What's The Best Way To Deal With Labor Pain?

08.30.12 Here's a step-by-step plan for dealing with pain, one stage of labor at a time.


One very special reader I’ll call Katherine, is expecting her first baby this fall. She’s creative, energetic and super smart. She has an eye for detail, a keen sense of style and just the teensiest tendency towards anxiety. She knows a lot about childbirth, has taken classes, studied everything Fit Pregnancy has to offer including everything I’ve written in the last few years. Katherine is about as prepared for parenthood as any reader I’ve ever had. And yet, she’s worried labor will be so painful she’ll lose her freakin’ mind. She’s afraid she’ll get all up in her head and won’t be able to deal with labor. And she wants to go natural if possible.

Part of the challenge is, Katherine read the Facebook comments answering the question: What did labor feel like to you? Here are a few that put Katherine just a wee bit on edge:

  • I thought I was going to die.
  • Horrible
  • Felt like my body was about to break apart from the inside out
  • Like a migraine for my entire torso. .
  • Like being tortured by Hannibal lector!!! Lol

Pretty vivid, right? There were plenty of reassuring comments too:

  • I took nothing with my babies. I think it was easy and enjoyed watching them come into the world.
  • It feels like a large, intense cramp. You get just enough relief between each, to make it through and then comes another. If you are hoping to go med free, I highly recommend it.
  • Forget about the pain and focus on the end results and you'll be fine!
  • I had contractions for a while and didn't know. I walked a few blocks to the hospital and was already at 4cm. I didn't feel anything until about 7cm, and it felt like mild menstrual cramps. No epidural, my 5lbs 7oz baby was born after a few pushes.
  • I didn't know I was having contractions when I went into labor, I just thought it was the normal cramping.

Katherine asked what I think is the best way to deal with labor pain. Hmmm, the BEST way, huh? Well, that depends. Every woman experiences labor differently. She might have a fast labor or a slow one, a big baby or a small one, a stubborn cervix or one that dilates easily. She might have a high pain threshold or a low one, a lot of anxiety or none at all. She might start labor in the middle of the night and be tired from the get-go or she might start out fresh as a daisy. She might get an early epidural or she might not get one in time. She might be alone or she might be well supported. She might plan to go all-natural then change her mind or she might go through her entire labor with nothing but a deep breath and a sigh. Labor varies that much.

If you’re looking for a game plan though, here’s a step-by-step plan for dealing with pain, one stage of labor at a time.

Pre-labor – Study, take classes, and practice natural techniques, even if you plan on getting an epidural. The more you know, the better prepared and less frightened you’ll be about what’s happening to your body.

Early labor – During the early hours when contractions come and go irregularly, rest as much as possible. Take walks, change positions frequently, hop in the tub or shower and get a massage. You’ll feel cramps and they won’t feel great, but most women can handle early labor without medication.

Bust out your natural childbirth techniques. Use your deep breathing and relaxation skills. If you’ve studied Lamaze, Bradley, Birthing from Within, HypnoBirthing or any other method – bring it. I’m a big fan right now of HypnoBirthing. Lots of techniques are great, but there’s something special about HypnoBirthing. It just seems to work.

Active labor –This is the time when the going gets tough. If you’re planning to get an epidural – now’s a good time. If natural is your goal, keep using all the tools in your natural toolbox. If one technique isn’t working, try something new. If you’re overwhelmed and feel like tossing in the natural towel, try a new position or technique for ten contractions before you decide to use medication or an epidural. A lot can happen in ten contractions and sometimes all you need is a finite goal. You might choose to keep going for another ten or you might decide time’s up.

If you’re ready for medical help with the pain, don’t beat yourself up about it. That’s what it’s there for. If you’re lucky enough to be in a hospital that offers nitrous oxide (AKA laughing gas) start there. It’s a safe, effective pain relief option that’s popular all over the world, but isn’t readily available in the US. Some hospitals offer it and women say it’s awesome.

Sometimes all you need is a bit of IV pain medication to dull the pain and help you relax for an hour or two. The first dose is pretty helpful. The second dose; less so. If you need more than two doses, you need an epidural.

Most women say epidurals are relatively easy procedures that make labor almost painless. Yes, they can make your legs numb, slow labor down a bit, make pushing more challenging and cause some women’s blood pressure to drop, but, labor can be augmented with Pitocin, pushing can be coached, blood pressure can be boosted and for women who seriously need pain relief, numb legs are better than fierce contractions. There’s no crime in getting the pain relief you need.

Katherine, you’re already ahead of the game because you’re well prepared. As for the BEST way to deal with it – Whatever way you decide to go, your way will be just right for you and your baby. Just take it a step at a time and know that help is available if you need it. Flexibility is absolutely the best way to deal with labor.

Jeanne Faulkner, R.N., lives in Portland, Ore., with her husband and five children. Got a question for Jeanne? Email it to labornurse@fitpregnancy.com and it may be answered in a future blog post.

This Fit Pregnancy blog is intended for educational purposes only. It is not intended to replace medical advice from your physician. Before initiating any exercise program, diet or treatment provided by Fit Pregnancy, you should seek medical advice from your primary caregiver.

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