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Pain relief in labour

Of all your pregnancy concerns, perhaps the greatest will be how painful the labour and birth will be and what can be done to relieve this. It may be good to put in a little explanation about the pain and to talk about lessening anxiety with knowledge to manage pain rather than presuming women need to be relieved of it there are many methods that can be used, both medical and natural. More recently there has been a trend towards women wanting natural pain relief without medical help.

When making decisions about your pain relief options, it is important to consider all the options and to keep an open mind. Whatever you decide, when it comes to the labour and delivery, things might not go according to plan and you may need to be flexible when the time comes.

Natural Pain Relief

There are a number of natural birth methods that can be used during labour, either exclusively or in conjunction with medical methods to help you through the pain


Being submerged in water during your labour and birth takes the pressure off your body and can help you to better cope with the pain. Water doesn't take the pain away but helps you to relax hopefully making the pain more bearable.

Water can be used at the start of the labour. For example, if you are spending the duration of your contractions at home, you can simply lie in a warm bath to help relieve the pain. Some hospitals also have baths that you can use.

Alternatively you may wish to opt for a water birth at home or in hospital which you can use for the duration.

You can always supplement it with alternative pain relief if necessary (gas and air if you have a water birth at home or other medical methods in hospital).

Breathing techniques

If you breathe rapidly during labour, you can become tense which increases feelings of pain and can cause you to panic if you are over breathing. This can occur during labour but leads to exhaustion and reduces the amount of oxygen reaching your baby and you.

By adopting some simple breathing techniques, you can control your body and they can help you to relax and work through the various stages of labour. Breathing techniques are often demonstrated at your antenatal classes.


Hypnotherapy is a technique using hypnosis to tap into your subconscious and prepare your body for labour and birth. By preparing in this way, it can help you to overcome the fear and anxiety of labour and birth. By being relaxed, focussed and confident about your body's ability to cope with childbirth you can stay in control which alleviates your fear and tension which can be a major factor in the pain that you experience.


Acupuncture is an ancient system of healing using fine needles to correct the body's flow of energy which can be affected when you experience illness or stress. During labour acupuncture points in the ears are pinpointed to help alleviate pain. The needles may be attached to electrodes which can be controlled by yourself to provide stimulation during contractions, similar to TENS pain relief.


Reflexology involves the application of pressure to various 'reflex points' on the feet. The feet are mapped out to reflect nearly every organ in the body. It can be used to promote relaxation and is thought to promote pain relief. Reflexology can play an important role in the birth. It is believed to help bring on labour, especially if you are overdue. It stimulates the pituitary gland to release oxytocin, the hormone that starts uterine contractions. During labour reflexology helps to keep the body relaxed and calm and stimulates the nervous system to produce endorphins which are our bodies natural painkillers, thus aiding pain control.


Massage stimulates the body to release endorphins which are natural pain-killing and mood-lifting substances. In labour, massage can ease anxiety and promote relaxation It can be done by your birth partner which is a great way to get them involved and bring you closer together during the birthing process.

You can use oil though you should consult an accredited aroma therapist as some essential oils will not be appropriate for labour.

Massaging shoulders can help relaxation and prevents tension which can occur across your shoulders if you are stressed. This can help to alleviate pain. Lower back massage is also useful to help alleviate the pain which can occur during contractions. Foot massage and hand massage is relaxing and soothing if you are lying down during labour

Medical Pain Relief

TENs Machine

TENS stands for Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation, and has successfully been used for many years by pregnant women and professional midwives worldwide to treat labour pain.

Four pads are applied to your back and these emit small pulses or electricity at a strength and frequency chosen by you. The pulses help to raise the level of your endorphins which are your body's own pain relieving chemicals.

TENs machines are best used from the onset of labour and the intensity can be increased as your contractions grown stronger.


  • Allows you to remain in control whilst staying alert
  • There are no known side effects for you or your baby
  • They do not involve the use of drugs
  • Can be used alongside gas and air


  • You may not find the relief as effective towards the end of the labour when your contractions are very strong.
  • Not suitable for a water birth though can be used before getting into the water
  • If giving birth in a hospital, you may have to hire or buy your own

    Gas & Air

    Gas and Air or Entonox is commonly used during labour and is a mix of oxygen and nitrous oxide (laughing gas). It provides quick pain relief without making you drowsy. It can be used throughout your labour and delivery whenever you wish and is best used to help cope with short bursts of pain such as contractions and immediately before the birth. To use 'Gas & Air' begin breathing it in as soon as you feel a contraction starting. It takes a few seconds for it enter your blood stream and so should begin relieving your pain and take effect at the height of the contraction. Once the contraction has finished, you can stop breathing in the Gas & Air should feel normal again very quickly. Remember your breathing exercises (sigh out slowly) whilst using the Gas & Air as long breaths may result in over breathing which can lead to further light-headedness. Also, sip water between your contractions to prevent your mouth becoming too dry


  • No Known side effects on your baby
  • Easy to use
  • You are in control of when you take it
  • Doesn't stay in your system
  • Takes the edge off contractions
  • Contains oxygen that is good for your baby
  • Can be used for a home birth
  • If you want to labour in water, you can use "gas and air" while in the pool.


  • You may feel lightheaded and nauseous
  • Your mouth may become dry
  • You may need additional pain relief at some stage during your labour


    Pethidine is a sedative drug administered by a midwife in labour usually in the form of an injection into your leg or bottom. It takes about 15 minutes to work and the effect last for around between 2 - 4 hours.


  • Pethidine helps you to relax and may lessen the perception of pain of your contractions
  • The dose can be repeated


  • Side effects can include vomiting, feeling shaky, light headed and disorientated
  • You have to wait for the effects to wear off
  • Pethidine crosses the placenta to the baby which can result in breathing difficulties and an antidote may have to be given
  • In the first few days after birth, your baby may be sleepier and you may experience problems in establishing breastfeeding


    An epidural is an injection of an anaesthetic drug into the space at the side of the spinal cord and takes effect within 10 to 20 minutes. It remains in place until after you have delivered your baby.

    An epidural is administered by an anaesthetist who will insert the epidural into your back. A catheter is left in the injection site to enable the drugs to be topped up should you need them to be.


  • Epidurals nearly always give good pain relief


  • Occasionally epidurals do not give effective pain relief,
  • You may experience nausea and dizziness caused by a drop in blood pressure. A drip or injection with be administered to bring the pressure back to normal.
  • An epidural can slow your labour
  • You may find it difficult to urinate and require a catheter to empty your bladder.
  • A few women report severe headaches after an epidural which can last for some time
  • You may develop a high temperature which could lead to an abnormally fast heart rate in your baby. This may lead to you and/or your baby being treated with antibiotics and screened for infection.
  • An epidural can reduce a baby's blood pressure and cause fetal distress
  • Your baby may need to be delivered by forceps

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