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Labor is perhaps one of the most painful experiences that a women will ever have. However, with preparation and planning, women who do not want an epidural or pain medication can use several natural methods of pain relief
Alternative methods of pain relief can be very effective and also pose less risk to mother and baby. Epidurals often make it difficult for the laboring mother to get up and walk around, which helps the baby to move down in the birth canal using gravity. Epidurals can also make it difficult for women to help push their babies out due to their inability to feel the urge to push. Pain medications can have an adverse effect on both mothers and babies, lowering blood pressure and causing nausea in some women, and  also affecting the newborn baby’s breathing patterns if given too close to delivery. Many women opt for natural pain relief methods rather than medical methods of pain relief.

Some of the best-known alternative methods of pain relief include using the environment to increase comfort and decrease environmental stress that can worsen pain, the use of water, and breathing methods that promote the necessary oxygenation of tissues which can decrease discomfort.

The Environment in Labor

A soothing environment can help mothers-to-be to relax, and relaxation can be a powerful pain relief tool. The environment can be adjusted to maximize comfort and relaxation, which allows the laboring mother to cope more effectively with discomfort. The following are a few suggestions for creating the ideal environment:

Ensure the temperature is comfortable for the laboring mother- women’s inner thermometers will likely be a little off kilter during labor. She may feel cold at certain times, and overly warm at others. Her comfort is of utmost importance- everyone can remove or put on sweaters as needed. Ensuring that the thermostat is set to a temperature that feels good to the laboring mother is a small thing that can mean a lot in terms of comfort.

Dim the lights- lighting can be adjusted to help the mother feel comfortable and promote a restful atmosphere. Harsh and bright lights may not be conducive to relaxation and there will be no need for bright lights under delivery is imminent. Candles can be used if desired and allowed.

Cue the music- music can be a powerful tool, transporting people to another place and time. Studies have shown that music can lessen pain by releasing endorphins in the brain, the body’s natural painkillers. Choice of music should be left up to the mom- what is soothing to you may not be soothing to her.

Bring blankets and pillows from home- hospital linen can be scratchy and rough against the skin, and hospital pillows can be notoriously flat and uncomfortable. Bring a pillow from home and a soft blanket in case the chills set in.

Keep the noise to a minimum- keep voices low in volume, shut the room door to bar any outside noise and keep visitors to a minimum (unless the mother desires company).

Aromatherapy- scented candles, such as lavender, can be used to create an olfactory relaxation that many women appreciate. Essential oils can also be used for this purpose.

The Use of Water in Labor

The use of water is well known in birth circles as a powerful and effective means of alleviating discomfort. Women may choose to get in the shower and have their birthing partners direct the stream of water at the lower back or the abdomen during contractions. Hot water can be soothing and provide distraction from pain. Many women prefer to use birthing pools or tubs in which the entire body can be immersed. Being fully immersed can provide soothing comfort to the entire body and can also help the laboring mother to feel buoyant and light.

There may be times when a laboring mother may not be permitted to use showering or bathing techniques for pain relief (i.e. if the baby is being monitored continuously and the woman must remain in bed). In such cases as these, a hot water bottle or hot compress may do the trick.

Women may not wish to use the shower or tub all the time- they may find it beneficial  but may find that they do not want to stay in or under the water at all times. Commonly, women will desire to change positions often, and this should be encouraged. Women will instinctively find the most comfortable position and setting for them, and will seek to change positions when they feel overwhelmed. They may leave and return to the tub or shower several times during the course of labor.

Breathing Techniques in Labor

The act of breathing itself can reduce pain when done correctly, helping to optimize oxygenation of the body’s tissues.  Lamaze and other childbirth classes often focus on breathing techniques to help mothers to relax and to reduce pain. Breathing exercises can be aided by the birthing partner, who can remind the mother to use the techniques learned rather than breath-holding or shallow breathing which can make pain worse.

Cleansing breaths are often used by women to relieve labor pain. Women focus intently on taking long, slow and deep breaths, then release breaths slowly and fully. Birthing partners can assist by reminding the woman to use the technique and by counting for them. Birthing partner’s voices are an auditory tool that the laboring mom can focus on to help her control her breathing during contractions.

Some mothers like to use a focal point to focus on when using different breathing techniques. A photo, a memento, a good luck charm, a wall hanging…a focal point can be anything that the laboring mom can see and focus on while breathing.

Vocalizing can be used along with breathing techniques. For example, some women may choose to moan on exhalation as a means of releasing bodily stress. While some women are afraid to be vocal during labor, other women embrace vocalization as one way to decrease their discomfort. Visualization can be used in conjunction with breathing techniques. Using visualization, the laboring mother envisions her baby moving down the birth canal with every contraction.

While natural pain relief methods will not take away all the pain of childbirth, many women use these techniques in whatever combination most appeals to them to reduce their level of discomfort, enabling them to avoid unnecessary medical interventions. The use of water, modifying the birthing environment and using breathing, visualization and vocalization techniques are all effective techniques for natural pain relief in labor.

  • Royal College of Midwives. 2006. "Immersion in water during labour and birth." Joint Position Paper no. 1. London, Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and Royal College of Midwives
  • Ros, Andrea, Ricardo Felberbaum, Iris Jahnke, Klaus Diedrich, Peter Schmucker, and Michael Huppe. 2007 "Epidural anaethesia for labour: does it influence the mode of delivery?" Gynecology and Obstetrics. V. 275(4):269-274