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Pregnancy: Pain-relief options for labor and delivery

No two birthing experiences are the same. In one survey, nearly half of new moms said their labor pain wasn't as bad as they'd expected. They rated it on par with their worst menstrual cramps. But labor pain is different for every woman, and may be very painful for some.

What's certain is that you can decide what's best for you. And you'll want to explore your options before it's time to have your baby. What follows are some common methods for managing labor pain. Your provider can tell you more about each.

Natural birth

Many women choose natural ways of coping with pain. Some of these methods have been used for many years, while others are newer. According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and other experts, some women try:

  • Breathing and relaxation techniques. There are classes that teach these techniques and prepare women for childbirth. Two examples are the Lamaze and Bradley methods.
  • Different laboring and birthing positions. Certain positions can make you more comfortable, and some allow gravity to help move the baby out. Besides giving birth while lying on your back, other positions include standing, sitting or crouching.
  • Birthing beds, chairs or balls. These can help you get into more comfortable labor or birthing positions.
  • Warm showers or baths. Sitting in a tub or taking a shower can ease tension and promote relaxation during the early part of labor. But this is different from giving birth in water, known as water birthing. Due to safety concerns for you and your baby, you should get out of the tub before it's time to give birth, according to the college.
  • Short walks. Getting up and moving around while you're in the birthing center may help with pain.
  • A support person or labor coach. Having a partner, loved one, midwife or doula can be a source of comfort that helps ease pain.
  • Other soothing techniques. Getting massages; listening to music; and trying heat and cold therapies, like having a cold washcloth placed against your forehead, may also help.


There are a few effective medications available for coping with labor and delivery. Some women combine them with natural methods.

Epidural block, or "epidural." This is the most common form of pain relief used for childbirth, according to the college. With an epidural, medicine is given through a small tube placed in the lower back. Your lower body will be numb, but you'll still be able to push the baby out. It can take up to 20 minutes for the pain-relief to kick in. And more medicine can be given, as needed.

Spinal block. A spinal block also allows you to be awake and alert. But unlike an epidural, the medicine is given as a single shot in the lower back. Also, the pain relief starts right away, but it only lasts one to two hours.

Combined spinal-epidural block. A spinal block is given first to quickly relieve pain. An epidural is also used to provide continuous relief.

Each of these methods has pros and cons. For instance, you might not be able to walk around during labor or use birthing positions like sitting if you have a spinal block or epidural.

Also, all medicines have risks, which you and your provider should discuss. For instance, less than 1% of women have a severe headache after receiving an epidural.

You can change your mind

And remember, you may decide to change your choice of pain control methods once your labor begins. For instance, some women choose to try natural methods and then decide to have an epidural later. It's up to you.

More pregnancy news

Many women have false labor pains late in their pregnancy. Find out what makes them different from real labor pains.

Additional sources: American Society of Anesthesiologists; Office on Women's Health

Reviewed 1/25/2023

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