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Pain relief during labour and birth

labour; birth; pain; relief; inhaled; nitrous; oxide; oxygen; gas; fentanyl; injection; Epidural; anaesthesia; epidural; hypnotherapy; visualisation; relaxation; techniques;


All women worry about how much pain they will feel during labour and how they will cope with it. There are many ways of coping with the pain and many choices to make - it is best to find out as much as you can about managing labour pain during your pregnancy so that you will be fully prepared.

Some women feel that they would prefer to go through labour without using medication for pain relief. If this is your preference, let your midwife know when you arrive at the hospital and they will support and encourage you. However, if you find that the pain is greater than you expected then there are several methods and types of pain relief available and it’s okay to change your mind.

In most instances, the choice of pain relief is yours. Not all options are available in all settings. Discuss your options for pain relief with your doctor or midwife during your pregnancy.

Reducing pain

During labour, things you can do to reduce the pain include:

  • Keeping active - walking around your room or the corridors of the hospital or birthing unit
  • Changing your positions regularly - try sitting, lying down on your side, rocking on all fours, standing, squatting, sitting back to back with your support person
  • Using hot packs on your abdomen or back
  • Having massage wherever it feels best
  • Having deep baths or warm showers
  • Using breathing techniques.

Pain relief options

Everyone is different and so everyone feels a different level of pain in labour and childbirth. It is virtually impossible to predict how much pain you will have in your labour and delivery. At antenatal classes you will learn about different ways to cope with labour pain and childbirth. The effects of pain relieving drugs on yourself and your baby will also be discussed.

You might want to try out several of these options during your labour. Your midwife or doctor will give you information to help you make choices.

Psychological methods

  • These methods rely on you being fully informed and having confidence in the process of labour.
  • You may be able to improve your ability to cope with pain and discomfort by using various methods such as self hypnosis, visualisation and relaxation techniques.
  • These need to be learnt and practised during your pregnancy as part of your preparation for labour. It may be useful to see a psychologist to learn more about them.

Pain relieving drugs

Breathing nitrous oxide and oxygen ('gas') can provide some pain relief.

  • You can control how much gas you breathe in, and many women find it provides good pain relief during their labour. This has been used for many decades and it is safe for babies and for their mothers.

Another pain relieving method is an injection of a medication such as fentanyl or pethidine. These narcotics are strong painkillers that may cause drowsiness or nausea. Sometimes an anti-nausea drug is given with pethidine to stop the woman from feeling sick. Narcotics can have a sedating effect on the baby. Fentanyl is less likely to cause problems for the mother or her baby.

  • These drugs, when used at the correct dose are safe for mothers and their babies.

    Locally acting anaesthetic drugs may be used to block the nerves that carry pain. The most common way of giving pain relief by this method is by using an epidural.

  • An epidural is an anaesthetic given through a fine tube in the lower part of your back.
  • This gives complete pain relief for the majority of women who have it.
  • There may be medical situations where an epidural may be advised or recommended (for example, you are having twins, you have high blood pressure, you have a breech presentation, or forceps are necessary).
  • Epidural or spinal anaesthesia may also be used to provide anaesthesia for a Caesarean section.
  • Epidural anaesthesia has now been used for many decades and is safe for babies and their mothers.
  • For more information about possible side effects have a look at http://www.oaa-anaes.ac.uk/home 

Another topic to look at is 'Interventions during labour and birth'.

More information

  • Pain Relief in Labour - Women's and Children's Hospital, South Australia
    This resource includes detailed information on different methods of pain relief for labour, and includes links to resources for non-English speaking women.
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The information on this site should not be used as an alternative to professional care. If you have a particular problem, see your doctor or midwife.


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