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What Is Back Labor?

Reviewed by Dany Paul Baby, MD on April 07, 2022

During labor and delivery, many women feel intense pain in their lower backs. This is called back labor and is likely a result of where the baby is positioned inside the body. Back labor is not a dangerous condition but can make an already painful experience even more uncomfortable.

What Does Back Labor Feel Like?

Back labor has been described in a number of ways:

  • Intense, excruciating pain in the lower back
  • Pain that is constant in between contractions and that worsens with contractions
  • Discomfort accompanied by painful spasms in the back

Back labor is fairly common among delivering mothers. Between 15 to 32% of women experience back pain before labor, and 5 to 8% of those women experience back labor all the way through to delivery.

What Causes Back Labor?

Back labor is most likely caused by how the baby is positioned in your uterus. The occiput posterior position, which occurs when the baby is facing your abdomen, applies pressure from the baby’s head straight onto your tailbone. It’s not guaranteed that a child being in the occiput posterior position will be painful for you, but this can be the cause of back labor.

Back labor can happen even if your baby is in a different position, though. For example, research shows that women who have back pains during their normal menstrual cycle are more prone to experiencing back labor regardless of how their baby is situated.

Other factors that could increase your risk of back labor include:

  • How big you are compared to how big your baby is. Some mothers with short torsos and large babies experience back pain during labor due to the limited amount of space for the baby to move around in the pelvis.
  • The shape of your pelvis. Depending on the size and shape of your pelvis, you could be more prone to having back pains during labor.
  • Muscle and ligament conditions. If you are prone to having weak or tight muscles and ligaments, those attached to your pelvis can affect how easily your baby is able to move into a birthing position and, subsequently, whether or not you will have back labor.
  • Posture. Poor posture can tilt your pelvis forward or tuck your pelvis under your backside; this contributes to the likelihood of back labor.

When Do You Get Back Labor?

Back labor can stick with you until you deliver your baby. It can be difficult to distinguish between all of the pain and discomfort that you’ll feel during the delivery process. Essentially, back pain can occur nonstop during labor while typical labor pains only happen during contractions. Other kinds of back pain that affect you during earlier stages of pregnancy are likely just pains and muscle aches that come along with being pregnant.

Is Back Labor Bad for Your Baby?

Back labor alone won’t harm you or your baby. However, if your baby is in certain positions, including the occiput posterior position, they can experience complications, or you may need intervention as the baby descends through your birth canal, including:

  • The need for pain medicine
  • Fatigue caused by a long labor
  • The need for forceps or a vacuum-assisted birth
  • The need for an episiotomy
  • The need for a cesarean delivery

Many babies, however, rotate themselves to a better position during labor before it’s time for delivery. Your healthcare provider can even try to turn your baby by hand, depending on what stage of labor you’re in.

The best way to know what position your baby is in is through an ultrasound. With experience, it’s also possible to feel the baby’s shape through your skin to find out how he or she is positioned. You, your partner, or your healthcare provider may be able to check in on the positioning during the later stages of labor, when the baby is likely done moving around.

Is Back Labor Preventable?

Trying to prevent back labor is possible, but not a sure thing. The best you can do is take measures to help your baby move into a good position:

  • Spend time every day on an exercise ball during pregnancy.
  • Don’t spend too much time sitting in deep couches or recliners while pregnant. When you sit, choose positions that place your knees lower than your hips. 
  • Visit a chiropractor or get massages while pregnant.
  • Avoid lying on your back during labor. If you want to lie down, opt for your side or a tilted position.
  • Sit backward on a toilet or chair during labor.
  • Ask your partner to squeeze your hips from the sides for a few seconds as you labor
  • Walk, do lunges, squat, or do anything else that will allow gravity to help you move your baby into a good position during labor.

Remember that these aren’t surefire ways to prevent back labor directly, but they may make labor easier by preventing the occiput posterior position.

How Can I Treat Back Labor?

There are many methods you can try when seeking back labor relief. The best technique is to get off of your back, but other efforts to reduce pain can include:

  • Compresses (hot or cold) on your lower back
  • Direct counter pressure
  • Hydrotherapy via a birth pool, warm bath, or shower
  • A hot rice sock
  • Using a device that rolls while applying pressure, like a tennis ball, water bottle, or hollow rolling pin
  • A massage on your lower back
  • Medication like an epidural or spinal anesthesia

A Successful Delivery

Back labor and other pains associated with delivery can be discouraging. As you go through the delivery process and strive for a successful delivery, stay focused on your own health and the health of your baby. If you’re worried about the positioning of your baby, voice your concerns to your healthcare provider and ask for support in tracking and correcting your baby’s position.

Show Sources

Sources:

American Pregnancy Association: “Back Labor.”

Cleveland Clinic: “Back Labor?”

Mayo Clinic: “Does back labor really happen?”

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