There are a number of highly effective, natural pain relief techniques that may be useful during your labor and delivery. Many of them involve relaxation. Relaxation reduces the sensation of pain by raising endorphin levels and reducing stressful messages you give yourself about what pain means. Practice these ahead of time and purchase any materials you may need.
Continuous labor support
We tend to feel more afraid when we’re alone during labor and fear can exacerbate pain. Above all, make sure you have someone to support you throughout your labor and birth. This is called continuous labor support and it improves birth outcomes dramatically. Also, consider the services of a midwife as midwifery care offers the original continuous support model and research shows that the midwifery model reduces interventions and increases satisfaction with birth.
Bathe or shower in warm water.
Bathing or showering in warm water is an amazing labor tool for pain relief that has been well studied. Choose a temperature that feels comfortable and soothing, but not too hot. If you are having a home birth it is possible to rent large hot tubs that can be set up in your home. You can use your bathtub as well, but a larger tub will give you more room and allow your partner to come in and help you. Many birthing centers and hospitals now have tubs available. Just being in the warm water seems to soothe and help labor to progress. The force of gravity is relieved when you are in the water, offering further relief. You need to check with your health care provider before adding anything to the water, such as oils or bubble bath. Showers can help, as well. You may want to find a low, stable stool that you can put into the tub so that you don’t have to stand the whole time.
Effleurage is a light, rhythmic stroking of the abdomen, back or thighs, done on bare skin. This is usually done with the tips of the fingers. You can do this yourself, or, better, have a partner or doula do it for you. You can ask your partner to practice it now and learn, together, what feels right to you. Hold your fingers in an out-stretched, but relaxed posture. Run the tips of the fingers lightly over the chosen area. The abdomen, lower back, and the forehead are good areas, but touching any part of the body can help you to relax. Try different motions, circular, or up and down, for example. Experiment with different amounts of pressure. Maybe it feels better to you with one hand, or maybe two. Use a little cornstarch or lightly scented powder on your fingers first, to reduce friction.
Massage is another way to relax and to help tired muscles keep working. Again, it is helpful to have your partner practice massage now in order to find out what works best. Try these techniques: have your partner place his hands on your inner thighs and sweep them firmly down toward your knees as you release your pelvic floor muscles, as you would in a Kegel exercise. Or try kneading the buttock muscles deeply, both at the same time.
If you experience lower back pain or back labor, have your partner use the fist or the heel of the hand to firmly massage the area. Some people also report relief by massaging the lower back with a tennis ball. You may want to purchase or make a soothing massage oil.
Mix sweet almond oil with your favorite essential oils. Good oils include: lavender, chamomile, sweet geranium, jasmine, neroli, rosewood, melissa, mandarin or cedarwood. These oils are all relaxing; they increase endorphins, the body’s natural pain relievers, and reduce sensations of pain. Try some of these scents out ahead of time to see which appeals to you. Here are two oil blends that can be used to alleviate pain during labor.
- Sweet Lavender Relief
- 2 ounces sweet almond, grapeseed, or olive oil
- 10 drops lavender essential oil
- 6 drops clary sage essential oil
- 4 drops geranium essential oil
- 2 drops jasmine essential oil
- 3 drops rose essential oil
- Heaven and Earth
- 4 ounces sweet almond, grapeseed or pure vegetable oil
- 8 drops spikenard essential oil
- 7 drops jasmine essential oil
- 3 drops lemon verbena essential oil
Mix the oils together in a plastic bottle with a pouring spout. Massage into abdomen during pregnancy and labor.
Essential oils smell wonderful. These smells can also evoke pleasant pictures in your mind, as well as help to cover up unpleasant hospital smells. You can put drops of oil on a napkin and keep it nearby, or on a damp washcloth for your forehead. You can also place them into an aromatherapy diffuser or add them to your bath water (check with your health care provider first).
Change labor positions
Different labor positions work at different times during the labor process to relieve pain and discomfort. For example, getting on your hands and knees and rocking back and forth often helps with the discomfort of back labor. Walking around can reduce the sensation of pain, as well. Plenty of variety in your positions can be extremely helpful in reducing pain. You will be taught some positions during your childbirth education classes. It’s good to become familiar with these positions ahead of time in order to be prepared for labor, since you won’t know which ones work until you are actually in labor. Research shows that labor progresses more quickly if you are in an upright position. Watch the classic film, Birth in the Squatting Position, for inspiration.
Hot and cold packs
Have hot and cold packs available for use during labor. You can use a good old-fashioned hot water bottle, or an electric heating pad. There are also pads filled with hemp available that can be heated in the microwave or chilled in the fridge. Place the hot or cold pack anywhere that you feel pain, tension, or cramps. They are especially useful on the small of the back and on the neck and shoulders, areas where many people tend to hold tension.
Learn breathing techniques
Most childbirth education courses teach helpful breathing techniques specifically geared towards working through pain in labor. The discipline of yoga also teaches both calming and invigorating types of breath exercises. Try this calming one, known as alternate nostril breathing: place your right pinky finger over your left nostril. Breathe in through your right nostril for a count of four; then place your right thumb over that nostril too. Hold your breath for a count of four; then release your pinky from your left nostril and exhale for a count of eight. Now, keeping your thumb on your right nostril, breathe in fully through your left nostril for a count of four; cover it with your pinky, then hold your breath for a count of four; then release your thumb and exhale through your right nostril for a count of eight. Continue like this as long as you like.
Exercise regularly during pregnancy
Studies have shown that regular exercise during pregnancy increases endorphin levels in the blood. Women who worked out regularly during pregnancy reported less pain during labor. Even if you have not exercised until this point in your pregnancy, it’s not too late to gain some benefits and help to reduce pain in your labor. Try taking daily walks to begin with, and look for other ways to incorporate exercise into your pregnancy.
Hypnosis is one type of childbirth education class that is available. You may want to consider HypnoBirthing, or see a private hypnotherapist who can train you to use autohypnosis or post-hypnotic suggestion to prepare you to react to pain in a different way. People vary in their reactions to hypnosis, but for some women it is extremely effective—some even claim to feel no pain whatsoever.
In China, acupuncture is used during cesarean sections instead of epidural anesthesia in 98% of cases. While its use for surgery is not yet practiced here in the United States, it can be very effective for use during labor. It has no negative effects on the baby and is instantly reversible by simply removing the needles. If you are interested in this option, you need to find an acupuncturist willing to attend your birth and you need to be sure your chosen birth environment can accommodate this.
Acupressure may also be helpful, and it is possible that your partner or other birth companion can learn enough about it ahead of time to use during the delivery. Try these techniques:
Apply pressure to the Ho-ku point on the back of the hand, right on top of the joint which connects the thumb and the forefinger. Press firmly into the bone of the forefinger near this spot for ten to fifteen seconds, three times, with a brief rest between each
The Spleen 6 point is about two inches above the ankle bone, on the inside of the leg. Press your thumb into the bone at this point for about a minute at a time. Apply pressure to both of these points as often as you like.
Back Flower Remedies
Bach Flower Remedies can be extremely soothing during childbirth, especially the highly popular Rescue Remedy. You can also check out the other flower essences, each of which is intended to relieve a specific emotion or fear.
Homeopathy is useful throughout pregnancy and during labor and delivery. Arnica is one homeopathic remedy that is particularly good for labor. It can reduce pain when taken internally, and helps with bruising and pain externally as well. Other pain remedies are both blue and black cohosh and chamomilla. A birth practitioner trained in homeopathy can help you with correct dosage amounts.
Herbs can also be helpful during the last trimester and during labor. Check with your birth practitioner about herbal use.
Music can be soothing and distracting for some women, whereas other women may find they want silence for some or all of the labor process. There have only been a few, small studies done on the effects of music in helping to reduce labor pain, but those few have shown positive effects. If you think music might help you, choose some favorites ahead of time and set them aside for labor.
About Peggy O’Mara. I am an independent journalist who edits and publishes peggyomara.com. I was the editor and publisher of Mothering Magazine for over 30 years and founded Mothering.com in 1995. My books include Having a Baby Naturally, Natural Family Living, The Way Back Home and A Quiet Place. I have conducted workshops at Omega Institute, Esalen, La Leche League, and Bioneers. I am the mother of four and grandmother of three. Please check out my email newsletter with free tips on parenting, activism, and healthy living.