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Pain Relief in Labour

Pain during labour is a central part of childbirth and everyone experiences, responds to and copes with pain differently. 

Labour can be a painful experience, but there are a number of options available to help you cope with the pain.  What you do or don’t want to use is up to you – some people want to avoid all medications while others are quite happy to look at all the available options.

Before choosing what you want to use, you should first talk to your midwife or doctor to work out what is best for your pregnancy.

Natural ‘relaxing’ options

There are natural techniques that can help you feel more relaxed and able to cope with pain including:

Being prepared – being uncertain (or afraid) of what is about to happen may make things feel worse, so finding out about the different stages of labour before your due date may help you feel more in control.

Staying relaxed – learn what makes you feel relaxed and calm.  It could be breathing exercises, heat pads or a warm bath. Some women find being active can help them manage their pain better or a gentle massage that reduces muscle tension.

Non-medical pain relief options

TENS (or transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) machines – are small portable devices that pass small amounts of electricity across your skin. The electrical pulses stimulate the production of endorphins (a natural form of painkiller) which may help relieve pain.

Water injections – are sometimes used to help with back pain. Sterile water is injected beneath the skin of your lower back (in four different places) – which causes a stinging sensation that only lasts for about 30 seconds but may help relieve back pain for a few hours.

Medical pain relief options

Gas – You can breathe a mixture of oxygen and nitrous oxide gas (called Entonox or more commonly ‘laughing gas’) through a mask or mouthpiece.  You can be in control of the process – taking breathes when you feel you need it. It won’t take all the pain away and may make you feel a bit sick or lightheaded, but it has no after-effects on your baby.

Injections – Pethidine and morphine are strong painkillers that are used during labour to help reduce the severity of your pain.  They are given as injections (into your thigh or buttock muscles) and can take about 30 minutes to start working.  The effects can be variable and are not usually given to you if you are close to delivery (within two hours of birth) because they can make your baby sleepy. Pethidine may also be associated with breathing difficulties in some babies.

Epidurals – anaesthetic is injected into your back near your spin and usually provides complete pain relief for several hours.  You will feel ‘numb’ from the waist down and will need a catheter inserted to empty your bladder and an intravenous drip (as it can cause low blood pressure) – your baby’s heartbeat will also be closely monitored.  A small tube may also be left in place in your back to ‘top up’ the aesthetic.

It’s important to discuss which pain relief options may be suitable for your labour with your midwife or doctor. Once you have decided you can add them to your birth plan – but remember not everything goes to plan and it’s important to be flexible.