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Methods of Managing Pain During Labor

Updated on January 5, 2014
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Childbirth Educator

I have been trained by Pam England, who wrote and founded Birthing From Within, as a childbirth educator and doula. I have assisted many women cope with childbirth labor. I have also used several pain coping techniques when I delivered my own children without any drug interventions.

Pain vs. Suffering

It is important for expecting mothers to be aware the difference between pain and suffering.

Pain is the physical sensation or discomfort of what is actually happening. Example, the hand will get cold when holding ice. The uterus will contract during labor.

Suffering is the story we tell ourselves about the pain. Example, make it stop, this hurts. Wow! This ice is cold or I cannot cope with the pain. Fear increases pain. Our minds have the ability to increase our pain or decrease our pain based on how we perceive a situation.

Labor is hard and painful work. Expecting mothers can learn many different coping skills. Mother's who practice pain coping skills build confidence before their labors.

Below are ten pain coping practices available for mothers to learn and use during labor.


1. Using Breath for Pain Coping in Labor

Your breath is the one thing you will always have. When people are in pain their breath becomes shorter and quicker. Therefore, to help cope with pain, if the mother just brings awareness to her breathing she can aid in decreasing the stress response by focusing on longer and deeper breaths.

This is not about pattern breathing, or counting to ten holding your breath and letting it out.

Bring your awareness to your breath is simply focusing on the air coming into your body, moving into your lungs, even deeper into your belly and exhaling your breath. It is a rhythm, a pattern, an inhale and an exhale. Breath awareness is that simple, but powerful.

Try adding a visualization to your breath. You can visualize a feather moving up and down with each inhale or exhale. You can visualize your baby laughing and giggling of your breath tickling his or her tummy.


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2. Using Imagery and Art for Pain Coping In Labor

For centuries imagery has been used as a way to cope with pain. Imagery can be used as a meditation. A mother can imagine a color that represents soothing, calm, and power. She can imagine this color moving in her body, filling her up and taking away the color she gives to her pain.

A mother can also put art and photographs up in her labor room. An image of her baby from a recent ultrasound can be motivating. An image of a labyrinth or mandala that depicts a circle, center and pattern can be used for visual meditation.

3. Using Distractions for Pain Coping In Labor

Sometimes the birthing space is not the quiet environment the mother hoped for. She may need to be transitioned from one birth setting to another because of complications. Family members may be loud and encouraging when she prefers quiet. At a hospital setting an IV can beep or the fetal monitor can make noises now and then. Her cell phone may beep, she may feel the tightening of a blood pressure cuff, she may hear an ambulance off in the distance, the slam of a door, she may feel sweat dripping off her face, or hear the cry of another's baby. All these sounds and sensations may impede a mother's meditative quiet birth.

It is important for mother's to learn how to cope with distractions. One way to cope with distractions is to bring awareness to each sound or sensation. Instead of trying to avoid it, welcome it. Use your mind to 'go into the sound.' Use your mind to jump around from each noise and sensation. It is important not to think or judge the sound or sensations you are experiencing. Let your mind move with a non judgmental eye of awareness. You can even say out loud or inside your head what you are noticing.

"I see a nurse wearing white, I hear running water, I feel my husband's hand on my lower back, I notice the sound of people laughing in the hallway...."

4. Using Relaxation and Meditation for Pain Coping In Labor

A mantra means saying the same words or phrase over and over again, with a meditative reflection. Mantras can be extremely helpful during labor. Some mantras women have used are:

  • "I am a strong and powerful birthing woman."
  • "I am in the company of thousands of women who are also giving birth today."
  • "I am not alone."
  • "My body knows how to birth."
  • "I can let go and relax into my labor."

Relaxation can be another pain coping technique. Mother's can use prayer, breath, music and even a gentle rhythmic touch from their partner to help them relax. Scents like lavender, dimming the lights, privacy, can also evoke a relaxation response.

5. Using Movement for Pain Coping In Labor

Women instinctively move during labor. Her body intuitively knows how to move her body into positions that will aid in the progression and delivery of her baby. Women dance during labor, sway, walk, rock on all fours, bounce on a birth ball, and move around in a birthing tub.

Movement is important in labor.

6. Using Water for Pain Coping In Labor

Water helps a mother relax and make the contractions more bearable. A laboring woman can sit in a shower or rest in a tube of water. When water is used during labor it has been reported to decrease suffering. Water naturally seems to reduce anxiety and stress allowing the mother's body to produce endorhins which serve as natural pain inhibitors.

When a laboring woman is in a tub full of water the effect of buoyancy lessens a mother’s body weight, allowing free movement and new positioning. As water enables her to relax physically she is then able to relax mentally decreasing fear, anxiety and stress.

7. Using Music for Pain Coping In Labor

Music is a great source for pain relief. Most expecting parents visualize using soothing music like classical music or Enya to cope with labor. However, it can be just as important to hear upbeat and strong music when the woman is transitioning in her labor.

It is ideal to create several play lists to prepare for labor. You might want to create a playlist that is calming and serene. Additionally, create a playlist that evokes power, strength and motivation. Women need to move in labor. Having a song that makes you want to get up and dance, rock your hips back and forth will be a great asset to your labor.

A Lullabye play list can support the mother connecting her to her baby. Lullabyes can encourage her to push through the labor knowing she will be seeing her infant very soon.

Music can also be used in tangent with other pain coping techniques. Music can be on while a mother is in a tub of water, while the mother is using meditation and her breath, and music can be on while a mother pushes her baby out.

8. Using Your Voice for Pain Coping In Labor

Women are taught not to use their voice, wildly and powerful. The same goes for labor. There is a misconception of a laboring woman resting quietly and laboring softly. In actuality, women who allow themselves to open to their voice can propel their labor and birth. Vocalization through pain can be both a release and distraction.

When we stub our toe we often want to say, "Ouch!"

Mother's may find themselves wanting to chant or make primordial sounds from deep within. When women have a strong urge to use their voice but hold it in out of fear of what they will sound like contract against the natural flow of their labor. When a mother feels free to vocalize she allows her voice to be a powerful tool in labor.

9. Using Touch for Pain Coping in Labor

Touch can be extremely reassuring and nurturing to a laboring woman. Touch helps relieve tension and reduce pain. Gentle firm massages or strokes on a woman's body can aid her in focusing on the message and not on the contractions.

A birth partner or doula can use counter pressure on a mother's back to help ease the contractions. Applying a steady pressure to a mother's lower back relieves pain at the same time reassures the mother she is not alone.

10. Using an Epidural For Pain Coping in Labor

The compassionate use of an epidural and other medications are important when the mother has had a long labor, the labor is artificially induced with pitocin, needs an emergency cesarean birth, her labor is not progressing, she is mentally exhausted or she is frightened and overwhelmed by the labor.

Epidurals and other medications relieve labor pain. It is important to utilize these drugs when necessary.

However, it is also important to understand that epidurals may not always fully abdicate the pain. Mother's may still need to relay on other pain coping strategies.

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How to Practice Pain Coping Skills

There is no way to create faux labor pains to practice pain coping. Therefore, many childbirth educators use ice as a way for mothers to practice pain coping techniques. The ice is not supposed to simulate labor pains, but to make you uncomfortable enough that you have to cope.

Practicing the above suggested pain coping is recommended before a mother goes into labor. It is also suggested her birth partner holds the ice and practices the same coping skills. When the partner does this, he will gain a greater understanding on what it takes to cope. This enables him to gain a greater awareness of what she needs to do during each contraction so he can help assist and aid her through the process.

Here is how to practice pain coping techniques with ice.

You will need:

  • A bowl of ice for each person
  • A towel
  • A timer

Step One: Set the timer to go off in 1 minute or have someone time you for 1 minute. During that minute try not to look at the clock, it is better to practice not knowing when the minute will be over. During labor you will not always know when a contraction will be over.

Step Two: Pick one pain coping technique to practice. When you are ready, pick up a handful of ice and squeeze the ice in your hand. Focus on your pain coping until the minute is up.

Step Three: After 1 minute put the ice back in the bowl. However, do not stop practicing your pain coping. The sensation of the cold will still be felt after you let go of the ice. Just as the sensation of a contraction will still be felt when it begins to wane.

Step Four: Wait a minute or two and do the same coping skill again for one minute. It is always a good idea to switch to your other hand each time you hold the ice.

If you want a stronger sensation to work with you can hold the ice cube behind your ear or on your wrist.

Carly Sullens 2013. All Rights Reserved.

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    • Learning in Life profile image

      Megan Sisko 4 years ago from SW Florida

      I love that all but number 10 are natural methods. I never had an epidural with my daughter and plan the same with my next. One addition is that you can get staydol to take the edge off but you can still walk around and everything.

    • ChristinS profile image

      Christin Sander 4 years ago from Midwest

      I loved this hub, very thorough. With my first son I was very young and scared so I did what the doctors told me - lay down, don't eat or drink, I asked for an epidural they missed resulting in a year of spinal headaches. I labored for 24 hours after my water broke before he was born. They shot me up with everything imaginable and it was the worst experience ever. I had a god awful huge episiotomy.

      My second son was born 9 years later, I did water birth, drug free, we used perineal massage to avoid tearing and no episiotomy. I cannot begin to express the joy of that birth. It hurt like heck, but you can work with your pain instead of fighting against it. I used a lot of your techniques, vocalizing, distraction, meditation, breathing/focus on breath. I bounced on a yoga ball, walked, stretched etc. Nothing makes the pain go away, but it becomes manageable and the recovery after a natural birth is SO much easier. I was up walking around making my nurses mad in under 2 hours lol After my first son, I was stiff and sore for over a week.

      Having had the standard experience vs a midwife/natural I will take the latter any time. :) Great hub.

    • CarlySullens profile image
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      CarlySullens 4 years ago from St. Louis, Missouri

      Thanks Chrisin, I agree that having a natural birth can speed recovery. I was taking a shower an hour after my son was born.

      I am sorry your first birth experience was so traumatic. Our birth culture in American definitely needs to refocus on what women really need to labor and give birth. If women were encouraged,and supported to give birth without medical interventions I think a lot more women will feel empowered going into motherhood.

      Sometimes I secretly wish I can give birth again... just would rather skip doing the pregnancy, LOL.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 4 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Having been witness to 6 of these. I do declare the diversion method the best. In my case it has been my ugly mug rather than the ice. Yes I had one black eye and many scratches. That is all right -- all your points are valid and good reading.

      PS - this central notion is good for all painful experiences.

    • twoseven profile image

      twoseven 4 years ago from Madison, Wisconsin

      Great advice and so well written. I used all of these at one point or another in both my labors. I think it is so important that you point out that epidurals don't always work. Mine wore off and a new one didn't work so I suddenly had to go back to all my other strategies!

    • CarlySullens profile image
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      CarlySullens 4 years ago from St. Louis, Missouri

      Thanks Eric. Definitely these works for all different painful experiences. We all already innately know how to cope with pain. When we know a painful experience is pending like labor or upcoming surgery it is good to know how we can train our mind to further develop pain coping strategies. Thanks for stopping by and reading.

    • CarlySullens profile image
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      CarlySullens 4 years ago from St. Louis, Missouri

      Thank you Twoseven, I think women are misguided in believing they will use the epidural in labor and all will be well. The truth is, most hospitals will not admit a laboring woman until she is dilated to 4. So from 1 to 4 she is going to need to cope with her labor. Than once admitted the process to going into a laboring room sometimes takes an hour or more. She may finally get the epidural and you are right they do not always completely take the pain away.

      Learning to expect the unexpected in childbirth and pain management is how to best prepare for labor and delievary.

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