They don’t call it labor for nothing. Having a baby is hard work, and part of that work is getting through the pain. But don’t panic. There are more ways than ever to manage that pain, and you don’t have to choose just one. “The trick is to have as many tools in your bag as possible,” says Kim Hildebrand Cardoso, a certified nurse-midwife in Berkeley, California, and a mother of two. “You don’t know what’s going to work until you’re in it, and what helps a woman at one point can change five minutes later.” That’s why it’s important to keep an open mind and do your research. So take a deep breath (good practice for later) and prepare to enter the wide world of pain management.
1. Without Medication
“The most important thing you can relax during labor is your mind,” says Stacey Rees, a certified nurse-midwife at Clementine Midwifery, in Brooklyn, New York. The idea is simple — when you fear pain, you tense up, which makes the pain worse, which makes you tense up more. Cardoso had back labor for 21 hours with her first baby and says her saving grace was enjoying the time between contractions. “I tried to stay in the moment and not spend the precious pain-free minutes stressing about the pain I just had and what was to come. The result was ecstasy — I felt like I was on really good mind-altering drugs.”
To stay relaxed, it’s crucial to pay attention to your breathing, the same way you do when you’re lifting weights. Whether you’re hee-ing or haa-ing, panting or deep inhaling, as long as you’re focusing on your breath and releasing it, you’ll find some relief. “I tell women their breath is the path through the contraction,” Rees says, “and to just keep following that path until the sensation starts to fade.”
And don’t feel inhibited about making strange loud noises. Rees recommends strong low-pitched moans rather than high-pitched horror-movie screams, which tend to make the throat tight and tense, but she admits it isn’t always possible. “With my second baby, I was able to make those low guttural sounds, somewhere between a Gregorian chant and a large animal near death,” Cardoso remembers. “But with my first baby, I just ended up screaming a lot.”
3. Moving Around
Walking, swaying, changing positions, and rolling on a birthing ball can not only ease the pain but can help your labor progress by using the force of gravity to your advantage and encouraging the movement and rotation of the baby down through the pelvic canal. In a hospital setting, being hooked up to fetal monitors, IVs, and pain medicine can limit your walking, but you can still try positions like hands and knees in the bed or standing, squatting, or sitting by the side of the bed. “It really helped to be on my hands and knees, leaning onto my husband’s chest,” says Andrea Vander Pluym, of Oakland, California, mom to Bastien Brace, 3. “And I liked leaning over in the shower, leaning over the sink, leaning on the stairs — lots of leaning.”
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