How Can I Handle My Labor Pain?

Medically Reviewed by Traci C. Johnson, MD on March 03, 2023
4 min read

There are a lot of things to think about if you’re expecting a baby. One big one is what labor is going to be like. How do you want to handle labor pain?

You can count on some pain. But how much could be hard to predict. Everyone is different. And even if you’ve been through it before, it might be different this time. There’s a lot going on, from your muscles contracting to the pressure on your body as your baby comes out in a vaginal birth.

You’ll have choices. Talk it over with your doctor so they’ll know what you want and you’ll know your options. Keep in mind that your choices may change when your labor starts -- it might be a complicated birth or different than you and your doctor expected. It’s great to have a plan, but it’s also OK to change it if you need to.

One of the best things you can do during your pregnancy is to stay active (as long as your doctor approves). You’ll be stronger and have more endurance, which can be important if your labor lasts a long time.

You might also want to look into Lamaze. This encourages women to feel confident about giving birth. It’s a natural, healthy process. Lamaze includes relaxation and breathing exercises that can help reduce your perception of pain, and it also teaches you to use distraction or massage from a supportive coach.

There’s also the Bradley Method, which includes another person (often the baby’s father) as a birth coach. It encourages a medication-free labor unless medicine is absolutely necessary. Classes that teach this method focus on nutrition, exercise, relaxation, and breathing techniques. But they generally don’t discuss labor problems. You may want to have that talk with your doctor so you’re prepared.

When labor arrives, some women also use other methods to help ease the pain, including walking, massage, trying to relax, taking a bath or shower, shifting position, and listening to music. When there are moments to try to relax, these methods may help.

There are two types of medicine that can ease pain during labor:

  • Analgesics reduce pain, but you can still feel things.
  • Anesthetics numb you. They can block pain and all other feeling.

Some analgesics work on your whole body. Others can reduce pain in smaller areas, like your vagina, vulva, and perineum.

Other analgesics or anesthetics reduce or block pain in bigger areas of your body. During labor, these medications can lessen or numb pain below your waist. They include epidural block, spinal block, and combined spinal-epidural (CSE) block.

Epidural block: Often just called an “epidural,” this is the most common kind of pain relief medication used during childbirth in the U.S. You can get it during a vaginal birth or a cesarean section (C-section). The doctor injects the medicine into your lower back. It takes about 10 to 20 minutes to work.

Epidurals usually relieve pain throughout labor while letting you stay alert. It could temporarily lower your blood pressure, which can slow your baby’s heart rate, though that’s not likely. Also, it can also affect your ability to pee, so you may need a catheter. Other side effects include:

Spinal block: Doctors can use a spinal block before a C-section (it is used more rarely in a vaginal birth). It’s a shot you get in your lower back. It usually starts to work within a few minutes and lasts 1 to 2 hours. The side effects are the same as those for an epidural.

Combined spinal-epidural (CSE): A CSE combines the benefits of an epidural and spinal block to ease pain quickly and for some time. You can get the same level of pain relief from a CSE as you can with an epidural, but with a lower dose of medication. It’s sometimes called a “walking epidural” because you may still be able to walk a short distance after you get it. That way, you may be able to use the bathroom with assistance (if your hospital or birthing center allows it). The risks are the same as for an epidural.

Tranquilizers: These medications aren’t commonly used in childbirth, but they can sometimes help relieve anxiety when injected into your muscle or through an intravenous (IV) catheter. They take about 10 to 20 minutes to work and can help you feel relaxed for 3 to 4 hours. They may make you drowsy and cause you to forget parts of your labor, and they don’t completely get rid of pain. They may also have an effect on your baby by making them very sleepy and sluggish when they’re born.

Narcotics (opioids): Your doctor may inject these through an IV to lessen labor pain. They usually work within a few minutes and last for 2 to 6 hours. They don’t completely eliminate pain, and they may make you feel sleepy. They may also affect your breathing or your baby’s breathing. These medications may be given to women who don’t want an epidural but do want something for pain relief during labor.

Pudenal block: This is an injection that can block pain between your vagina and anus (perineum). It takes about 10 to 20 minutes to work, and it rarely has any negative effects. But it may not work for some people, and it can cause an allergic reaction or even an infection. It can also decrease your blood pressure. This method is used less often nowadays.