As you count down the days to your due date, no doubt you'll be thinking about the birth and how you'll cope with the pain. Everyone's tolerance to pain is different, and as such our need for pain relief will vary. Remember you may have many hours in labour and if your goal is a natural, drug-free birth then you'll want to be prepared with a range of tools and techniques to help you through.
We’ve listed 14 natural pain relief options to help you through labour.
TENS (Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation)
TENS is one of the safest, most effective forms of modern pain relief available to women during childbirth. The treatment is widely approved and recommended by medical professionals. It allows you to experience a mobile, drug-free labour, where you are in control of your pain relief. TENS machines supply gentle, electrical impulses through your skin via four electrode pads positioned on your back. These gentle impulses attack pain in two ways. Firstly, by stimulating the release of endorphins - the body's own pain-relieving hormones . Secondly by stimulating the nerves to block the slower moving pain messages coming from your cervix and womb before they reach your brain. Most women hire a TENS machine which is specifically designed for labour and contractions.
Water: shower and birthing pool
The use of water is well-documented as a labour pain management technique. Heat has been one of the most effective ways to help control pain for thousands of years. Labouring women can get in the shower and direct the water stream to specific areas of discomfort.
The main role of water is to help you get through labour by adopting a natural, instinctive position throughout the whole process of childbirth. Relaxing the muscles will make contractions significantly easier to bear. The weightlessness and buoyancy of your body in water makes it easier to change positions while you float. In a relaxed state, your body will be producing more useful hormones facilitating a smoother, quicker progression of labour.
Rhythmic breathing during labour maximises the amount of oxygen available to you and your baby. Breathing techniques can also help you cope with the pain of contractions.
Try counted breathing. As you breathe in, count slowly up to three or four (or whatever number seems comfortable for you) and as you breathe out, count back from three or four. You might find that it’s more comfortable to breathe in to a count of three and out to a count of four. Try breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth. Keep your mouth very soft as you sigh the breath out. Many women also find it helpful to make a sound on the out-breath, such as “oooooooh” or “aaaaaah”. In between contractions, have sips of water to prevent your mouth from becoming dry.
Hot & Cold Compresses
Sometimes a simple heating pad may work wonders to relieve the pain you feel while giving birth. Either make or purchase a wheat bag and show your birthing partner how to heat it prior to labour. A hot water bottle or warm, wet or dry towels placed on the abdomen can provide comfort. Some women prefer applying cold packs, such as an ice pack, on the lower back, or a cool cloth on the face or neck. If you experience nausea, then a cold facecloth across the forehead or neck can help. Remind your birthing partner of these things and include these items in your ‘pain relief tool-kit’.
Movement & Changing Positions
Staying active during labour can help women deal with pain and reduce the length of labour. Women have been active in labour for centuries, but a medicalization of childbirth in the West led to an acceptance that women lie in bed.
Labouring in alternative positions can help with the descent of the baby, as well as provide comfort and ease pain during childbirth. There are many options: walking, pelvic rocking, positioning pillows for comfort, slow dancing with your partner, sitting and swaying, lifting up the abdomen and rocking in a rocking chair. Lying down during childbirth can work against the labouring body. It is great for brief moments of rest and gives the mother a chance to catch her breath, but try not to stay flat for too long.
Self-hypnosis, using visualization and breathing techniques to induce a state of deep relaxation and banish fear, is an increasingly popular way to deal with labour.
Hypno-birthing is based on the ‘fear-tension-pain’ syndrome of childbirth. The theory is that fear prevents the release of the feel-good hormones, endorphins and encephalins. When fear is eliminated, most women can give birth naturally.
With HypnoBirthing, you're fully aware of what's happening around you, but may feel as though you're daydreaming or drifting off to sleep. You and your birth partner can attend HypnoBirthing classes anytime during pregnancy to learn the techniques before labour.
Massage can be very beneficial for women in labour, but there are some tips and suggestions a birth partner should keep in mind in order to help during childbirth. In labour you go through many physical and emotional changes in a short period of time, so continued support from a caring birth partner can make a huge difference to your childbirth experience. Guide your birthing partner with suggestions of light or firm massage depending on your needs.
Aromatherapy (essential) oils are derived from plants and used for their therapeutic properties. The use of these oils in childbirth can stimulate, refresh and soothe you.
There is some evidence that oils like lavender reduce anxiety in labour, which in turn helps you cope with pain. Hot and cold compresses with essential oils can be soothing and massaging diluted essential oils (in a carrier oil) into the skin is therapeutic, too. It is important to consult with your midwife before using essential oils as some can be considered hazardous.
Preparing your senses
Birth affects, and is affected by, every sense in the body. By giving attention to all your senses, you can bring holistic harmony. Labour pain management techniques should address all the senses.
For the visual sense, try dimming lights or using lamps to bring a soft glow to the birth environment. The majority of women go into labour in the middle of the night. This is no accident. Our melatonin levels are increased at night, which allows our bodies to relax, which in turn brings on labour. When we are exposed to light in labour, it has been shown to slow contractions, or even stop them altogether.
For the sense of smell, using aromatherapy, scented candles, or essential oils can bring much needed calm to the room.
For the auditory channel, speak in low, soothing tones. Refrain from unnecessary chatter or background noise. Music, such as that used for relaxation practice during the pregnancy, can be softly played to facilitate relaxation in labour.
For the tactile sense, use counter-pressure, massage or light touch massage, as and when it feels good for you. Bring soft towels, blankets or pillows to avoid rough textures. Prepare some comfortable clothing which allow you to move around with ease.
Voice is a powerful tool. You may choose to moan with your contractions. You may choose to softly sing, chant or grunt. You should follow your body and know that whatever sounds you make are natural and therefore, good. There are no apologies here; you must follow your body's lead throughout the process of birthing.
Mental imagery is a highly-effective labour pain management technique. It is used frequently by professional athletes to naturally enhance their performance, so why not in this highly physical performance! You can use the same technique to visualise yourself in each of stage of birth. Try to imagine how you will respond to the different changes and challenges you may face. When we visualise a sequence of events as we would like them to happen, we mentally prepare ourselves to act in the same way when the time finally comes. This reduces anxiety of the unknown because the scene has become a familiar one, and will no longer be a scary, new experience.
Try repeating these positive affirmations over and over again. You can make up your own and repeat the affirmations aloud or in your mind while moving through each contraction: “I can do this. I am strong.” “I am one step closer to meeting my baby.” “I trust in my ability to birth my baby.” “I trust my body and know I can do this.”
Reflexology involves massaging reflex zones on your feet that correspond with different parts of your body to improve your blood circulation and relax any tension you may be feeling. Because many women naturally want to be active and move around during their labour, it may be more helpful in between early contractions.
During labour, a ball is a much easier place to sit, relax and move on than a bed. The natural squatting position on the ball will also help to align the foetus and provides pelvic support. Squatting has also been shown to speed up labour. Gentle movement on the ball is a good way to relieve contraction pains. Some hospital and birthing suites have their own supply of birthing balls or you could borrow one.
If you are planning to have your baby in hospital or a birthing centre, then it is a good idea to remain at home for as long as possible. You will feel more comfortable and safe at home, but keep in close contact with your Midwife, so you can work through the first stages of labour at home. By doing this, you often lessen the likelihood of medical intervention when you get to hospital. There are lots of pain relief options that can be used at home, such as a TENS unit, heat, massage and taking a shower or bath.
In the early stages of labour, distraction helps pass the time and may help avoid the need for medical pain relief, so start putting your ‘toolkit of pain relief options & techniques’ together.