Ah, the miracle of birth.
For 9 months, you’re beautiful body has sheltered, nurtured and protected a tiny human being. You’ve survived cravings, muscle discomfort, insomnia and nausea, and now, after months of cuddling with a body pillow and waddling to and from the bathroom twenty times a day, one way or another (SPOILER ALERT) that baby is coming out.
Wouldn’t it be great if you could just sneeze and the baby would pop right out? Unfortunately, for most women, giving birth isn’t quite that straight forward. The truth is, labour is different for every woman, and every pregnancy. Some women have intense contractions, and others don’t. Sometimes your water will break, and sometimes it won’t. Some pregnant women will labour for hours, even days! Others hardly have time to make it to the hospital or birthing centre before it’s time to push.
And while some are able to have vaginal births, others are raced off for planned and unplanned C-Sections, a process that requires a whole different kind of preparation and recovery. One thing however, is true across the board, for every woman: How you want to handle your labour, and the pain that goes along with it, is entirely up to you.
There’s no Rush to Decide
Having an idea of what you’d like to see happen in the delivery room or birthing centre is a great idea. Do the research, make some notes, but just remember that even the best laid (birth) plans tend to go awry.
You might plan on having an epidural, but go into labour too quickly. You might like the idea of laughing gas and then decide to push through (pun intended). Or, you might like the idea of going au naturel, but decide last minute that you really want “the drugs”. Circumstances allowing (depending on where you choose to give birth, you might be limited in your choices), you are fully entitled to change your mind, free of judgement. If you are, in fact, open to the idea of having medical pain relief, be sure to tell your midwife or OBGYN that you’d like to know when you get to the stage at which medical intervention is no longer an option. At that point, you can then choose to proceed with natural or medical pain relief.
Natural Pain Relief During Labour
If you’ve decided to opt in for natural pain relief during labour, there are a number of things you—and your partner— can do to make the delivery process more comfortable. In fact, even if you want to get medical intervention further into labour, these natural pain relief techniques can help you stay comfortable until it’s time:
A hot water bottle of warm cloth placed on your back, stomach or groin is a great source of pain relief for many women at varying stages of labour.
In between or during contractions, a heat pack can be used to soothe your lower back. During labour, placing a warm cloth between the back of your vagina and the perineum can help make you feel more comfortable. Following labour, heat packs can be used to soothe your belly as your uterus contracts down in order to return to normal size.
Don’t worry if you’re labour partner isn’t an RMT; in this case even the lightest of touches can help soothe your labour pains. Having someone lovingly rub your back not only warms your skin, but also helps stimulate endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers and mood enhancers.
Studies show that massage can actually lower anxiety, lessen pain during childbirth and shorten labour time. If you’re soothed by fragrances, try using made of lavender or geranium to relax you, or orange to invigorate you and get you ready for the final push.
Similar to the warm pack, a bath can provide relief for your back, especially if you’re experiencing increasingly forceful contractions. If you don’t have a bath, try running a warm shower while you’re still at home, or in the hospital if possible (just be careful not to make the water too hot).
Studies show that women labouring in water (in this case, a tub or birthing pool) require less medical pain relief and labour for shorter amounts of time. But don’t start before you enter active labour, or if could slow down your progress. As with most things in life, timing is everything.
Regulate your breathing
When you’re experiencing the tightening up of everything below your chin, instinct tells you to hold your breath and wait for the pain to pass. For women experiencing contractions however, it’s important to breathe in a way that relieves the tension, without stalling the labour process.
Try to keep a rhythm going throughout each contraction. Many midwives and labour coaches suggest breathing in two stages, following a rhythm that encourages you to relax; the in being the “re—“ and the out being the “—lax.” Taking long deep breaths, and focusing on breathing out slowly and steadily, can help easy labour pain while ensuring you don’t hyperventilate. One last tip? Don’t be afraid to make noise. If regulated breathing isn’t working, try moaning, also known as toning. Take in deep breaths and let it all out through the mouth! Feel free to be as load as you like! You’re about to birth a human. You’re allowed to make a little noise.
One of the most prescribed pain relief techniques during labour is simply to stay mobile. Lying flat on your back in bed is actually the worst position for pain during labour but if that’s where you’re headed, be sure to shift things up while you can.
Try standing up, and using gravity to your advantage. Lean on the back of a chair or, wrap your arms around your partners’ neck for added support. If you’re tired of standing up, try straddling a chair and resting on a pillow placed at the top. Or try resting on all fours with your legs spread apart. Rocking back and forth can also help the baby move further down the birth canal.
BabyCentre.ca also offers up some great advice on changing positions to minimize labour pains.
Medicated Pain Relief During Labour
Whether you’ve decided beforehand that you want medicated pain relief, or you’re educating yourself “in case”, here’s a bit of information regarding the most common medical pain relief used in Canadian hospitals:
Nitrous Oxide (Laughing Gas)
Inhaled through a mask, nitrous oxide provides short-term pain relief for labouring women. The feeling that most women describe after being on laughing gas is an inability to concentrate on the pain. Also described as a feeling of not being present, this affect can actually be a detriment for some women who feel disassociated with the experience of giving birth.
Nitrous Oxide poses no risks to the health of the baby, but can cause nausea or dizziness for labouring mums. It is often the pain relief drug of choice during rapid deliveries when there is not enough time for an epidural.
While epidurals can bring tremendous relief to some women, narcotics are used to dull the feelings of pain experience during labour. The advantage of narcotics is that you lose no sensation in your body, as there is no deep-numbing effect.
Narcotics such as morphine and fentanyl are often taken by women in early labour to provide pain relief and rest, and are administered in the form of an IV or an injection straight into the muscle. Narcotics make most women feel sedated, but they can also cause feelings of disorientation and dizziness. It is also important to note that the use of narcotics can slow down the baby’s breathing after delivering. Ask you midwife or OBGYN to go through all the risks and benefits with you, before you decide.
The epidural is the most commonly used medicated pain relief technique in Canada. In fact, more than half of all Canadian women give birth with an epidural. An epidural is an injection of anaesthetic given in the lower back, providing a loss of sensation to areas “below the belt”. Heads up! Depending on the dosage, that can includes your legs, meaning that the short-term recovery can be tricky as it takes you a bit longer to get back on your feet (literally).
The advantage is clear: all encompassing pain relief. The down side? It can slow labour down and you will have limited mobility. Finally, the likelihood of a delivery assisted with forceps or a vacuum increase with the use of an epidural.