Labour is physically challenging and every woman will feel some degree of pain. Pain relief for labour encompasses lots of different methods, both medical and non-medical.
Each woman (and each labour) is different, so there is no one-size-fits-all approach to pain relief for birth. You can use a variety of methods, either alone or in combination.
Keep an open mind, as labour is a dynamic process and your preference may change as the labour progresses. There is no perfect option – all forms of pain relief have pros and cons.
Non-medical pain relief for labour
These are basic measures that make a good starting point for most women. If possible, remain active and mobile during early labour. Changing your position, a birthing ball, breathing techniques, music, visualisation and acupressure/massage can all be helpful.
Many women also get relief from warm water, particularly in the 1st stage of labour. However, I do not recommend delivery under water.
Sterile water injections
In the past few years, sterile water injections have become something of a fad. Pregnancy forums frequently recommend water injections. Unfortunately the benefits are often overstated.
A number of studies have been performed but the quality of these studies is highly variable. There does appear to be some effect i.e a short-term reduction in pain. It’s difficult to know how much of this is just distraction (because you focus on the stinging of the injections) or the placebo effect.
Most importantly, the available studies showed no difference in the number of women who ultimately needed an epidural for pain relief. Sterile water injections will not help you to avoid an epidural.
TENS (Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation)
TENS is becoming more popular for pain relief, particularly in the early stages of labour. You can buy or rent a TENS machine. It sends electrical impulses from a hand-held generator to electrodes placed on your lower back. TENS is safe, allows you to move around freely in labour and does not have any of the potential side-effects of pain medication.
Inhaled nitrous oxide (Gas & Air)
Nitrous oxide is commonly called laughing gas. It reduces pain and can also produce a feeling of euphoria. You breathe the gas through a mouthpiece during contractions. It provides effective relief for many women and has been used on labour wards for decades. The gas acts quickly and is very safe. It can occasionally make you feel dizzy, sick or cause a tingling sensation in your hands.
These are strong pain-killers (such as morphine or pethidine) given as an injection into your bottom or arm. These medications don’t affect your contractions. They can sometimes make you feel drowsy or sick. Usually, you’ll receive an anti-nausea injection at the same time.
Pain-killer injections can be very helpful in the early parts of labour. However, they pass across the placenta to the baby. The injection can affect your baby’s breathing if it is given close to birth. Therefore, these medications aren’t recommended if you are likely to deliver within a short period of time. Dr Walsh and the midwife will guide you on this on the day.
Epidural is a big topic, so it gets a whole page to itself – read more here.
As always, this information is intended for general educational purposes only. It is not medical advice. Please discuss any medical issues with your own doctor. Read our full medical disclaimer here.