Every birth and labour is different and each woman experiences labour pain differently. As part of your birth plan, you need to think about what pain relief you want during labour and the birth.
Pain during labour is caused by contractions of the muscles of your uterus and by pressure on your cervix. This pain can begin as an achy feeling and build up to strong cramping in your abdomen, groin and back. Some women experience pain in their sides or thighs as well.
What are my options?
There are many options for pain relief during labour and birth. These include non-medical techniques as well as different types of medication. It's important to know your options and discuss your choices with your lead maternity carer. Remember that your choices may change when your labour starts. It’s great to have a plan, but it’s also OK to change it if you need to. Many factors will influence how you feel during labour – the size and position of your baby, how well the labour progresses, how tired you feel and your level of pain tolerance.
Image credit: Canva
Many non-medical pain relief techniques are used during childbirth. These have been found to reduce pain, or at least modify how you perceive it, and help you cope better with labour. Some of the most common ones are listed in the table below.
|Breathing techniques||Breathing techniques may help you to ‘ride the wave’ of each contraction by distraction. Slow deep breathing maximises the amount of oxygen available to you and your baby and can calm both of you as well.|
|Massage/mirimiri||Massage or pressing firmly on your lower back or shoulders can help to ease the pain. Do not massage your abdomen. You can use your favourite massage oil.|
|Heat packs or cold packs||These can help your body release its natural painkillers called endorphins.|
|Walking or changing positions||Some women find walking or changing positions between kneeling, sitting, standing and crouching helpful. You can also lean on the walls, use a Swiss ball or sit on lazy boy chairs.|
|Relaxation techniques||Relaxation techniques such as music, yoga or meditation can help reduce pain intensity.|
|Warm bath or showers||This is an option during the first stage of labour. A warm bath can relax you and help you cope with the contractions. Having a shower can help with any back pain you might be experiencing. Having a bath or shower to ease pain during labour is not the same as having a water birth.|
|Aromatherapy||Essential oils are used with massage or heated over a burner. There is no evidence that aromatherapy provides pain relief, but some women find it pleasant. If you’re thinking of using aromatherapy, check that your hospital or birth centre allows it.|
|Acupuncture||It is not clear how acupuncture works. There are no known side effects for mother or baby. Only a trained person should perform acupuncture. Not all hospitals have an acupuncture therapist on staff, so you may need to discuss arranging your own practitioner.|
|Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS)||In this technique nerves in your lower back are stimulated using a small hand-held device called a TENS machine which you control. TENS has no known side effects for mother or baby and many women find it helpful either alone or in combination with other methods of pain relief. A TENS machine is not suitable for everyone. People with a pacemaker should not use one. They can’t be used in the shower or in water. Not all hospitals or birth centres have them.|
Medical pain-relief options
The main medical pain-relieving options for labour include nitrous oxide (laughing gas), injections for pain (such as pethidine or morphine) and epidural anaesthesia.
(also called laughing gas or Entonox)
|Injections for pain (pethidine or morphine)||
Epidurals for managing your pain during child birth New Zealand Society of Anaesthetists Inc, 2016
Inducing labour, pain relief, and help during birth Ministry of Health, New Zealand, 2016
Childbirth – pain relief options Better Health, Australia, 2014