Pregnancy Information Center

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Natural Pain Relief Methods for Childbirth


How to stay comfortable during labor without drugs

By Paula Ford-Martin

They call it labor for a reason — it’s hard work! And, frankly, for most women, it’s uncomfortable, too. The good news is that there are many ways to ease your discomfort beyond traditional pain medication. Most of these methods can be started in early labor, before you reach the hospital, and continued throughout the labor process (even if you decide to have an epidural or other medical pain relief).

Practice focused breathing

Even if you aren’t experienced with meditation, you can use elements of simple breathing and relaxation exercises to manage labor pain, says Louisville, KY-based doula, author, and mother of eight Robin Elise Weiss, PhD, MPH. “Try to remember to release tight muscles that you’re involuntarily holding, like your forehead, neck, and bottom half,” Weiss says, referring to the pelvic floor area. “These are all common places for tension.” She also recommends slowing your breathing, as this can help you relax. You don’t have to breathe in a complicated pattern, just breathe more slowly and focus on your breaths, she notes.


Use water as therapy

Find out if the hospital where you will deliver has showers or bathtubs for use during labor. The shower spray can provide an instant warm massage and a full tub of warm water can help ease your discomfort. “Being submersed in water is second to only an epidural in terms of pain relief, as rated by women,” adds Weiss. You can take a shower or bath while you labor at home, but if your water has broken, skip the bath due to the risk of infection.


Get up and move

It turns out gravity is a powerful force. Weiss explains that “any upright position will normally feel better, and movement will generally feel better than non-movement.” Though different positions feel different to different people, Weiss suggests standing and swaying your hips, walking, or kneeling and leaning over a stack of pillows or towels. You can use a large plastic exercise ball, also known as a birth ball, in place of pillows or towels. 

One exception to this is “back labor,” which is severe lower back pain, usually felt when your baby is turned with its face toward your belly (rather than your back) during labor. This tends to be uncomfortable no matter what your position, unfortunately!

Choose and use your tools

Weiss recommends having a birth ball and a handheld massager handy for labor pain relief. A handheld massage tool may help your significant other or labor coach keep going when they’re running out of energy to massage your back during labor. The birth ball is great for sitting on and leaning against to find a comfortable position, as mentioned above. Peanut-shaped plastic exercise balls (known casually as “peanut balls”) also help with labor positioning, propping your legs apart to widen your pelvis and encourage baby to descend. Research at Banner – University Medical Center in Phoenix shows their use may lead to shorter labors and less C-sections.

Other helpful additions to your toolbox include music (make a “Baby’s Coming!” playlist in advance); relaxing imagery, whether photos or videos; and anything else that you find calming, even aromatherapy. At least one study has shown a reduction in anxiety and improved mood when enjoying scents like geranium. 

Don’t forget about support

One of the best pain-relief tools is a labor coach or support partner who’s there throughout your entire labor and delivery. Some women choose to hire a doula, a professional birth partner, for this purpose. “The efficacy of a doula is well-documented,” says Weiss. “The increase in mom’s satisfaction with labor is through the roof.” 

She notes there’s also evidence for improved rates of breastfeeding, fewer incidences of postpartum depression and fewer medical interventions, such as forceps and vacuum extraction and C-section, when mothers hire a professional labor assistant. If you prefer to keep your support circle small and intimate, that’s OK, too. But having someone there to help comfort you and assist in pain management is essential.

Not sure you want to go all-natural? Learn more about medical pain relief options

Published on December 30, 2015.

Paula Ford-Martin has authored more than a dozen consumer health and parenting books, including the bestselling Everything Pregnancy Book, 4th edition, and The Only Pregnancy Book You’ll Ever Need.

Reviewed by Susan Spencer, MSN, RNC, IBCLC on December 14, 2015.
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