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Pain Relief in Labour All you Need to Know

All women have heard personal stories of the pain of labour, passed on to them by mothers, grandmothers, aunts and friends. Hollywood films – featuring screaming mothers as they are rushed on a trolley into theatre – do nothing to assuage an expectant mom’s anxieties.

What’s not often mentioned, though, is that the pains of labour are a different type of pain than the pain felt when you injure yourself. When you are not giving birth, the sensation of pain is an indication that some part of your body is hurt. When you are in labour – as long as things are staying within the range of normal – pain is a sign that your body is working hard, that your body is doing exactly what it should be doing. I gave birth to my son naturally, without any pain medication, but afterwards I had a headache. When my midwife asked me what I needed, I told her I needed a cup of tea and two Panadol. The labour and the headache were two different types of pain.

That being said, the sensation of pain throughout labour is quite real. However, there are many tricks and techniques that you can use to manage it.

Safe Place

Mammalian mothers in the wild like to find a safe, dark place in which to give birth. This is also the optimal situation for human mothers – we are, after all, mammals. Research has shown that birth is much more likely to be less painful and shorter when mothers feel safe and are birthing in familiar surroundings. This means that having a trusted, loving partner, doula and/or friend can help you to feel the pain less keenly. If you are birthing in a hospital, which most women do, you can ask the midwives to dim the lights during labour, or you can bring familiar objects from home, such as blankets or music.

Having solid information about birth and the hospital can also help you feel safe. Attending antenatal classes and conducting your own research, as well as taking a hospital tour, can help you find out about what to expect. That way, even if you don’t know exactly how the birth is going to play out, you can have a rough idea of what to expect.

Managing Pain Naturally

There are many natural or non-medical techniques that you can use to help relieve pain. Moving around and changing positions in labour not only helps relieve pains but can also shorten the length of your labour. Walking around, circling your hips, using a birthing ball and circling around on all fours all help relieve pressure at different points throughout the labour. Having your partner or doula massage your hips or your shoulders can also help. Having someone press firmly against the small of your back during active labour can feel really good. You can also use visualisation to help relieve the pain. It’s good to practice this during pregnancy. That way, even if you have trouble finding your happy place during labour, your brain still knows how to access the pleasure centre instead of the pain centre.

Pharmaceutical Pain Relief

There are a number of pharmaceutical pain relief options available. Entonox, or gas and air, is an analgesic (or pain medication) which you inhale through a facemask or mouthpiece. It is made up of gas (nitrous oxide, also known as laughing gas) and oxygen, or air. It numbs the pain centre in your brain for a few moments. Side affects include wooziness or feeling light-headed.

Pethidine is a morphine-based drug which can be injected into your thigh or buttocks during the first stage of labour (zero to four centimetres). It dulls the sensation of pain, but can also make you feel disorientated and out of control, and can reduce your ability to feel when you need to push. Pethidine crosses the placenta barrier, so it affects your baby, and can cause respiratory problems and wooziness.

Epidurals are administered by injection into the epidural part of your back, which is between the middle and the lower region. They numb the nerves below your waist and are very effective in taking away pain. They are quite popular in Ireland and are used by 70% of first-time mothers here. However, because you cannot feel the contractions or when to push, this may make you feel detached from your pregnancy or not in control. This can also prolong labour, which can lead to an assisted birth or complications. Epidurals also move you into a high-risk category, if you are not there already, which means you will have to be continuously monitored and your movement will be restricted.

What sort of pain relief did you use during labour? Let us know in the comments.

About the Author

Liz Farsaci is a journalist, doula and mother. Based in Dublin, she loves to discuss politics, parenting and perineums. She fantasises about having five minutes by herself one day.

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