Each pain management option has pros and cons. Relaxation and breathing techniques can distract you and help you feel a better sense of control, but they might not dull the pain. Medications can make contractions less painful, but they could fail or you might experience side effects — such as nausea or itchiness.
With some medications, you might be restricted to bed or to a specific position, and your bladder might need to be emptied by a catheter. Some medications can affect your baby, too.
Labor and delivery can be unpredictable. Labor pain might be more intense than you expected, or it might hurt in a different way. Even if you have a plan for managing labor pain, you might change it as labor progresses — or your labor might prompt your health care provider to suggest a pain relief option that wasn't in your original plan.
Keep in mind that birth isn't a test of endurance. You won't have failed if you ask for pain relief. One thing is certain: The more you learn about options for managing labor pain, the more prepared you'll be to handle labor — however it unfolds.
So what's the bottom line on managing labor pain? Think about what appeals to you, and ask your health care provider these questions:
- What's involved in the method?
- How will it affect me? Will I be able to walk, or will I be confined to bed?
- How will it affect my baby?
- What are the possible side effects?
- How quickly will it work? How long will the pain relief last?
- Can I combine it with other methods of pain relief?
- When during labor is the method available?
- What if it doesn't work?
- Will I remember everything?
- Will it increase the duration of my labor?
- Will I be able to breast-feed my baby after delivery?
Plan to have your spouse, partner, family member, friend or doula serve as a support person during your labor. Review your plan with this person and your health care team when you arrive at the hospital or birthing center to give birth.