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How to cope with labour pain during early and active labour

Medically reviewed April 2022
Running a bath to cope with labour pains - Naytal

Short on time? Then the key things to know are:

  • Coping with early labour can be similar to coping with period pains - what do you do to relieve your period pains? Do the same here!
  • Things like warm baths/showers, hot water bottles, resting and relaxing are all helpful in the early stages of labour
  • In established labour, consider using a birthing pool or having a warm bath
  • Make sure you eat and drink plenty to keep your uterus working effectively and efficiently throughout labour
  • Keep moving, listen to your body, try to remain in a calm, relaxed state and believe in yourself, you can do it!

There’s no denying that labour can be painful. However there are plenty of natural coping mechanisms and medical pain relief that can help you during this incredible experience.

Here, our midwife, Kate, shares her top tips for coping with labour pain.

Coping with pain during early labour

Early labour is when you first start feeling tightenings in your uterus. This sensation can feel like period pains and may be very spaced out initially, but if true labour is starting (rather than Braxton Hicks or trapped wind for example) these tightenings will become closer together and more intense over time.

During labour, the cervix starts to thin out and draw up as it gets ready to start dilating. It starts out at roughly 2cm long and through this early phase of labour, thins out to a couple of millimetres.

Tips for coping with this early stage of labour are very similar to coping with period pains. So, whatever your personal coping methods are for period pains would work well here. This includes things like:

  • taking a warm bath
  • cuddling a hot water bottle
  • relaxing and resting

This will help to relieve any discomfort during the early stages of labour. It is also important to remain fairly active where possible. If it's the middle of the night and you are able to rest, lying on your left hand side and getting as much rest as possible is highly recommended.

However if you have the energy, walking around, bouncing on a birthing ball, remaining upright and active will all help to engage your little baby’s head further down into the pelvis.

The further down the baby's head goes into the pelvis, the more pressure the head puts onto the cervix and the more the cervix will dilate. Whilst the contractions will cause the baby’s head to put more pressure on the cervix, it is always useful to use gravity to help this along.

Get pregnancy advice online

Coping with pain during active labour

When the tightenings and pains become more intense and closer together, you may be approaching the more active stage of labour. This occurs when the uterus is contracting regularly - usually every 2-3 minutes - and your cervix has started to dilate.

A textbook definition of established labour is when the cervix has dilated 4cm or more along with regular painful contractions. However, we do not all conform to textbooks and may experience the onset of ‘established’ labour quite differently.

A sure sign that labour is progressing and becoming more established is when your mood alters, there will be less joking and smiling and life will suddenly become a bit more serious! You may become a bit withdrawn and inwardly focused as the contractions become more intense at this time.

It is during this period that you may need some more coping mechanisms up your sleeve. Here’s how to cope with labour pain naturally, and with medical relief.

Tips for coping with labour pain

1. Listen to your body

It is important that you listen to your body throughout labour. It may be that your body wants you to be in a slightly different position than how you ever imagined. If your body is asking for rest, let it, if it is asking to dance, let it.

It is often the case that your body needs to move and be upright during labour to allow your baby’s head to get into just the right position for birth. This may not necessarily be lying on your back on a bed as is often depicted in the movies.

2. UFO position (Upright, Forward, Open)

This is a simple way to help relieve any strong sensations in the back and should be considered throughout labour and for the birth. There is a significant increase in the diameter of your pelvis when you are in an upright and forward leaning position, which in turn can help the baby’s head move down through the pelvis and down into the birth canal.

3. Remain calm and relaxed to produce oxytocin

This is known as the ‘love’ hormone, it is also directly responsible for your contractions. The more oxytocin there is in your system, the quicker and easier birth will be for you.

Oxytocin is produced when you are feeling calm and relaxed, so anything you can do to maintain this state will help with your labour and birth. You may find things like aromatherapy, light touch or massage and dim lighting (or candles if you are at home) will help to keep your oxytocin levels flowing.

4. Hypnobirthing

Hypnobirthing is not being hypnotised for birth (although that might be useful!) It is a method of relaxation to help you to reduce any fears and anxieties that you may have about labour and birth. A hypnobirthing course will help you to look at labour and childbirth positively and welcome it rather than fear it.

5. Being in water

Sinking into a warm bath or birthing pool will give you such relief - the weightlessness of being in water alone is therapeutic enough. Having warm water surrounding your whole body provides a massive relief to all those aching muscles and tired joints that have been working hard throughout the pregnancy and now the labour.

Water has been known to reduce the likelihood of any intervention, reduce the need for any pharmacological pain relief and can reduce the severity of any perineal tears. The beauty of hydrotherapy during labour is that if for whatever reason you don’t like it, you simply get back out of the water. Using water for labour doesn’t mean that you have to stay in the water for birth. You can get out at any time.

6. Enjoy light snacks

Your uterus, like any other muscle in the body, needs fuel to work. In fact at full term, the uterus is one of the strongest muscles in the body. Similarly to preparing for an endurance event, you will need to take in enough calories to keep this super strong muscle effective.

You can’t birth your baby without sufficient calorie intake as without it the uterus will slow down and labour will become prolonged. Light snacks such as nuts or cereal bars, dried fruit or jelly sweets are all high in calories and easy to eat when you might not have much of an appetite. Take a look at our guide to the best snacks for labour.

7. Stay hydrated

Being in water will certainly help during labour but it is imperative that you drink plenty of water too. Similarly to not taking in enough calories, if you are not adequately hydrated you may find that the labour slows down.

It is also important that you take plenty of toilet breaks as a full bladder just gets in the way of a baby’s head as it descends through the pelvis.

Speak to a midwife online

8. Have the right support team

Make sure you choose your birth companions wisely. If you have the right support behind you, it will make all the difference. Air any worries or concerns about labour and birth with them beforehand, and make sure that they have your back and are an advocate for your wishes during your labour. Constant one-to-one support during labour can reduce the need for any pain relief at all.

9. Affirmations

Writing, repeating and believing birth affirmations can help you to get through some of the tougher contractions. You could ask your birth partner to repeat them to you or stick them up around your birthing room so that you can read them frequently.

Most importantly, believe in yourself and your body. We are the only species on this planet that will doubt our own ability to give birth naturally. Let's change that and start believing that we can do it!

10. Pain relief

If you are planning to give birth at the hospital, most hospitals have access to pharmaceutical pain relief such as Pethidine (sedative) and Epidurals (local anaesthetic administered by an anaesthetist).

If you are planning to give birth at home or at the hospital you will also be offered Entonox (gas and air). The beauty of this form of pain relief rather than the others, is that the effects are reversible. If for whatever reason the gas and air disagrees with you, you can simply stop taking it and the effects wear off pretty quickly. This is not the case for the Pethidine or an Epidural.

11. TENS machine

A TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) machine can be used as an alternative to pain killing medication.

It is a small battery operated device, which is attached to your back by small sticky pads. Small electrical pulses are transmitted to the body, like very small electric shocks. These have been found to be very useful for women during the early stages of labour to help relieve back pain - they don’t however mix very well with a birthing pool! The advantage of a TENS machine is that they can be well tolerated without any side effects.

Want to speak to someone about your pregnancy? Speak to a midwife online at a time that suits you and get specialist advice with any concerns.

Kate, Naytal Midwife

Kate has been a Midwife within the NHS for more than 15 years and supports women to work harmoniously with their bodies and tune into their intuitions.

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