Back Labor: What It Is, What It Feels Like & How to Prevent It

Labor is uncomfortable enough… why do some of us have to deal with back labor too? I had it with my first birth, and thankfully not with my second, and the births were night and day. If you’ve experienced it, you can relate to how painful it can be!

Back labor can also increase the likelihood of labor interventions that natural mamas would rather avoid. But, we don’t have to be victims. Luckily, there are things you can do to try to avoid back labor and improve your odds of having a natural birth, so keep on reading!

What is back labor?

This type of labor, as you might have guessed, is pain in the back (the lower back, to be exact) during active labor, and sometimes earlier. Usually the pain peaks with contractions, but sometimes it continues in between surges too.

What does back labor feel like?

Back labor feels like intense lower back pain during contractions and sometimes in between. Many women explain back labor pain as contractions that peak right away instead of easing in and out. “Horrid,” “terrible,” “intense pain,” and “never want to do that again” are some of the ways women explain the way it feels. I felt like my back was breaking with each contraction. That’s why this post will share some tips to help you reduce your odds for back labor.

Does baby’s positioning cause back labor?

The most commonly agreed upon reason for back labor is baby’s position in the womb. When baby is face up (“sunny side up” or occiput posterior), mom may experience back labor because baby’s head is pushing against her spine. Anecdotal evidence supports this theory, but the science is not so clear. A few studies that have been done (including this 2005 study) show that though position is a factor, it is not necessarily the cause of back labor.

The truth is that many women who experience back labor do have a “sunny side up” (or occiput posterior) baby, but many don’t. Also, many women who have an occiput posterior baby don’t have any back labor at all. The two don’t correlate well enough to prove that one definitively causes the other. loa-lop-roa-rop-baby-positions-by-mama-natural

So what does cause back labor?

In addition to baby’s positioning, there are a few variables that can have an impact on whether mom experiences back labor:

Mom has a short torso

If mom has a short torso but a long baby, there may not be quite enough room for baby to turn or get into the pelvis properly, contributing to more pain in the lower back.

Bad posture

If you tend to stand with knees locked and your pelvis tipped forward or butt tucked, you may be more likely to have back labor.

Tight or weak muscles and ligaments

Tight muscles and ligaments can make it difficult for baby to get into a good position and can even change the shape of the pelvis.

Back injury or ligament pain

If you’ve had a back injury, you may experience low back pain during labor. Also, ligament pain may arise during labor, causing back labor.

Mom’s pelvic shape

Though most women have a pelvis perfectly capable of giving birth, some pelvic shapes can birth a posterior baby better than others.

Back labor symptoms and signs

Because women hear that back labor pain is excruciating, they get nervous when they begin to feel any back pain during pregnancy or labor. Here’s how you can decipher back labor from other back pain.

  • First, you have to be in labor. You can’t be having back labor if you aren’t in labor. Most women experience back labor during the active phase of labor and not usually in early labor (but it’s not impossible to have it earlier on). If you have back pain and you’re not in labor, find a chiropractor who is trained in the Webster technique for pain relief.
  • Also, back labor usually ebbs and flows with contractions. If you are having steady back pain that doesn’t peak and valley—or is not that intense—you probably aren’t experiencing back labor.

Back labor is every laboring mom's worst nightmare, but what if you get it? Here are some natural tips for dealing with, and even avoiding, back labor.

How to prevent back labor

I wish I could give you some magic formula that would guarantee you that you won’t have back labor but I can’t. However, you can be proactive and keep your pelvis balanced and aligned throughout your pregnancy, which can only help you feel better while pregnant and possibly during birth. You can also encourage your baby to be in the best position in utero. While this won’t ensure that your birth will be easier, shorter or pain-free, it certainly can’t hurt!

Some things you can do now, while pregnant…

  • Consider seeing a chiropractor trained in the Webster technique
  • Belly map to determine your baby’s position in utero
  • Practice these optimal baby positioning exercises daily
  • Be mindful of your standing posture
  • Sit upright and supported versus slouched and hunched over
  • Do gentle inversions like child’s pose
  • Try chiropractic work and/or acupuncture (each has its own benefits, so try them both if you can!)
  • Listen to birth affirmations to keep your thoughts positive

How to ease back labor pain during labor

One study concluded that there was no relationship between a woman’s positions during labor and having occiput posterior babies. However, their research did find that mom’s positioning during labor helped change baby’s positioning from posterior to anterior if the baby was above station -3 (high up and head not engaged in the pelvis). We also have to keep in mind that in this study, most of the women received an epidural and had their membranes ruptured artificially. Artificial rupture of the membranes can cause baby to descend quickly and before he is ready, so he may engage in the pelvis in a less than ideal position for birth.

Once baby is engaged in the pelvic canal, it’s much more difficult for baby to change position, regardless of what position mom is in.

Balancing and opening the pelvis

The pelvis must be open and balanced during labor in order for the baby to settle into an optimal position. Here are some techniques to do just that:

  • Use gravity to your advantage (standing, sitting up, etc.)
  • Walk with shoulders back and pelvis tucked
  • Sit with your hips higher than your knees (like on a yoga pillow)
  • Squat with back flat against the wall and feet flat on floor
  • Sit on a birth ball, either up straight or leaning forward
  • Do rebozo sifting (a long piece of fabric used to jiggle the pelvis to release tension)
  • Do rebozo hanging (grab the hanging rebozo and allow your knees to soften)
  • Do pelvic tilts
  • Try belly dancing
  • Do abdominal lift during contractions (pull up on lower belly)
  • Get on hands and knees
  • Kneel and lean forward on a bed, couch, or side of the birth tub

Back pain relief

If baby is in the best position and you are still having back labor pain, here are some techniques to help ease discomfort (Hint: Counter-pressure will be your greatest friend… and water too):

  • Hot water bottle on the lower back
  • Strong back counter-pressure applied by your partner or doula
  • Hip counter-pressure
  • Hypnotherapy: Birthing tub or shower
  • Heated rice or buckwheat sock
  • Labor massage using hands, DIY tennis ball massager, etc.

Does back labor mean my baby or I are in danger?

Though potentially more painful, having back labor doesn’t mean something is wrong. Many women have back labor and still go on to have natural births. However, some moms experience more pain and ask for pain meds or an epidural, which can increase the need for more interventions and the “cascade of interventions.” Back labor may also indicate a posterior baby, and posterior babies often mean longer, more difficult labor and a higher rate of cesarean. However, remember to use water as a pain relief!

In studies, water births resulted in statistically significant reduction in use of pain medication and the amount of pain reported.

Ready to rock your birth? Download our natural playbook!

You got this!

Baby’s position is just one factor in why women have back labor, but mom’s pelvic alignment can play an important role too. Staying flexible, aligned, and in shape during pregnancy will not only help you feel better but get you ready for labor (and potentially reduce your chances for back pain). If that’s not possible or labor is already imminent, try the other listed above to help manage any discomfort. You can do this, mama!


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Add a Comment
  1. I had back Labor with my first two and regular labor with my third and I absolutely preferred the back labor. The contractions in my back were nothing compared to those in my stomach with my last baby. I guess every woman and every labor is different!

  2. I had back labor with my first child and I honestly preferred it to when the contractions could be felt in my belly! The back pain wasn’t horrible or something I never wanted to do again, I started to think that way when I felt the contractions in my belly. Being on my hands and knees, sitting on the ball and leaning over the bed, or having my husband rub my back helped a lot. The shower was AMAZING. 50% of the well-woman care professionals I’ve seen have said that I have a tilted uterus, one said that would mean I would have back labor. Since my son was not in a funny position I’m inclined (pun intended) to believe that my uterus is tilted and it was a factor in my back labor.
    Back labor isn’t the worst thing, so don’t be afraid of it!

  3. I have been told I have tilted uterus also – and I had back labor. My preterm (33 weeks) labor, from beginning to end, was 6 hours and I know I probably could not have handled another hour more. I did it completely naturally but it was pain from a different world. However, my baby was born healthy and fine – but I struggled with back pain for the year following until I found a PT who performed myofacial release. She said I had trauma from my labor held in my back. I worked with her for 2 months and have since fully recovered.

  4. I have a tilted uterus too and had a very long and painful labor. It helped to sit on a recling chair with lumbar support, as it was counter pressuring my spine and relieving the pain a little. Having a bath also helped a lot.
    When I got to the hospital, I was at 8cm and the pain got almost unbearable. I was screaming a lot and it helped to let it out, but I wasted my energy doing it and had some bad pain in the chest after. I was in the pushing phase for almost 5 hours and since I was exhausted from screaming, I had to ask the doc for the ventouse to help with the baby s head. After that it all went well, the pain was gone as soon as my girl was born and the back pain that I had throughout pregnancy eventually dissappeared.
    It s not a fun experience, but I do feel stronger and proud that I went through without an epidural or any other drugs despite having more pain than would be normal.

  5. I had back labor with my child and I honestly preferred it to when the contractions worked their way around to the front of my belly! I’ve been told that I have a tilted uterus and that it would mean back labor, but I’ve also been told that doesn’t matter. I DID have a long labor though. I do not think my child was sunny side up.

    • Oh my.. not me! My baby was neither forward facing nor read facing; rather, he was facing my leg… An impossible position to pass through the birthing canal. And he didn’t want to move. In the beginning (early labor), it felt like I had a dagger running through my tailbone. But as I got into more active labor, I literally feel like my tailbone was going to break off the rest of my spine… for over 40 hours!!! Once the pain wrapped around to my belly it was so tolerable in comparison. I couldn’t stand or kneel… I just wanted to hang suspended in the air during every contraction. A few months after birth I started going to a chiropractor, and said that I had done some damage to my sacrum during labor (it was still very sore). Thankfully it’s better now, but so praying for a better labor next time and DEFINITELY hiring a doula!

      • Oh Amanda,

        I know how you feel! I had the most intense, terrible pain in my life during my back labor. After having it for over 8 hours, I was exhausted and the midwife recommended an epidural to help me rest for the pushing phase. My uterine contractions felt like nothing compared to the back labor.

        Did you give in to an epidural or did you brave it out? It literally felt like my lower back and sacrum were being sawed in half. Tried hot tub that the birthing ward had, husband tried to massage pain area, tried birthing ball (made it worse), seems like nothing helped! I’m also 5 foot and my baby was 21.5 inches, I’m sure that didn’t help.

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