Coping with pain in labour

Natural pain relief in labour

6 min read

There are various non-medical pain relief options that you can use wherever you plan to give birth. Learn more about how natural methods like massage, relaxation techniques and aromatherapy can help you cope with labour pain.

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What is natural pain relief?

Non-medical or self-help pain relief is any method that helps you manage pain without using drugs.

During labour, this can be anything from getting a massage from your partner, to relaxation techniques like hypnobirthing, or having an aromatherapist with you for the birth.

Reading up on what pain-relieving methods are available, preparing together with your birth partner and noting down any preferences in your birth plan can all make you feel more confident and relaxed before you go into labour.

Non-medical options are very popular – a third of women use natural methods at some point in their labour, according to a 2017 CQC survey.

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What types of natural pain relief are there for giving birth?

These are some of the most widely used non-medical pain relief options used in labour to give you an idea of what you might like to try.

Massage

Getting a massage helps your body to release natural pain-relieving hormones and can make your contractions feel less intense. In particular, many women find it helpful to have their lower backs rhythmically massaged, as that’s where contractions are often felt the strongest.

Your midwife can give you the massage, or show your birth partner how to do massage in a way that helps with labour pain most effectively.

Being active and mobile

Many women find that being upright and adopting different positions help them cope with the pain better, in the early stages of labour as well when the baby’s being born.

Your midwife can talk to you about different positions you may want to try, and your birth partner can help you move around and support you to be comfortable.

Heat

Your muscles relax when they’re subjected to heat which is just what you want in labour. You can use a heating pad, water bottle or wheat pillow that you warm in the microwave on the parts of your body where you’re experiencing the most pain, for example your lower back.

Aromatherapy

Highly concentrated oils extracted from different plants provide scents which can help create a calming environment. Using essential oils to infuse the air of the room you’re giving birth in can help you feel more relaxed.

Some labour wards and birth centres have midwives who are trained in aromatherapy and offer it to women in labour. You can check if your local unit offers aromatherapy by searching for your area or hospital.

Acupuncture

Alongside aromatherapy, this is one of the few complementary therapies that is often used for pain relief, even within the NHS.

You can have an acupuncturist who specialises in birth with you as a birth partner, or get some treatments while you’re pregnant to learn which acupressure points you, or your birth partner, can use when you go into labour. Do make sure that whoever you get advice from is fully qualified in acupuncture for pregnancy and birth.

Breathing exercises

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the pain in labour and start hyperventilating, but breathing slowly (where your out breaths are longer than your in breaths) can help you cope.

You can start to practice breath control during pregnancy so it’s second nature when you go into labour. Your birth partner can also help talk you through breathing techniques you’ve learned together.

Hypnobirthing

Many women find that learning hypnobirthing or natal hypnotherapy, where you use self-hypnosis, breathing and relaxation techniques to relax your body and mind, help in having a more positive birth experience.

Water

Being immersed in water is a popular pain relief method that can help you stay mobile and cope with the pain of contractions. Find out more in our guides to using a birth pool in labour and having a home water birth.

TENS

A TENS machine sends mild electrical impulses to your back via electrode pads that stick to your skin. Read more in our guide to using TENS machines.

How effective is non-medical pain relief when giving birth?

Research that looked at 18 different reviews of pain relief in labour found some evidence to suggest that being immersed in water, relaxation, massage and acupuncture can all help women to cope with the pain of labour with few or no side effects, and improve their satisfaction with their birthing experience.

The same research found that while some women report a positive experience of using hypnosis or aromatherapy to reduce pain, there is not enough evidence available to say whether it’s effective or not.

What are the pros and cons of natural pain relief?

Some of the advantages of using natural pain relief methods include:

  • They can be used in any birth setting. Wherever you’re planning to give birth, you can use methods like massage, breathing techniques and different positions to help you cope. Many women also find that relaxation techniques like hypnobirthing are useful during a c-section.
  • They can be used alongside other pain relief. You can combine different types of natural pain relief, or switch between them as your labour progresses. You can also use them alongside medical pain relief if you want.
  • They won’t interfere with your labour or baby. Some types of medical pain relief, like epidurals, can slow your labour down while others, like certain opioid drugs, can make your baby more sleepy after birth. With natural pain relief methods, that’s not a concern.
  • You can prepare in advance. Medical pain relief is in the hands of your health professionals, but most types of natural pain relief you can plan and have ready in advance of the birth, which can help you feel more prepared and relaxed.

While there aren’t the same side effects of certain medical pain relief options to worry about when using natural methods, there are some potential disadvantages to consider:

  • They don’t remove the pain. Natural methods can help you cope with the pain of the contractions, but they don’t remove the pain itself unlike medical options like epidurals or opioid drugs.
  • You won’t know how effective they will be. You may find that the methods you’ve chosen are not as effective as you had hoped once you go into labour – and there’s not really a way to know that in advance, as the experience of using these forms of pain relief vary a lot between different women.
  • You may have to transfer to have medical pain relief. If you’re planning a natural birth at home or in a birth centre but find that the pain is too much to handle, you’ll have to transfer to a labour ward in order to have an epidural or stronger drugs.

More from Which?

  • Writing a birth plan: Give midwives, doctors and your birth partner a clear idea of what’s important to you.
  • Top tips for birth partners: Advice on how to prepare and the best ways to provide support during labour and birth.
  • Signs of labour: We explain the early signs of labour to look out for – and what to do next.

References

These are the sources of information used in this article:

Care Quality Commission, Maternity Services Survey 2017 (2017)

Jones L, Othman M, Dowswell T. Alfirevic Z, Pain management for women in labour: an overview of systematic reviews, Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2012, Issue 3. Art. No.: CD009234. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD009234.pub2 (2012)

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