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Comfort measures can help
Even if you opt for an epidural or other medication, using relaxation techniques can boost your ability to handle the pain, says Leslie Ludka, C.N.M., director of midwifery at the Cambridge Health Alliance Hospital and Birth Center in Massachusetts. “Tensing up just gets in the way of labor progress,” she explains.
Rhythmic breathing, visualization, meditation, self-hypnosis and other relaxation strategies taught in classes such as Lamaze, Bradley Method or HypnoBirthing may help keep your mind calm and your muscles loose. Said Amorette Drexler, “I was very intent on focusing on what the contractions were doing for me—opening me up to deliver my son!—and not on what the pain felt like.”
“At first it felt like intense gas pains,” said Kelly Domitrz. “Once I figured out it was labor, it was the focused yogic breathing that I had practiced throughout my pregnancy that really worked.”
Other effective techniques include massage, walking, taking a bath or shower, and applying ice or heat. Drexler found that changing positions made a big difference. “My husband worked with me weeks ahead of time to practice relaxation, massage and positions to relieve pain—using a ball, curling into Child’s Pose and squatting,” she said.
“When I was in active labor, the best relief came from taking a long, warm shower,” said Megan DiGregorio. “Being able to walk around was also a real lifesaver.”
Whether you plan to use pain medication or go natural, try to be flexible. “No one really knows what she will need until she is actually having the experience,” says Ludka. “Give yourself permission to change your plan whenever you need to.”
Also keep in mind that each option has its advantages. While medication can take much of the pain out of giving birth, delivering naturally can give you a great sense of accomplishment. “After the pain and effort are over, you’re left feeling very empowered,” Simkin says. Her advice: “Differentiate between pain and suffering. Pain can be managed, but if it becomes overwhelming, medication may prevent suffering.”
Is “epidural guilt” justified?
Some women feel guilty if they opt for labor-pain medication, as though they’ve somehow failed or put their babies’ or their own well-being at risk. In fact, epidurals and other pain-relief drugs are quite safe, says William Camann, M.D., director of obstetric anesthesia at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and co-author of Easy Labor: Every Woman’s Guide to Choosing Less Pain and More Joy During Childbirth (Ballantine Books). “There’s lots of misinformation—the risks and com- plications are overblown, and women suffer unnecessarily,” he says. What’s more, the benefits may last long after your baby is born. According to Gilbert Grant, M.D., director of obstetric anesthesia at New York University Langone Medical Center and author of Epidural Without Guilt: Childbirth Without Pain (Russell Hastings Press), there is a connection between unrelieved childbirth pain and postpartum depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic pain.