Pain relief in labour

Your pain relief options

Labour can be painful – it can help to learn about all the ways you can relieve the pain.

It's also helpful for whoever is going to be with you during your labour to know about the different options, as well as how they can support you. 

Ask your midwife or doctor to explain what's available so you can decide what's best for you.

Write down your wishes in your birth plan, but remember you need to keep an open mind. You may find you want more pain relief than you'd planned, or your doctor or midwife may suggest more effective pain relief to help the delivery.

Self-help in labour

You're likely to feel more relaxed in labour and better placed to cope with the pain if you: 

Gas and air (Entonox) for labour

This is a mixture of oxygen and nitrous oxide gas. Gas and air will not remove all the pain, but it can help reduce it and make it more bearable. It's easy to use and you control it yourself.

You breathe in the gas and air through a mask or mouthpiece, which you hold yourself. The gas takes about 15-20 seconds to work, so you breathe it in just as a contraction begins. It works best if you take slow, deep breaths.

Side effects

If gas and air does not give you enough pain relief, you can ask for a painkilling injection as well.

Pethidine injections in labour

This is an injection of a medicine called pethidine into your thigh or buttock to relieve pain. It can also help you to relax. Sometimes, less commonly, a medicine called diamorphine is used.

It takes about 20 minutes to work after the injection. The effects last between 2 and 4 hours, so would not be recommended if you're getting close to the pushing (second) stage of labour.

Side effects

There are some side effects to be aware of:

Remifentanil

Side effects

Remifentanil goes into a vein in your arm. You control it yourself by pushing a button.

It works quickly and wears off after a few minutes. You can use it up until your baby is born.

You’ll need a small clip on your finger to measure your oxygen levels, as remifentanil can make you feel breathless or need oxygen.

Remifentanil can make you feel sleepy, sick, dizzy or itchy. These stop once you stop taking the medicine.

Like pethidine, remifentanil can affect the baby’s breathing but this usually wears off quickly.

Epidural

An epidural is a type of local anaesthetic. It numbs the nerves that carry the pain impulses from the birth canal to the brain. It should not make you sick or drowsy.

In most cases, an epidural gives complete pain relief. It can be helpful if you are having a long or particularly painful labour.

An anaesthetist is the only person who can give an epidural, so it will not be available at home. If you think you might want one, check whether anaesthetists are always available at your hospital.

How much you can move your legs after an epidural depends on the local anaesthetic used. Some hospitals offer "mobile" epidurals, which means you can walk around.

However, this also requires the baby's heart rate to be monitored remotely (by telemetry) and many hospitals do not have the equipment to do this. Ask your midwife if mobile epidural is available in your local hospital.

An epidural can provide very good pain relief, but it's not always 100% effective in labour. The Obstetric Anaesthetists Association estimates that 1 in 10 who have an epidural during labour need to use other methods of pain relief.

How does an epidural work?

To have an epidural:

Side effects of epidurals in labour

There are some side effects to be aware of.

An epidural may make your legs feel heavy, depending on the local anaesthetic used.

Your blood pressure can drop (hypotension), but this is rare because the fluid given through the drip in your arm helps to maintain good blood pressure.

Epidurals can prolong the second stage of labour. If you can no longer feel your contractions, the midwife will have to tell you when to push. This means that forceps or a ventouse may be needed to help deliver the baby (instrumental delivery).

When you have an epidural, your midwife or doctor will wait longer for the baby's head to come down (before you start pushing), as long as the baby is showing no signs of distress. This reduces the chance you'll need an instrumental delivery. Sometimes less anaesthetic is given towards the end, so the effect wears off and you can feel to push the baby out naturally.

You may find it difficult to pee as a result of the epidural. If so, a small tube called a catheter may be put into your bladder to help you.

You may get a headache after an epidural. This happens in about 1 in 100 cases and can be treated.

Your back might be a bit sore for a day or two, but epidurals do not cause long-term backache.

You may feel tingles or pins and needles down one leg after having a baby. This happens in about 1 in 2,000 cases. This is more likely to be the result of childbirth itself rather than the epidural. You'll be advised by the doctor or midwife when you can get out of bed.

Read more about the pros and cons of epidurals.

Using water in labour (water birth)

Being in water can help you relax and make the contractions seem less painful. Ask if you can have a bath or use a birth pool. The water will be kept at a comfortable temperature, but not above 37.5C, and your temperature will be monitored.

The National Childbirth Trust has information on using water during labour and birth.

TENS machines

This stands for transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation. Some hospitals have TENS machines. If not, you can hire your own machine.

TENS has not been shown to be effective during the active phase of labour, when contractions get longer, stronger and more frequent. It's probably most effective during the early stages, when you may have lower back pain.

TENS may also be useful while you're at home in the early stages of labour or if you plan to give birth at home. If you're interested in TENS, learn how to use it in the later months of your pregnancy. Ask your midwife to show you how it works.

How TENS machines work

Electrodes are taped on to your back and connected by wires to a small battery-powered stimulator. Holding this, you give yourself small, safe amounts of current through the electrodes. You can move around while you use TENS.  

TENS is believed to work by stimulating the body to produce more of its own natural painkillers, called endorphins. It also reduces the number of pain signals sent to the brain by the spinal cord.

Side effects of TENS machines

There are no known side effects for either you or the baby.

Read more about TENS.

Alternative methods of labour pain relief

You may choose alternative treatments such as acupuncture, aromatherapy, homeopathy, hypnosis, massage and reflexology. Most of these techniques are not proven to provide effective pain relief.

If you'd like to use any of these methods, it's important to discuss them with your midwife or doctor and let the hospital know beforehand. Most hospitals do not offer them for pain relief during labour.

If you want to try any of these techniques, make sure the practitioner is properly trained and experienced. Learn more about complementary and alternative medicines and how they're regulated.

Find maternity services near you.