Epidurals are a tried and true option to block the pain of labor and delivery. Because a doctor injects medicine into the lower back just outside the spinal cord, an epidural numbs or blocks the feeling in the pelvis and abdomen as well as the legs.
But before signing up for this popular form of pain control, some moms-to-be hope for a more natural way to alleviate the pain. So we looked at some alternatives to epidurals worth considering before heading into the delivery room.
The same technique relied on by dentists to block pain during fillings or an extraction is popping up in the labor and delivery wards of hospitals around the country. “We started this in our midwifery practice on March 31,” says Sylvia T. Ballinger, Sr. Media Relations Specialist at MedStar Washington Hospital Center in Washington, D.C. “And there’s been a lot of interest from expecting moms as there is a growing population of women that do not want an epidural during childbirth.”
The nitrous oxide used in the delivery room is a different blend from what a dentist uses. “It’s a great patient-administered and patient-controlled option for women interested in low intervention during childbirth,” says Ballinger.
The downside is there are not a lot of hospitals in the country currently using nitrous during labor, but it is catching on.
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Hypnosis isn’t just for labor and delivery. “It can help a woman in early pregnancy alleviate morning sickness or food aversion as well as substantially reduce birth pain,” says Colin Christopher, a certified clinical hypnotherapist who does hypnobirthing.
It operates on the basis that the subconscious mind doesn’t know the difference between what’s real and imagined. It can change your physical, mental and emotional reactions to an event, situation or even a pain trigger like labor.
A hypnotist that specializes in pregnancy and delivery is the most popular option, however there are a few obstetricians that do hypnosis, so check with your doctor and see if they offer this service.
Before relying on this in the delivery room, Christopher recommends trying self-hypnosis or regular hypnosis first.
Unlike hypnosis which may be used pre- and post-delivery, hypnobabies uses medical hypnosis techniques to ease women specifically through the birth process.
“Although a pain-free birth isn’t guaranteed, I’ve personally experienced it along with various students of mine,” says Julie Six, owner of a doula group and a Hypnobabies Childbirth Hypnosis Instructor in Lexington, Kentucky.
Hypnobabies implements various tools and techniques including the main tool, the finger drop technique. “This allows women to become completely relaxed with the simple drop of a finger. This tool is extremely valuable because it allows the birth muscles to be free of tension,” says Six.
Women who use this technique report faster births and births that they deem as comfortable and enjoyable. Six says that’s because women can train their minds and bodies during multiple listening sessions via CD. “Throughout these relaxing CDs, women are able to eliminate fear and enter their births with confidence.”
Studies have shown aromatherapy can shorten the labor process. It’s also believed to be able to make that time less painful.
“Aromatherapy reduces anxiety and fear,” says Linda Burke-Galloway, M.D., author, The Smart Mother’s Guide to a Better Pregnancy.
The most effective scents used in the delivery room are rose oil, lavender and frankincense.
“Lavender oils can help encourage relaxation, which brings about a reduction of pain,” says Sarah Clark, a mother of four and an instructor for Birth Boot Camp, a company specializing in natural birth with both online and in-person classes. “Citrus scents can help elevate energy, and because labor can be long and tiring, this is incredibly important.”
Generally speaking, aromatherapy is safe for mom and baby. But don’t wait until it’s time to head to the hospital to see how the aromas effect you. “Use them at home to see if they calm you or help reduce anxiety before you’re in the middle of a contraction,” says Clark.
You can use aromatherapy without dabbing the oil on pulse points. Just soak a cotton ball and smell that, or diffuse in the room if appropriate. And check with your doctor or doula for other ways to use aromatherapy.
Burke-Galloway says breathing can change the focus away from the pain during contractions and improve the amount of oxygen in the uterus, baby and cervix. “When the uterus contracts, it cuts off the oxygen supply to tissue, which produces pain. By breathing, the oxygen content is improved, which could potentially reduce pain.”
“Women tend to ‘chest breathe,’ so they breathe high up in their chest. This kind of breathing creates tension and makes it impossible to relax,” says Clark. But breathing techniques beneficial to delivery include breathing deeply in the abdomen.
“You should be able to see the belly rise and fall with every inhalation and exhalation,” says Clark. “This deep abdominal breathing is an excellent way to relax during labor and is of course completely safe for Mom and Baby.”
Many hospitals offer classes that teach breathing techniques thought to be helpful during labor. Your doctor or doula may also be able to offer instruction on how to breath away pain during labor and delivery.
Acupuncture has been proven to reduce pain, and pain is one of the most common conditions treated by acupuncture, says Peyton Theodore, L.Ac., a licensed acupuncturist at Cardiff Acupuncture in Solana Beach, Calif., and a certified natural birth instructor .
Using fine, sterile needles placed at specific points on the body, acupuncture improves natural body functions and promotes self-healing. This is believed to be able to ease pain and decrease the amount of pain experienced during labor and delivery as well as in other situations like during a migraine, recovering from an injury, etc.
Acupuncture and acupressure are thought to be very safe, too. “There are acupuncture points that we avoid during pregnancy that are useful to prepare for labor and assist in pain reduction during labor,” says Theodore.
You can have an acupuncturist come to your birth or can have them perform acupressure if needling is not allowed in your birth setting. Your doctor may be able to recommend an acupuncturist or you can seek out a licensed acupuncturist in your state.
Labor coaching helps remove the ‘X’ or unknown factor of the labor process,” says Burke-Galloway. “Anxiety can reduce a pregnant patient’s tolerance to pain.”
When patients are guided by coaches and know what to expect in advance, their pain becomes more tolerable. “Studies have shown that patients who receive childbirth education in advance of going into labor have a 30 percent reduction in pain compared to mothers who did not receive childbirth training,” she adds.
Coaches can help keep you focused on techniques like breathing and aromatherapy as well as provide an understanding of what’s happening physically during each stage of labor, says Clark.
Part of the success with labor coaching depends on the motivation of the patient. Highly motivated patients will be receptive to coaching and therefore have a more pleasant labor room experience.
Some hospitals allow a coach in the labor room, but others will not; Burke-Galloway suggests checking with your birthing center prior to your due date.
Similar to hypnosis, guided relaxation through meditation or listening lets moms listen to CDs that promote a sense of calm and well-being while promoting the focus on the task at-hand. This has led to women reporting a more positive birthing experience and a decreased use of epidurals.
Did you have a natural childbirth? How did you navigate the pain? Share in the comments section.