Updated: Oct 7
Photo by Alex Boyd
As my husband sat next to my bulging baby belly, we nervously laughed as our childbirth class discussed labor pain. We were instructed to get ice from our freezers, and for me to hold the ice cubes in my hands to see how long I could withstand the pain. I thought it would be easy-peasy - but a minute in and my hand was throbbing; I threw the ice down in pain.
Little did I know that the pain I felt in my hand from the ice was NOTHING compared to the whole-body, wave like pain I’d experience in labor a few months later. It’s laughable, actually.
However, the ice lesson did help me understand one important aspect of dealing with labor pain - breathing and relaxing.
If you’re reading this article, I’ll bet you’re not just wondering if childbirth is painful. I’ll bet you also already know the answer to that question - YES. Yes it is. But I certainly won’t stop there.
And you shouldn’t either. Read on to find out how to overcome the pain naturally.
What Does Childbirth Feel Like?
Below are some examples of how women describe labor pain:
An earthquake throughout my body.
Waves of pain throughout my torso and legs.
Severe cramps and back pain while someone is stabbing you in the torso.
Hips being pulled apart
A little worse than menstrual cramping (some women report that labor wasn’t super painful for them!)
I don’t share these to scare you, but to give you an idea of the varied ways women experience childbirth pain. The short of it? It’s usually painful and hard to describe.
Real labor contractions almost always radiate from your back to your torso, and many experience a shooting pain down their legs. Your hips will also hurt. To explain what is happening as you dilate, this video is a really helpful description.
Can I Manage the Pain Without an Epidural?
Yes, you absolutely can! In fact, it is a good idea. There are risks associated with epidurals. Below are 5 ways to deal with childbirth pain naturally.
1. Accept the Pain
This is the very first, most important thing to do if you want to manage childbirth pain without an epidural. When you feel the pain begin, you’ll want to fight it, but you must give into it. This is a mental thing rather than a physical thing.
I describe this as, in your mind, going to your “inner place.” It’s helpful to have an image, memory or visualization to focus your mind on. In all three of my labors, I imagined a beach with waves crashing. As the contraction began, I imagined a wave beginning to build. As the contraction peaked, the wave was at its largest. As the contraction died down, the wave crashed on the beach. This was very calming for me and helped my mind to relax.
My best friend described her way of dealing with the pain: visualizing her body melting into the floor. Might sound a little weird, but she said it really helped her relax her whole body.
You’ll want to practice this - even using the funny ice cube lesson I described above. You’ll want to be an expert at going to your “inner place” the moment contractions become painful. Check out this article for some totally not weird visualizations you can practice at home.
You may be thinking - duh. But for real - the way you breathe is really important while you’re in labor. Many of us, as we feel pain, will begin to breathe really fast. Some of us may even begin to make high-pitched noises (aka SCREAMING!).
When you feel a contraction begin, focus on keeping your breathing slow, deep and steady. If you want to make sounds, keep your sounds very low (almost like a moan). You’ll want to breathe in for 4 counts, out for 4 counts. Repeat. When you do this, your body will be forced to relax. More on relaxing below.
You may be thinking - uhh you’re expecting me to relax during the most painful event of my life?
Yes, yes I am. And you can do it!
If you do the first two things above, you’ll be well on your way to relaxation during labor. However, another major key is to learn what it feels like when your body is tense, and when it is completely relaxed. I really like practicing the relaxation technique here, where you tense and release different areas of your body until your whole body is like Jello.
One last, super important thing is that whoever will be with you during the birth - your husband, friend, doula, mom - needs to be clued in on how to help you relax. I had my husband remind me with almost every contraction to relax. He would tell me specific areas to relax, like “relax your face” or “relax your shoulders.” This really helped me remember in the moment!
4. Birth Partner
Speaking of relaxing and birth partners, I want to mention that having support during labor is super important. And it’s not just that you have someone there watching you. You need to have someone there who is trained to actively support you during labor. Whoever you plan on having with you should attend a childbirth course with you so they know what to do.
If you don’t think you’ll be able to have that support, I’d strongly suggest you find a doula. A doula is a specially trained birth partner who can help you with everything related to childbirth. A quick search on Facebook or Google should give you a list of doulas in your area. If money is an issue, there are some doulas who are in training who will attend births for a very small fee, or even free in some cases.
Water is known to be the “midwives' epidural,” and for good reason. Laboring in a tub or shower can greatly help you manage pain. Just as a warm bath helps relax your muscles after a hard workout, a warm bath can help childbirth be far less painful.
Many hospitals are offering tubs to labor in. Almost all hospital rooms have a shower, so worst case scenario, you could labor in a warm shower. TBH, though, I’d probably travel a far distance to a hospital that has tubs...they’re that awesome.
If you haven’t already, you’ll want to look into taking a quality childbirth course if you’re wanting an unmedicated childbirth. The standard hospital course won’t help you with laboring without an epidural because that’s not their specialty. We, of course, recommend our courses!