How To Manage Pain During Labour and Childbirth: The Different Options

Childbirth is a profoundly transformative experience for any expectant mother. It marks the culmination of nine months of anticipation, and the pain that often accompanies it is a significant aspect of the process. Some women choose to give birth with medical interventions such as epidurals. Others opt for an unmedicated approach. Let’s explore together various methods and techniques you can use to manage and cope with pain during labour and childbirth. 

  1. Where does the pain come from?
  2. Non-medical pain management techniques
  3. Medical pain management methods

1. Where does the pain during labour come from?

Childbirth pain is unlike any other. It is intense, visceral, and deeply personal, as it varies from woman to woman. First, allow me to explain the difference between pain and suffering. Pain is a physical sensation, while suffering encompasses the emotional and psychological aspects that accompany it, making it a more complex and subjective experience. Being well-prepared for pain management prevents it from turning into suffering, enabling one to gain control over it.

Pain during labour is primarily due to uterine contractions as the muscles work to push the baby through the birth canal. Additionally, the stretching of the cervix and vagina contributes to the overall sensation of pain.  

2. Non-medical pain management techniques

One of the primary reasons women opt for unmedicated childbirth is the desire for a more natural and empowering experience: they want to feel every sensation and be fully present during the birth of their child. While this choice is a deeply personal one, it may require preparation and mental fortitude to manage the pain effectively:

a. Education and Preparation: one of the key components of managing pain during unmedicated childbirth is education and preparation. Attending childbirth education classes can provide expectant mothers with a wealth of knowledge on the various stages of labour and pain management techniques. Understanding what to expect can help reduce fear and anxiety, which can, in turn, reduce the perception of pain. 

b. Breathing Techniques: focused and controlled breathing is a fundamental tool for managing pain during childbirth. Techniques such as deep breathing exercises can help women stay relaxed and focused during contractions. Deep, rhythmic breathing can reduce the sensation of pain and promote relaxation. Next time when you accidentally stub your toe on a door, try this experiment: consciously taking deep breaths and relaxing to the fullest extent possible can make the pain seem to pass more quickly than if you tense up and hold your breath.

c. Visualization and Meditation: the power of the mind in managing pain cannot be overstated. Techniques like Hypnobirthing, visualization and meditation can be effective tools to help women cope with the pain of labour. By visualizing the contractions as productive and the cervix dilating, women can shift their focus away from the pain and toward the progress of childbirth. The image of a wave is often used in meditation to reduce pain during contractions. The idea behind this visualization is to imagine the pain as a wave that rises in intensity, reaches its peak, and then recedes. By focusing on this mental image, you can learn to accept the pain rather than fear or endure it. During the rising of the wave, you can focus on the sensation of pain while trying to release muscle tension, taking slow and deep breaths. Once the pain reaches its peak, it begins to subside, much like a wave retreating from the shore. This visualization allows you to feel more in control of the pain and better manage the physical and emotional reactions. It also promotes relaxation and stress reduction, which can contribute to a more tolerable experience during contractions. 

d. Movement and Positioning: changing positions and staying active during labour can help manage pain. Walking, swaying, and rocking can help the baby descend and ease the intensity of contractions. Additionally, some positions, like squatting or hands and knees, can provide relief by changing the baby’s position within the birth canal. 

e. Massage and Counterpressure: a loving and supportive birth partner can play a crucial role in pain management during unmedicated childbirth. Massage and counterpressure on the lower back and shoulders can help alleviate discomfort. A well-timed massage can provide a welcome distraction from the pain. 

f. Hydrotherapy: soaking in a warm bath or taking a warm shower can be a soothing way to manage pain during labour. The warm water can relax the muscles and provide a sense of comfort. Water births, where the mother gives birth in a birthing pool, are another option some women choose for pain relief. 

g. Acupressure and Aromatherapy: some women find relief from pain during labour through acupressure techniques. Applying pressure to specific points on the body can help alleviate discomfort. Aromatherapy with essential oils like lavender or peppermint can also have a calming and pain-reducing effect. 

h. TENS (Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation) : TENS can be used to help alleviate pain. It involves placing adhesive electrodes on the woman’s skin, typically in the lower back or areas of pain. The TENS device sends low-frequency, low-intensity electrical pulses through these electrodes. These pulses create a tingling sensation, potentially blocking or reducing pain signals to the brain—a kind of “pain control gate.” Additionally, TENS may stimulate the release of endorphins, natural pain-relieving hormones. It’s worth noting that the effectiveness varies, and its use might complement other pain management methods during childbirth. 

i. Supportive Environment: Creating a supportive and comfortable environment is essential for managing pain during childbirth. Dimming the lights, playing soothing music, and having encouraging and knowledgeable support people can all contribute to a more positive birth experience.

3. Medical pain management methods

While unmedicated childbirth can be a deeply rewarding and empowering experience for women who choose this path, seeking medical assistance for pain relief during childbirth can be just as rewarding and empowering. Each person’s pain tolerance and preferences are different, and it’s essential to respect individual choices and needs. Medical indications, such as complications or excessive pain, may warrant the use of medical interventions like epidurals during childbirth. The primary goal is to ensure the well-being and comfort of both the mother and the baby. 

Various medical methods are available to alleviate pain during childbirth. Here are some common options: 

  1. Epidural: This is one of the most well-known methods. An epidural involves injecting anesthetic medication into the epidural space of the spine. It numbs the lower half of the body, providing pain relief while allowing the mother to remain conscious.
  2. IV Medications: Intravenous pain medications, such as opioids, can be administered through an IV line. These drugs help manage pain but might not eliminate it entirely. They are usually used in conjunction with other pain relief methods. 
  3. Nitrous Oxide: Some hospitals offer nitrous oxide (also called ‘laughing gas’ or ‘gas and air’) to help manage pain and anxiety during labor. It is self-administered by inhaling through a mask. 
  4. Local Anesthetics: Local anesthetics can be used for specific procedures, such as an episiotomy or the repair of vaginal tears. 

During a cesarean section, various anesthesia options are available: 

  1. General Anesthesia: Used when regional anesthesia is not possible, involving unconsciousness and a breathing tube. 
  2. Spinal Anesthesia: Administered in the spinal area to block pain sensation while allowing consciousness. 
  3. Epidural Anesthesia

Depending on the birthing facility, not all methods may be available. Most non-pharmacological methods are applicable for all women, ideally accompanied by trained professionals. However, they may not be compatible with epidurals (e.g., taking a bath with an epidural is impossible). TENS can only be used in birthing centers or certain hospitals, similar to nitrous oxide. Medicinal methods such as epidurals can only be administered in a hospital with an anesthesiologist.

It’s essential to discuss these options with healthcare providers to make informed decisions. What matters most is the health and well-being of both the mother and the baby, and there is no single “right” way to manage pain during childbirth. Every birth experience is unique, and the choice to use medication is a personal one that should be free from judgment or guilt. 

Childbirth is a unique journey, and every woman’s experience is as individual as she is.

Want to get extra support during labour? Get in touch with a Doula!

If you feel like you could need extra care and support during labour and birth, get in touch with a doula to learn more about how they could be best support and assist you. Browse through our Doula profiles, select the one who most closely meets your needs and book a free introductory call. If you have any questions, do not hesitate to reach out to our team at hello@parentally.nl. Help is just around the corner! 

Looking for other types of Pregnancy support? This related article might be relevant for you : perinatal massages. 

Flore Alardo Smit

Flore is a passionate French midwife with over 10 years experience working in hospitals within various maternity services: prenatal consultations, preparation for childbirth, end-of-pregnancy monitoring, hospitalization sector for high-risk pregnancies, delivery room, hospitalization sector for postpartum, obstetric ultrasounds.

She is also the proud and happy mom of 2 young boys, one born in France and the other one in the Netherlands, where she recently re-settled with her Dutch husband and is completing her Dutch Midwifery and Kraamzorg training.

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