Natural pain relief in labour

Woman breathing exercises hypnobirthing

While natural pain relief in labour won't have the same oomph as an epidural, there are lots of things you can do to make your labour easier if you prefer the natural route – or just want to give everything else a go before pulling out the big guns

Acupuncture | Hypnotherapy | Aromatherapy | TENS machine

How can I manage labour pain naturally?

There is no denying that labour hurts – but women all experience it differently. Some women breeze through it without so much as a “bloody” or “bugger” passing their lips, others are floored by the pain they experience and know fairly early on that they'll need something pretty strong to see them through it. But it's very much a case of different strokes for different folks and you might just find that something really simple works for you, or at least gets you to a point where you're happy to bring on the drugs and make the most of them.

Labour is not a competition (you get a beautiful baby at the end, not a medal) and it's unpredictable. So, while natural pain relief options can be brilliant, remember, it's OK to change your mind as your labour progresses – you certainly won't be the first, and there are no prizes for bravery or martyrdom here.

Can massage help with contraction pain?

Massage can be very relaxing, which is always a plus in labour, and can encourage things to move along more quickly. But it can also help to relieve pain. A back massage from your birth partner or a doula, or perhaps a kind midwife, can help get endorphins (pain-relieving hormones) flowing.

Slow, firm, downward strokes often help if you have pain in your back. You can also get someone to massage your shoulders or feet in between contractions to calm and reassure you. If you want to, you can use massage oil during labour but if you're using any aromatherapy oils do check first that they are suitable for use during labour.

A word of warning – some women find that on the day, massage is more annoying than relaxing, or they simply can’t bear to be touched at all, so obviously do speak up if you feel that way.

How effective is aromatherapy during labour?

While there is little firm evidence to suggest aromatherapy can counter the pain of contractions, many women say it helped them during labour. And anything that helps promote a calming atmosphere is good in our book.

Aromatherapy pregnancy

You can either burn the oils, put them in a diffuser, or use them as part of a massage. If you want to try aromatherapy, speak to a registered practitioner well before your due date and they’ll be able to advise you on which oils are suitable and how much to use. Generally speaking, a base “carrier” oil that you can add a few drops to is your best bet, rather than a pre-mixed one, so you can tailor it to suit your own tastes. Do check you like the smell of each particular oil before you go into labour. If your hospital won't let you use an oil burner/diffuser, you can get a similar effect by adding a few drops of your chosen oils to a bowl of hot water. (Whatever you do, don't drink the stuff, though!)

Oils that may help in a warm compress include:

  • Clary sage – has analgesic, sedative properties, but don't use if you're also using gas and air.
  • Neroli – good if you're feeling very scared or nervous.
  • Ylang Ylang – calming.
  • Lavender – calming and good for aching backs and limbs (try a warm compress) and it’s also a great antiseptic.

Lavender oil is a hospital bag essential, if only because you can put a few drops in the bath afterwards to help heal your bits.

There are also lots more simple ways to use aromatherapy in labour. For example, lemons are a great way to beat nausea and sickness so a zip-lock bag with some slices of lemon in is a good thing to stash in your hospital bag, too, to have a good sniff at when you're feeling like hurling.

Some midwives are trained in aromatherapy these days, so it's worth checking with your hospital if that's something that's offered there.

Can I use acupuncture for pain in labour?

Yes. Acupuncture is one of very few complementary therapies that is routinely used for pain relief and other issues, even within the NHS, and many studies have found it to be very effective.

You'll need to find an acupuncturist who specialises in labour and birth, and see if they'll be able to attend your birth. Or you might be able to have some treatments in the run-up to labour and get some tips on acupressure points you may be able to use yourself during labour. Do make sure anyone you use or take advice from is fully qualified, however.

Does hypnotherapy help with labour pains?

Studies suggest that self-hypnosis during childbirth may ease some of the pain of labour, decrease anxiety and fear, lower the risk of medical complications and reduce the need for surgery. Quite impressive stuff, really.

You can buy numerous books and CDs on the topic, but your best bet is to see a registered practitioner who specialises in teaching self-hypnosis during childbirth or offers traditional hypnosis with post-hypnotic suggestion: essentially this means they hypnotise you during your sessions and you are then taught triggers to get you back into that state during your labour.

How is hypnobirthing different from hypnotherapy?

Hypnobirthing is billed as a “complete birth education programme” that “teaches simple but specific self-hypnosis, relaxation and breathing techniques for a better birth”.

It is believed to reduce the need for intervention and medication, shortens labour and make for an all-round more positive birth. You can use the techniques at home, in hospital, in a birthing pool – wherever, essentially.

Woman hypnotherapy

Do TENS machines help the pain of contractions?

Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation is a mouthful at the best of times, let alone when you're in labour – hence the acronym TENS. A small electronic device, usually between the size of a personal stereo (remember them?) and a mobile phone, TENS delivers electrical impulses across the skin. This is meant to help reduce pain by blocking the nerve signals carrying pain messages to your brain, while also stimulating your body's production of endorphins (natural pain-relieving hormones).

It takes about an hour for your body to start to respond in this way, so it's best to start using TENS early on in labour, but on a low setting so that you can turn it up as labour progresses.
Portable and non-invasive, TENS is considered a very safe, easy means of pain relief, so it's great for home births. It doesn't cause any side-effects or harm your baby and can be combined with other methods of pain relief, too.

Obviously, you can't use a TENS machine in a birthing pool, and you might have to stop using it during electronic foetal monitoring of your baby, but aside from these situations, it's pretty much up to you whether you use it or not.

Most mums hire a TENS machine rather than buy one outright. Usually, you hire one for about a month and take possession a few weeks before you're due (just in case). There are countless different designs available, so it's worth asking your midwife and friends for recommendations – or post a query on our Childbirth Talk forum. Once you've got your hands on one it's a good idea to have a little practice at using it so you can get the technique right and become acquainted with the slight tickling sensation you'll feel. Using it during Braxton Hicks contractions is a good way to practise.

How does heat (or cold) ease pain in labour?

A hot water bottle or a wheat bag that you heat in the microwave can help to alleviate backache, aching limbs and labour pains. The plus side of a wheat bag is that they mould easily to your shape. The ones you can buy scented with lavender are particularly good. If you prefer you can use a hot water bottle – but remember to use just hot (not boiling) water and wrap it in a towel or a soft cover.

Warmth relaxes your muscles and can feel very soothing, particularly on your back, but you can also use heat in a more, ahem, “direct” way. Lots of women find that at the point of crowning, a warm flannel pressed on your perineum helps with the stinging sensation as the baby's head emerges and may even prevent a tear if you're lucky. Get your birth partner to be on standby for the hot flannel while you're pushing.

Conversely, some mums find that a cold compress helps, and an icy flannel across the bump can help numb the pain of contractions.

Again, there's no study to prove any of this but anecdotal evidence is strong and if it works for you, there’s definitely no harm in giving it a go.

Will being in water make labour less painful?

Water not only helps soothe the pain of contractions but also supports you and your weight, allowing you to remain upright more easily, so gravity can help your baby down the birth canal. You can have a water birth in a birthing pool at home or in some hospitals and birthing centres. But if that's not an option for any reason you could always just run a deep bath to sit in during the first stage of labour.

If you're having a home birth, you'll need to hire a pool in advance and check that your home is suitable to take it (a lot of water gets very heavy and the last thing you want is your floor collapsing!).

Several studies have shown that women who labour in water need fewer interventions such forceps and ventouse delivery and fewer drugs such as epidural.

Labouring in water is also thought to shorten the first stage of labour, however, listen to the advice of the midwives, as getting in the pool too soon can sometimes slow things down. They'll be able to tell you when the optimum time is to jump (ok – flop, in an ungainly manner) into the pool.

The only downsides to being in water are that you can't use drugs such as pethidine or have an epidural if you're using a pool (though you can have gas and air) and you won't be able to use a TENS machine in there (for very reasonable electrocution reasons). It’s also worth remembering that if you have a high-risk pregnancy and need constant monitoring, or the pools are all in use that day, you might find you can't use one. So while it's something nice to hope for, don't set your heart on it.

How does changing position give pain relief in labour?

Pregnant woman birthing ball

Being mobile can really help move labour along and if you're at your due date with no sign of the baby moving, it can also help get labour started – which has to be a more pleasant option than a sweep or induction. If you can, try not to just lie on your back in labour because staying upright and mobile can help both ease the pain and speed labour up – it's thought being mobile may cut labour by up to an hour.

If you're really tired and can't stand, try lying on your side rather than your back, which can slow your contractions down.

Move around to find a position you're more comfortable in, whether that means getting down on all fours, prostrating yourself over a birthing ball or impersonating a dog cocking his leg. It doesn't matter. Who cares how ludicrous you look if it works for you? Just don't overdo the physical activity – a bit of gentle rocking and swaying is one thing, but if you're leaping about all over the delivery room, you might end up tiring yourself out – which is the last thing you need when you're about to push a baby out.

Can rest help labour pains?

When labour starts it's easy to go into panic mode, but try to resist the urge to make like a headless chicken. You're going to need all your energy for the coming hours – so ignore the ironing, step away from the Cillit Bang and ditch that urge to nest. This is your last chance for a while (possibly at least 18 years) to relax and take things easy.

When you notice the first signs of labour, the best thing you can do is sit down and make yourself as comfortable as possible. If there's any chance you can get some sleep, do that. Your future self will thank you for it.

Other natural ways to ease pain in labour

Anything you can do to remain relaxed and calm will reduce the pain you feel during labour. Getting stressed and panicky will get you into the “fear/pain” cycle, which basically means the more you tense up, the worse the pain feels, therefore you become more tense, the pain gets worse… you get the picture.

There are lots of things you can do to help you stay calm and feel in control, one of the most vital of which is having a supportive birth partner. Whether this is your partner, mum or even a doula, having someone by your side that you trust and are familiar with will help you feel supported and calmer.

It's also worth thinking beforehand about how you can make your environment more comfortable and relaxing. That might mean having your own pillows and gentle music, or even having the lights low – all things that can be easily taken to hospital to give you a bit of a home-from-home feeling.

Remember your breathing techniques, too. No matter that you felt daft as a brush practising them in antenatal classes, when labour kicks in for real you won't give a stuff and they'll help you focus and get through each contraction.