Some women like the idea of natural birth for the benefits to mom and baby, but are unsure if they can handle the pain. Luckily, natural birth without pain medications doesn’t mean no pain management at all. In fact, many of these techniques for natural pain relief during childbirth work as well—or better than!—narcotic or epidural pain medications. Plus, you can mix and match them to suit you.

How Painful Is Childbirth?

Let’s back up a little bit first: There’s no getting around it, childbirth hurts.

But there are a lot of good reasons that it hurts. Pain helps you to know it’s time to have your baby. It helps your body figure out how to best birth your baby. It also helps transform you into a mother.

However, the pain of childbirth is not like any other pain. Women who choose natural birth say that, when managed naturally, the pain of childbirth feels more intense than painful. The memory of the pain also doesn’t have the same lasting impression on your mind as the pain of an injury.

Though you may have emotional reactions during labor such as “I can’t do this” or “I’m never doing this again,” most women who give birth naturally bounce back immediately and even describe the birth positively moments afterward (just check out my labor with Paloma!). And a lot of us go on to have multiple children!

How to Manage Pain During Labor

But just because labor is inherently painful doesn’t mean you have to grin and bear it without any strategies for managing those intense feelings. There are a number of techniques to manage labor pain that have nothing to do with narcotics or needles! Best of all, most of these can be use together without any side effects.

Here are some proven options for natural pain relief during labor:

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1. Take a childbirth class

Believe it or not, there are a number of things you can start doing before you go into labor to help reduce pain during childbirth. These things won’t take away your pain while you’re birthing your baby, but they’ll prime your body for a shorter, faster labor and, as a result, a less painful labor.  

In one study, women who took birth courses 24 percent less likely to get an epidural. These women were also less likely to have Pitocin or c-sections

Experts surmise that this is because the unknown is the root of fear and anxiety. When we don’t know what to expect, we spend more time and energy thinking about the bad things that may occur. With that in mind, it makes sense that a childbirth class would help with pain during labor. By equipping you with more knowledge about the possible outcomes during labor, you will experience less fear and anxiety, as well as be a better advocate for yourself.

Though we may be a little biased, the Mama Natural Birth Course is really the premier option, especially for natural mamas. The best-in-class course is hosted by me (a crunchy mama of three) and Maura Winkler, a certified nurse midwife, a registered nurse (RN), a doula, a breastfeeding counselor, and a placenta encapsulator.

The 12-hour eight-part, online, on-demand course takes parents through the entire process of preparing for and experiencing a natural birth. These birth classes also include modules on the first several weeks with baby, with natural postpartum care for baby and mama, as well as an entire class on breastfeeding.

2. Hire a doula

It might sound strange that a person could bring you natural pain relief during childbirth, but it’s true.

A doula’s presence reduces your chances of asking for pain meds. In fact, research shows that a continuous support person during labor reduces the use of pain medication by 28 percent (particularly if that person is not a hospital staff or friend/family member, like a doula). A doula’s presence also reduces the likelihood of a cesarean birth by 26 percent and instrumental birth by 41 percent. Women with doulas were also 33 percent less likely to be dissatisfied with their birth experience. All great reasons to hire a doula!

3. Take care of yourself

During pregnancy and labor, caring for yourself with enough food, water, and activity are vital. Labor is like a marathon and preparation is key for getting through it. A strong body from proper nutrition and exercise is an excellent place to start.

A strong uterus is also important. Red raspberry leaf tea is an excellent way to tone your uterus in preparation for labor which can greatly reduce the amount of pain you feel and maybe even the amount of time you feel it!

And don’t forget to eat your dates. Three separate studies suggest that eating dates during pregnancy can help you have an easier labor and birth. Aim for about six whole dates per day three to four weeks before your due date.

4. Experiment with hypnobirthing

One way to learn how to embrace the surges is by practicing self hypnosis during childbirth. Hypnobirthing practices have helped many women have low pain and even pain-free birth experiences. In studies, women who practice hypnosis as a method of natural pain relief during childbirth are less likely to use pain medication.

Self hypnosis is pretty simple, though it takes practice. How it works is you practice deep relaxation throughout your pregnancy and, during labor, you repeat those relaxation practices. Deep relaxation helps you to enter your meditative birth space. These breathing and visualization exercises are self-guided, partner-guided, or guided by an Mp3 track.

5. Try baking soda

Researchers found that women with stalled labors seem to have more acidic uterine environments, leading them to believe acid may weaken contractions.

As a result, British researchers experimented with using baking soda—a highly alkaline agent—to neutralize the acid to see if this would speed up a stalled labor. Amazingly, nearly 20 percent of women with stalled labors avoided emergency c-section.

With your doctor or midwife’s approval, try drinking 1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon of baking soda dissolves in a quart of water and sip on it during labor.

6. Consider a water birth

Water births are on the rise, and for good reason. Water is an excellent technique for pain relief during labor.

Studies show that women who have water births not only have shorter labors—90 minutes shorter—but are also significantly less likely to have an epidural or any other type of anesthesia or opiod pain relief. These women also have fewer episiotomies and lower rates of postpartum hemorrhage.

7. Embrace the surges

Childbirth is painful. Period. But if you can remember that the pain is useful and allow it to wash over you instead of fighting it, the pain is not nearly as bad. Ask any mama who planned and achieved a drug-free birth, and they will agree that fighting the pain just makes it worse.

Childbirth pain is useful in a couple of ways: Each contraction, or surge, is opening your cervix to bring your baby into the world. It’s also useful in that the pain can guide you to the best birthing environment and positions. Allowing yourself to feel each surge as it happens, notice where it’s coming from, recognize the peak, and feel it fade away is how many women get through childbirth with a realization that it was painful but also feeling like it was never unbearable.

8. Assume the right positions

Your labor pain will guide you to what position is best for delivering your baby. If baby is coming too fast, many mamas instinctively want to lay down. When babies need the help of gravity, those mamas instinctively prefer standing, sitting upright, or squatting. Hands and knees can help a baby who is not in the exact right position. Walking around can also help a baby settle into the birth canal properly.

Studies support these natural instincts. In one large clinical review, researchers found that labor was one hour and 22 minutes shorter, on average, for women who were upright and moving during the first stage of labor. These individuals were also less likely to request an epidural or have a c-section.

9. Use birthing props

Some women say they couldn’t have given birth without a certain prop that helped them stay in the position that was optimal for their birth. And studies support this concept.

Birthing balls, stools, and straps are all props that can help you be more comfortable. Just note that what works for one labor doesn’t necessarily work for another. Be open to trying something new if what you used in a previous labor isn’t working.

10. Try acupuncture or acupressure

Studies show that when women in active labor receive acupuncture, they have shorter deliveries, need fewer interventions, and are 25 percent less likely to need pain medication.

But because most women don’t have access to a licensed acupuncturist during labor, acupressure is a good alternative method of natural pain relief during childbirth.

Acupressure is a form of traditional Chinese medicine in which firm pressure is applied to a specific point on the body. Learn how to do acupressure during labor.

11. Have your partner give you a massage

Researchers say massage helps alleviate pain during labor, because it floods the body with endorphins—a feel-good hormone that acts as natural pain relief during childbirth. Massage also helps reduce the amount of cortisol (stress hormone) in the body, while increasing the amount of serotonin and dopamine in the brain.

Have your partner practice well before labor begins and guide him to learn what is most relaxing for you. Many women enjoy a medium pressure from the neck to the sacrum or hip massage.

How About You?

What did you use for natural pain relief during childbirth?