Managing Pain in Childbirth
Childbirth is tough. There’s no getting around it. And it is different for everyone. Some women find it centers in their back, others all in their belly. Some women find they can soldier through with few comfort measures, while others find it just about unbearable. Every woman and every labour is different. Fortunately, there are also many different ways you can manage the challenge.
There is an intimate connection between the mind and the body in labour, and it is well documented that if we can relax one, the other will follow. So it is important to consider both physical and mental comfort when thinking about managing your labour. The first and single most important thing is to choose a birthing environment and team that you feel confident and comfortable with. This will set you up with the best possible chance of achieving the birth you want. Remember, you are the one who is labouring, so the choice is yours.
Non-Medical Pain Relief in Labour
Birthing Doulas are trained in the delivery of a wide range of non-medical relief:
Breathing, Meditation, Mindfulness, Afirmations and Relaxation Exercises
Particularly in the early stages of labour, many women find that breathing exercises, meditation and relaxation exercises help. Not only do they give you something to focus on, but they help reduce anxiety, which in turn helps to reduce discomfort. Practice mindfulness and breathing exercises during your pregnancy so that when you are in labour you can use them when you need them. Your doula will have suggestions, or you can find exercises online.
It is also worthwhile to develop some affirmations that you can use during labour. Write them down, and teach them to your support team. You might not ever use them during your labour, but the act of creating them will impart a positive mindset.
The use of essential oils can help in relaxing the mind and creating the sort of environment in which you want to give birth. Young Living and doTerra create lovely oil blends that are ideal for relaxing. Choose scents that appeal to you, but try to aim for something with lavender, clary sage, bergamot, rose, peppermint or lemon, as they promote calm and relaxation.
Being comfortable in the environment in which you are labouring can help keep you calm and relaxed.
Bright, harsh lights can create stress, so consider the lighting in the room. If you are at home you might like to use candles. Battery-operated LED flameless candles are a practical alternative, and more acceptable in most birthing centres and hospitals.
Music can also have a huge effect on the atmosphere in the room. Prior to labour consider what music you might like. Ideally, you should aim for something calming and relaxing. White noise is often a good choice. Waves can also be good as they echo the ebb and flow of contractions.
Hot and Cold Packs
Heat packs are particularly helpful when you are experiencing your labour in your lower back. They can be used on the abdomen, but care should be taken that they are not too hot, and not left on for a prolonged period. A warm compress can also provide relief for the perineum in the early stages of pushing.
Cold packs, or cool damp towels can be comforting on the forehead or back of the neck.
Warm Shower or Bath
A warm shower or bath relaxes the muscles that are working so hard during labour. Buoyancy can help you relax and relieve pressure and discomfort. Allowing a warm shower to fall on your back is particularly good for back pain. Not to mention the overall muscle relaxation of a bath or shower.
A water birth provides you with this comfort throughout your labour, can soften the perineum and provides baby with a peaceful transition from womb to world.
Different positions can provide relief during labour, depending on where you are ‘feeling’ your contractions – what is uncomfortable in one position can be alleviated in another. Generally, the more upright you are able to stay the better. Upright positions work with gravity to help labour progress, and the pressure of the baby’s weight on the birth canal will help you dilate. Leaning forward over the back of a chair or on a beanbag can help, and puts you in a great position for your partner or doula to massage your back.
As with an upright position, moving around if you are able to can help move labour along, and provide some relief, particularly from back pain. Rocking, swaying, walking and dangling often help. Some women even like to dance. Whatever movement helps you is OK.
Massage, Light touch and Effleurage
Some women don’t like to be touched during labour but it can help relax muscles and provide comfort and reassurance. Studies have shown that when we flood the body with pleasurable feelings, painful ones are blocked. This is known as the Gate Control Theory. Massage and Effluerage decreases cortisol (the stress hormone) and increases endorphins, serotonin and dopamine production.
Deep massage through the back and hips can help as the hips expand to allow the baby passage.
Light touch or Effleurage uses gentle strokes without pressure, unlike deeper massage. Stroking down the arms, legs and back can feel lovely, as well as light strokes on the hair and scalp.
TENS stands for Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation. Through small electrodes that are placed on the skin a TENS machine provides small electrical pulses that can relieve muscle tension and stimulate production of endorphins. The beauty of this device is that it is portable, so you can move around, and the electrodes are easily relocated if the pain you are experiencing shifts. TENS can be ideal for women who don’t wish to be touched.
If you have had good results with acupuncture during your pregnancy, you may find it helpful in labour. Some hospitals have staff trained in acupuncture, but in general you will need to engage your own practitioner.
If you are uncomfortable with the idea of needles, Acupressure can work just as well, and has the added benefit that you can do it yourself when you feel you need it. You might also like to try counter pressure. If you are feeling your contractions in your back, having one of your support team press firmly on your sacrum while you are on your hands and knees can help enormously.
When we are near someone we love – like a partner – our body releases oxytocin and endorphins, which are ‘feel good’ hormones. Having your partner close, maintaining eye contact, kissing, and even intimate stimulation can help during labour. Some women find this difficult – especially if there is a cast of thousands in the room – but if you are comfortable with the idea, it will very likely speed up labour and reduce discomfort.
Medical Pain Relief in Labour
Often called laughing gas by dentists, Nitrous Oxide has the benefit of being self administered – so you control when you need it. It doesn’t remove all pain but ‘takes the edge off’. It may cause nausea or disorientation, but doesn’t last long in the body. However, for about 30% of women it doesn’t provide much relief.
Pethidine is related to morphine and is generally injected into the thigh or buttock. Whilst it does provide relief, it can also cause dizziness, nausea and disorientation. It does cross the umbilical cord to the baby, and can reduce respiration and reflexes.
An epidural is delivered via the injection of anaesthetic into the lining of your spinal cord through your back. An epidural probably delivers the most effective relief available in labour. You will still feel a sensation of pressure during a contraction, but not pain, and will remain alert. The downside of an epidural is that you will be unable to get up and move around, which reduces the positive effects of gravity. It may also affect your blood pressure, so you are usually given a fluid drip, and a catheter as sensation in your bladder will be affected.
The most important thing when thinking about pain management in labour is to be kind to yourself. Don’t ever feel you are being weak by asking for relief. You are the only one who knows what your labour feels like, so don’t be afraid to ask for what you want, or to change your mind about going drug free if you feel you need to. The aim here is simply to deliver a healthy happy baby to a healthy happy mum.
If you would like to know more about pain relief in labour, or talk about your pregnancy and birthing plans or concerns, I would love to hear from you.