Natural Pain Relief Options For your Labor

Informing yourself and opting for natural methods of pain relief during labor makes so much sense. After having spent so much time during pregnancy agonizing over only being allowed paracetamol when you are sick, there is a smorgasbord offered to you when you are in labor! It’s still really important to carefully consider medications during labor. This is because when a baby is exposed to drugs, for example pethidine (which is a narcotic and crosses the placenta freely), a baby requires so much longer to eliminate the drugs from it’s system than a fully grown adult. Norpethidine (an active metabolite of pethidine) can accumulate in both mother and baby, and it has a half-life of around 20.5 hours! Some other studies report even longer. This can be detrimental to respiration and breastfeeding attachment. Some pregnant women freak out after having seen scary birth DVDs during prenatal classes, or perhaps it’s just the usual run of the mill of horror stories which most pregnant women (and their partners) are subjected to these days.
Rest assured, with some good support and tools, labor doesn’t have to be like that at all. Below are some known and proven ways to help relieve pain in labor. Having these things tucked away in your labor arsenal may help you during your labor and perhaps get you through without the need for any pharmaceutical pain relief.
Natural Pain Relief Option #1:
  According to many studies, women who use doulas have fewer requests for epidurals, fewer caesarean sections and are less likely to require forceps or vacuum births (amongst many other things). In a recent review of all available doula studies, it was concluded that doulas were more effective at supporting a woman than hospital staff or the woman’s friends or family. This is because she provides a trifecta of continuous (doesn’t leave your side), experienced care and is known to the woman – no other person present in the birth room can usually provide all three. Having a doula present at your birth will make it less likely that you’ll want or ask for pharmaceutical pain relief. A doula is trained in the art of birth support, where she learns about helpful positions, support methods and tools to help laboring women feel more comfortable and feel more supported.
Natural Pain Relief Option #2:
 Water immersion in labor offers significant benefits for the laboring woman, including pain relief, relaxation and comfort. According to a Cochrane database review: “Water immersion during the first stage of labor significantly reduces epidural/spinal analgesia requirements and reported maternal pain, without adversely affecting labor duration, operative delivery rates, or neonatal well being. Immersion in water during the second stage of labor increased women’s reported satisfaction with pushing.” The first stage of labor is the contractions prior to pushing – pushing is second stage. Most midwives and birth attendants will recommend getting into the bath once you are in active labor, as being in a bath creates buoyancy and you want to work with gravity in early labor to make sure the labor isn’t going to stall. Showers are also great, as you can remain upright and direct the shower head at your lower back if you have back pain. Even if you think you aren’t a shower person, in labor, many women choose to use the shower and some spend a great deal of their labors under the shower. There are also many benefits for babies born in water. Andrew Davidson is an Obstetrician at John Flynn Hospital in Queensland who says that around 40% of women at the hospital use water immersion for labor. Birth satisfaction among those who water birth is very high. He states: “There is a much reduced usage of analgesia in the water birth group with no epidurals, very few women using narcotics, while about half use nitrous oxide (gas). Water born babies tend to breathe quietly at first rather than cry but in our experience do not have lower Apgars or require more resuscitation.”
Natural Pain Relief Option #3: Calm birthing/HypnoBirthing
Learning how to relax is so important in labor, otherwise you end up in the vicious cycle of fear → tension → pain. When you tense up and get tight (which is a natural reaction to any sort of pain) it actually makes that pain worse. With Calm birth, you learn: To access your natural inner resources to alleviate the fear, anxiety and tension experienced during pregnancy, labor and childbirth Practical skills of relaxation, breathing and visualization which are used during pregnancy, labor, childbirth and beyond How the mother’s body is beautifully designed to birth her baby naturally and calmly and with the right preparation, to work with the process rather than resist it The importance of a mother’s beliefs and attitudes about birth and how these can be one of the major differences between a positive or negative birth experience The importance of bonding with your baby and how this effects your baby’s future life To be empowered to take control of your own birthing experience Calm birthing is an Australian method similar to the American HypnoBirthing method.
Natural Pain Relief Option #4: Changing Position
 Being comfortable in labor is of course going to make a huge difference in your pain tolerance. The worst position for pain during labor (and the most dysfunctional) is lying flat on your back in bed, next is semi-reclining. Mobility is important in labor, as is position changes, especially when you are working with gravity and your body. Upright, forward leaning positions are ideal, as when your uterus contracts, it actually contracts forward. Many unrestricted women naturally lean forward with contractions. Therefore working with your body and the surges of contractions is going to be more effective and efficient, resulting in less pain for the laboring woman.
Natural Pain Relief Option #5: Naturopathy
If you visit a naturopath before your birth, they may be able to provide some natural pain relief preparations for you, which are safe while pregnant and breastfeeding. You can get some preparations over the counter from your pharmacy, for example, Rescue Remedy, however a tailored preparation just for you is ideal.
Natural Pain Relief Option #6: Massage Pressure
You don’t need to be a professional to provide massage in labor – loving, nurturing strokes and massage on a woman’s body in labor is all you need to provide. Some studies have been done on pain relief and massage. One of the studies involved massage conducted by the woman’s partner. They found that the woman’s anxiety and pain was reduced and her mood improved. Another concluded that massage was a cost-effective option that could be implemented by midwives. Women perceived a reduction in their pain and anxiety levels, and found with partner involvement, they had a more positive birth experience. Yet another concluded that women who were massaged during labor were less anxious, experienced less pain, had shorter labors and experienced less postnatal depression, opposed to the control group of women who did not receive massage. Massage can be performed by your partner or a doula, but often midwives are too busy to perform massage, so plan for your partner or a support person to do the massage. Massage stimulates the production of endorphin which are natural pain killers and mood enhancers. In labor, massage can be given on the shoulders, head, back, feet, legs and hands. If you buy oils for massage, make sure you check that the essential oils are safe in labor. Some essential oils need to be avoided. It’s best to buy a base carrier oil, like avocado, grape seed or almond oil and add safe oils to it if you wish. Some oils safe in labor include lavender (relaxing), geranium (relaxing), orange (uplifting, refreshing), clary sage (strengthen contractions), but please do check the correct doses with someone who is trained in aromatherapy. It’s important to note that some women will not like touch or massage during specific times in their labor or at all, so it’s important to plan other options for natural pain relief as well as massage. Don’t be put off if she doesn’t want to be touched and don’t be afraid of offering again if you think she would like it. Observe her movements – does she have her hand on her back, does her back ache? Is she rubbing her legs? Maybe you could do this for her. Women with lower back pain often get more relief from pressure (press your palms into her lower back, quite firmly). Even if she doesn’t like massage, she can enjoy this quite a bit. Another helpful tip with backache is to have the woman sitting back in a chair and her partner or a support person pushing into her knees with their hands. You really need two people to do this as a tag team or with one knee each – women often find it so helpful with lower back pain that they don’t want you to stop, and the person pushing the knees can get very sore wrists – take it from someone who thought their wrists were going to fall off!
Natural Pain Relief Option #7: Environment
The environment in which a woman gives birth can help with relaxation, hence pain relief and comfort. Turn the lights off or down. Help her instinctive brain kick in and her thinking brain turn off. Darkness helps with this. Bring familiar objects from home if in hospital, like pillows, blankets and other things that have her smell on it – the smells of familiarity, safety and home. Music – favorite CD’s for different moods are great, from uplifting to soothing sounds, music can groove some pain away! Keep it quiet. Avoid talking unnecessarily when things get serious and asking her lots of questions – her thinking brain is trying to shut down to let the instinctive part of her brain take control, hence why women can appear vague and unable to know what they want in labor. Humor can be great when appropriate, for example early labor, but it’s important not to keep engaging her thinking brain when she’s in strong labor. Encourage others to keep voices down and increase touch and encouraging words when needed.
Natural Pain Relief Option #8: Heat Pack
Another option for sore backs – a wheat pack or another form of heat pack is a great non-pharmaceutical alternative. If you are giving birth in a hospital, be sure to check the policy on heat packs, because some no longer allow you to heat up wheat packs in microwaves due to potential fires (yes it has happened before!). So you may need to choose a non-wheat heat pack, for example the gel ones which heat up in hot water, or you could find out what the hospital suggests. Heat packs are also great post-natally for after birth pains, while the uterus contracts down to it’s normal size – which happens in only a few days – so it works hard!
Natural Pain Relief Option #9: Aromatherapy
Aromatherapy in labor has many great uses. If you are giving birth in hospital, it can provide a nice smell to mask the smell of the hospital, enabling you to relax a little more. While some essential oils are not advised during pregnancy and labor, it is perfectly safe to burn any oil in your burner. You might like to choose some oils suggested in the massage section above. A point about oil burners – check to see if your hospital has one, as they will not allow you to bring in your own in case of an electrical fault and you blow up the electrical system! Naked flames are also not allowed, so you can’t bring your own oil burners that evaporate with a candle. Your options are usually a battery operated one, which I am yet to find, or a hospital one. You could always ask if it will be okay to use your own if you get your unit electrical tested.
Natural Pain Relief Option #10: Sterile Water Injections
For some women, back pain in labor (usually caused by a posterior positioned baby – where the baby’s back is against your back) is much more challenging to manage. Intradermal injections of sterile water provides a non-pharmacological pain relief option. A small amount of sterile water is injected in four places just under the skin that covers the sacrum, the lower part of the back. Its thought that the sterile water injections stimulate the nerves which quickly send messages to the brain and interrupt the slower messages from inside the body – this has been called the ‘gate control’ theory of pain management. Intradermal injections of sterile water have been found to stop backache for over 90% of women. For those women it works for, the relief has been immediate. The catch is that it is quite painful. It has a sharp, wasp like sting, which lasts about 20 seconds, however the vast majority of women who experienced severe back pain reported that it’s worth the sting and likely prevented them for opting for an epidural. Sterile water injections is still fairly new and midwives need to be specially trained to use it – so you will need to check before the birth if this option is available to you. You might even suggest that they look into it if they don’t have that option. For more information, check out our article on sterile water injections.
Natural Pain Relief Option #11: TENS
A TENS machine works by attaching two strips of electrodes on your lower back – one on either side of your spine. These connect to a hand-held battery powered unit, which allows you to control the strength of the electrical impulses. The way it apparently works is that the impulses send a signal to the brain where they compete with pain impulses from the uterus, helping to block the pain. TENS machines do help some women to cope with early contractions, but it’s effectiveness really does vary greatly from woman to woman. Feedback from both studies and by consensus from women give mixed results. Some women find TENS to be no help at all, and some swear by them. The few clients I have supported who have chosen to use TENS gave it a go until they got into water, then took it off and didn’t bother putting it back. Yet on the other hand some women I have heard from say they couldn’t have coped without it. It is important to get some instruction on how to use TENS before labor – often places who hire out the machines do have TENS classes so if you choose to use TENS in labor, make sure you book yourself in for some lessons. Pros Using A TENS Machine: You can use it from the very start of labor It can be used anywhere – at home, in the car or in hospital You can remain mobile Can be used with other forms of pain relief except back massage or water (shower, bath) Self administered and controlled Some women find it particularly helpful with back labor (posterior babies) Can be used post-birth Cons Using A TENS Machine: It’s not as effective for strong labor as massage or loving care from a doula or privately-hired midwife You need to start using it very early in your labor to get the most out of it It makes you focus on the early stages of labor when it’s better to play it down and ignore it You cannot use it and need to take it off while being monitored, in the shower or in the bath You need to press the button to turn it on before each contraction, so you are effectively sitting there waiting for a contraction coming on It doesn’t work for all women Some women feel that the wires are distracting in labor. Not to be used on broken or irritated skin.
Natural Pain Relief Option #12: Keep Hydrated and Eat If Hungry
Midwife, Brenda Manning, suggests: “If you don’t think you will remember, ask your partner to remind you to drink at least 300mls of water every couple of hours to avoid dehydration, which can result in fatigue and a poorly functioning uterus. Eating and drinking during labor has been shown to reduce the total length of labor by as much as 90 minutes. Eat light, easily digested food.”
Natural Pain Relief Option #13: Acupuncture
Studies have shown that acupuncture is effective for all sorts of pain relief. In China, acupuncturists work in hospitals and provide acupuncture for patients. However in Australia (and many other western countries) no such thing exists. Some hospitals are receptive to Chinese medicine professionals treating patients (as long as you hire your own) but if you’re giving birth at home this obviously isn’t an issue.

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