What non-medical pain relief options can I access during labour?
Active birth is when you choose to move your body in different positions during labour.
There are many non-medical pain-relief options for you to try when you are in labour. These include being active during labour, applying massage or heat packs, immersing in water, relaxation techniques, self-hypnosis, aromatherapy, acupuncture, and others. Read on to learn more.
Staying active is one of the most helpful things you can do to manage the pain of labour and birth. Moving freely and rocking your pelvis can help you to cope with the contractions. Staying upright also allows gravity to help move your baby down into your pelvis.
Although you will have a midwife looking after you during labour, it is important to have another support person with you. This may be your partner, a close friend or family member or a paid support person such as a doula. Some people choose to have more than one support person, but it’s a good idea to limit the number of people present.
Your support person can provide practical support with the non-medical pain relief techniques described below (for example, massage). They may also help by providing emotional support and encouragement.
Having continuous support from someone you trust can help you cope better in labour. It also may reduce your need for medical pain relief and reduce the chance that you will need an assisted delivery.
Massage and heat
Massage and hot packs can ease your pain in labour. Massage helps distract you from the pain. Heat packs can help your body release its natural painkillers (endorphins).
Sometimes, massage during labour will feel good, but at other times, you may find it irritating. It’s a good idea to discuss this with your support person before labour.
Most hospitals and birthing centres will have facilities that allow you to have a bath or shower during the first stage of labour.
You may find that being in a warm bath is relaxing and helps you cope with the contractions. A shower can also help with back pain.
Having a bath or shower to ease pain during labour is not the same as having a water birth. Not all hospitals are equipped for water birth. Your midwife and doctor need to be specially trained and they need to be able to get you out quickly if there is a problem with the birth.
Check with your hospital in advance to see if this option is available to you.
You can use different relaxation techniques to ease pain such as music or meditation. Relaxation techniques can help ease pain in labour.
Practising self-hypnosis during pregnancy may help reduce fear and/or anxiety about labour and birth. There is not enough evidence to understand if self-hypnosis (also known as ‘hypnobirthing’) can reduce the need for other pain relief during labour, but you can try it and see if it helps you.
Essential oils can be used with massage or heated over a burner. There is no evidence aromatherapy provides pain relief, but some people find it pleasant. If you're thinking of using aromatherapy, check that your hospital or birth centre allows it.
Acupuncture may reduce pain in labour. There are no known side effects of acupuncture for you or your baby.
Only a trained person should perform acupuncture. Not all hospitals have an acupuncture therapist on staff, so you may need to discuss arranging your own practitioner.
TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation)
A TENS machine uses two electrodes stuck to your skin. They are usually attached to your lower back. The machine sends a small electric current through your body. It is generally safe for mother and baby.
There is not a lot of evidence to show TENS reduces pain, but some people find it helpful. TENS has no known side effects for you or your baby.
A TENS machine is not suitable for everyone. People with a pacemaker should not use one, and you shouldn’t use TENS before 37 weeks gestation.
TENS can't be used in the shower or in water. Not all hospitals or birth centres have them, so if you’re interested in using TENS, it’s a good idea to check with your health team in advance.
Sterile water injections
Sterile water with no medicine in it can be injected by your midwife under the skin of your lower back to relieve lower back pain. It is not clear how they work, or whether they work very often. You may still need other pain relief.
The injections may sting but there are no known side effects for you or your baby. Not all hospitals or birthing centres will offer this service.
Resources and support
Read more on making a birth plan.
Ask your doctor or midwife about non-medical pain relief during labour, or visit one of the following orgnsiations:
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Last reviewed: July 2022