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How to Cope With Contractions: Natural Pain Relief During Labor

Are you wondering how to cope with contractions? Do you want to know what your options are for natural pain relief during labor? Then this article is for you. Learn about the five categories of coping techniques and what else you can do to make labor just a little easier for yourself.

man giving his pregnant wife a massage

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I’m guessing since you’re here that you’re considering giving birth unmedicated. If that’s the case, I’m excited for you! Laboring without medication can be a very rewarding and meaningful experience. 

By the end of this blog post, you’ll have a full toolkit of coping techniques to make labor easier and more comfortable.

Before we get to that, I want to address one thing real quick: pain.

How Painful Is Giving Birth?

Part of me doesn’t like using the word “coping” to talk about the techniques I go over below. “Coping” makes it sound like you’re going through some horrible thing.

The truth is, labor is hard. It’s intense. But at the same time it’s an incredible experience.

So when we talk about “coping,” don’t be scared away. The pain of labor isn’t like other pain. In fact, some women don’t even experience pain! 

If you want to dig into the topic of pain – or painlessness – during labor and birth,  I recommend you check out my blog post Is Childbirth Painful? (The Answer Might Surprise You).

For now, let’s get to the topic at hand: how to cope with contractions.

Five Categories of Coping Techniques for Labor

There are so many tips and tricks out there telling you how to cope with contractions that it can get overwhelming. To make it easier, I like to think of our options for natural pain relief during labor as being divided into just five categories.

Those five categories are:

  • Movement, 
  • Touch, 
  • Self-calming, 
  • Words, and 
  • Environment.

If acronyms help you remember things, think “SWETM” (said like the pet name “sweetums”). While it’s not necessary that you remember all the specific coping methods, it may be helpful to have an easy way to recall the categories.

It’s possible that once you’re in the middle of labor, nothing you’ve practiced is helping and you need to try something new. If you can remember “SWETM” it might help you and your birth team know what else to try.

So what does each category mean and what does each include? Let’s go through all five, one at a time, and I’ll explain each category and give some examples of specific skills and techniques that fit in that category.

How to Cope with Contractions: Movement

Movement is so important during labor. It really is sad that it’s “normal” for women to spend most of their labor time in a hospital bed. More women would find labor to be a manageable – even pleasant – experience if they would only get off their back and move their body. 

Movement is important for two main reasons. First, if you’re moving, you’re probably upright, and that means gravity is working in your favor, helping your baby make his or her way down and out. 

Second, your baby has to go through your pelvis and that is easier said than done.

To make his or her way through your pelvis, your baby has to complete what are called “cardinal movements.” They have to rotate a few different ways because of the shape and size of the human pelvis. It’s precise, but it works. Only very rarely is a woman’s pelvis too small or a baby’s head too big.

Like Taking a Ring Off

An easy way to understand why movement is important during labor is to think about taking a ring off your finger.

If a ring fits tightly, you usually can’t just slide it off with one quick movement, no matter how hard you pull. Rather, it takes some turning and twisting to slowly move the ring up and off your finger.

That’s exactly how it is with your baby and your pelvis. Sometimes, no matter how hard you push, that baby isn’t going to move down until you start to move your hips and help them shimmy their way down.

Movement Techniques

It isn’t hard to imagine what kinds of things are included when we talk about movement as one way to cope with contractions. Movement includes:

That’s not a comprehensive list. If you can think of other ways that movement might feel good to you during labor, feel free to add them to your list.

How to Cope with Contractions: Touch

Touch is another big one for many women, especially for those experiencing back labor. Back labor is when a woman feels a lot of pressure and discomfort in her back during contractions. It is often caused by her baby being in the posterior position.

On the flip side, some women do not want to be touched at all while in labor.

You may be able to guess, even without having experienced labor, which category you’ll fall into. Either way, I recommend you practice some of these techniques before labor begins so that you and your support person are ready to use them if you end up wanting to.

Perhaps the biggest key to giving birth unmedicated is knowing how to stay relaxed, and touch can definitely play a role in that.

Touch Techniques

Touch is also a pretty easy category to understand. Techniques include:

Follow the links to learn more. For those that aren’t linked, I’ll explain below.

Massage

Massage can be whatever you want it to be, but there are some specific massage techniques recommended for labor. One of them is the Waterfall Back Massage.

Have your husband or partner use their open hand to gently stroke down the middle of your back, from neck to bottom. Repeat using the other hand, always maintaining contact with at least one hand. The long, slow, rhythmic strokes can be very relaxing. Make sure he uses his whole hand, not just the heel.

Later in labor, intense concentrated massage can feel good on your lower back. Have your husband or partner use a fist, the heel of his hand, or his thumbs, to apply heavy pressure at the base of your spine.

Finally, many women enjoy light touch massage (a favorite in HypnoBirthing). This kind of gentle massage affects the muscles just below the skin and can trigger the release of endorphins. So it’s not just comforting touch – it’s literally creating pain relievers in your body.

To use light touch massage, lean your upper body on something like a birthing ball or pillows or the side of the bed. Then have your husband lightly drag the TOPS of his fingernails (the back of his fingers) slowly and very lightly up your back, extending up onto your neck under your ears.

Water

If you’ve heard of “hydrotherapy,” that’s just a fancy way to say “take a warm bath or shower.” The warmth, as well as the buoyancy if you’re in a bath, can relieve a lot of the discomfort of contractions.

If you’re in the hospital, you’ll be asked to get out of the water before your baby is born. If you’re at home or in a birth center, you can birth your baby in the water if you want to.

Hot or Cold Packs

The idea of using a hot pack is similar to taking a bath or shower. The warmth can soothe the muscles and ease the intensity of contractions.

A cold pack (or just a cold washcloth) can feel good if you get hot during labor, as many women do. You may even find that you switch between wanting a cold washcloth on your forehead and wanting a heat pack on your back.

How to Cope with Contractions: Self-calming

I chose “self-calming” as the name for this category because all the techniques included are things you do internally, not things that other people do to or for you. For some women, this may be the only category they need – or at least the main one.

Our minds are powerful. To a large degree, our beliefs determine the way we experience things more than anything else, and that includes how we experience labor.

Self-calming is the whole idea behind HypnoBirthing. It also plays a big role in Lamaze and even in The Bradley Method. I talk about all three methods in Choosing a Natural Childbirth Class: Comparing the Big 3.

Self-calming Techniques

Self-calming includes anything mental or anything that requires only your own breath. Here are some examples:

  • Breathing
  • Visualization
  • Self-hypnosis
  • Meditation

All of these techniques are connected and can seem pretty similar, but each can be uniquely beneficial.

Breathing

You can learn about specific breathing patterns, and they may be helpful. But your best bet is to use deep, full, calming breaths without any specific pattern.

If you practice this kind of breathing often before labor begins, you’ll find it easier to use your breath to keep yourself calm even during the intensity of labor.

This kind of breathing works because deep breaths activate the part of your nervous system that helps you return to a state of rest and calm and turns off the part we call “fight or flight,” which encourages production of stress hormones and is not helpful during labor.

Visualization

Visualization can be used in two different ways. First, it may be helpful to visualize pleasant experiences or locations, like being at the beach. The power in this type of visualization comes when you imagine as much detail as possible.

As a contraction begins, imagine the feel of the sand between your toes, the smell of the salt water, the warmth of the sun on your neck, the cool of the water washing over your arms and legs.

Try to put yourself on that beach so that your mind feels all the positive things it would if you were really experiencing it – and your mind will begin to believe that it really is.

The second way to use visualization during labor is to picture what’s going on inside your body. If you’ve learned about it beforehand, you can focus your mind on the muscles that are working as a contraction happens.

Think about the muscles pushing down on your baby and those that are pulling up on your cervix to open it.

When crowning happens, think about your perineum opening and molding to the shape of your baby’s head and helping to clear out fluid from your baby’s airways, rather than focusing on the uncomfortable sensations.

Self-hypnosis

Marie Mongan, the founder of the official HypnoBirthing method and associated childbirth course, is the one who pioneered self-hypnosis as a way to cope with contractions.

Self-hypnosis isn’t a way to put yourself in a trance; it’s a way to get yourself into a state of deep relaxation. Part of it is working through limiting fears and emotions. Part of it is learning coping techniques like those talked about in this blog post.

You can go to the HypnoBirthing website to learn more. I also highly recommend her book Hypnobirthing: The Mongan Method.

Meditation

Finally, meditation can be a powerful tool. It uses breathing, but its goal is to help you get to a state where you are totally calm and totally present in your mind and body, similar to self-hypnosis.

If you can reach this state of peacefulness, you can observe what’s happening in your body without negative reactions like fear. And the less fear you feel during labor, the easier and less painful it will be.

How to Cope with Contractions: Words

Words are one of those things that may help some women and may irritate others during labor. That said, the type of words used can be very different and have very different purposes.

I actually combined three types of words into this one category. 

First are words used by someone else to guide you into a state of deeper relaxation. Second are words used to praise and encourage you. Third are words or noises you use on your own.

Word Techniques

Specifically, the category of words includes:

  • Guided relaxation
  • Progressive relaxation
  • Praise and encouragement from your birth team
  • Reminders that what you’re feeling is normal and safe
  • Self-affirmations
  • Repeated words or phrases

Let’s look at a few of these a little closer.

Guided and Progressive Relaxations

Guided relaxations are exactly what they sound like – someone else describing what you can do to help yourself relax. You can find lots of guided relaxations online for free.

You could also find a written guided relaxation and then have your husband or partner record it for you to listen to during labor. Alternatively, they could memorize it and do it with you real-time.

Progressive relaxations are a type of guided relaxation that addresses specific parts of your body to help you focus on relaxing each part, either starting from your head and working down or starting with your toes and working up.

Again, you can find lots of progressive relaxations online for free.

Praise and Encouragement

Praise and encouragement may seem trivial now, but in the middle of labor they are going to mean everything.

Most women reach a point during labor when they feel like giving up. Often, this hardest moment comes at the same time as the transition phase. Though transition can be very intense, it also means that the work of active labor is almost over – it’s the home stretch. 

If your birth team knows and remembers this, they can be ready to give you the encouragement you need to press on.

Here are some phrases you might ask them to try:

  • “You are amazing!”
  • “We know you’re working hard. You’re doing so well!”
  • “These contractions aren’t stronger than you – they are you. You are that strong!”
  • “You’re doing it – your baby is almost here! Every push brings him/her closer.”
  • “That very feeling of wanting to give up means you’re almost done.”
  • “I’m so proud of you.”

Noises

Moans and noises are often encouraged by midwives and doulas. It can be a way to release fear, stress, and tension and can actually help move your baby down, according to some birth workers.

Moaning or other controlled noises are a good sign because they usually mean a woman is focused on labor and doing what her body is directing.

Some midwives encourage mothers to do “horse lips” – to blow out through relaxed but slightly pursed lips to make them vibrate together. This can be especially helpful as an alternative to holding your breath while pushing.

During the pushing stage, loud roars or growls can also be productive as you work hard to get your baby out. Whatever the noise, let it out. Your body knows what it’s doing.

There is one exception though: screaming.

Screaming is not a noise you want to make during labor. Contrary to what movie and TV scenes often depict, screaming is not a normal or inevitable part of labor. Screaming is usually a sign that mom is panicking.

Screaming is a reaction of fear and probably means that mom is scared of something that is coming – the needle for an epidural or pressure as the baby is born, for example – or that she isn’t coping well.

To calm back down, it can be helpful for someone to lock eyes with mom and use their words to help guide her back to a state of relaxation.

Self-affirmations or Repeated Words

You’ve probably heard of self-affirmations – repeated phrases you say to yourself to help you think more positively about yourself. Well, they work as a way to cope with contractions, too.

Similar to the praise and encouragement others give you, you can encourage yourself by saying things like, “I am strong. I can do this. I was created to give birth.”

Some women repeat one word or phrase to themselves as something to focus on during contractions. If this sounds like it would help you, you could try repeating, “I can. I can. I can.” or “This is for my baby. This is for my baby.”

Remember, words are powerful. What you say to yourself affects what you experience. Be sure that whatever you say to yourself – planned or not, repeated or not – is positive. It might make all the difference.

READ MORE >> 67 Quotes About Birth That You Need to Hear If You’re Pregnant

How to Cope with Contractions: Environment

Environment is different from the other categories. It’s not so much a way to cope as it is a way to set yourself up so there’s less to cope with.

One of the main ways that environment comes into play is when we compare different options for birth location. Obviously, this is something you will choose long before labor begins, but it’s important to think about because where you are will likely affect your ability to cope.

Hospital, Birth Center, or Home

Let’s briefly consider some of the differences between a hospital, a birth center, and your home.

A hospital room will have machines and monitors. It won’t be somewhere you’ve spent time before. You’ll be wearing a hospital gown. Doctors and nurses will be coming in regularly to check on you, some or all of whom you may not know.

A birth center will be more home-like, with a normal bed and some decor on the walls. Your room may have a few pieces of medical equipment or it might not. Your midwife and other attendants will probably be with you the whole time. And you likely will be familiar with the room you’ll be laboring in because you will have seen it during your prenatal appointments.

At home, you’ll be surrounded by your belongings and you’ll be in your own space. There will be no strangers and no medical equipment. In fact, it may only be you and your husband or you and your doula for most of labor. 

Obviously, there are pros and cons to each.

For example, some women prefer the presence of medical equipment because it provides peace of mind that a possible emergency could be responded to immediately. For others, being surrounded by the lights and noise and bustle of a hospital disrupts all efforts to stay relaxed.

To learn more about options for where to give birth, check out Birth Center vs Hospital: What They’re Like and Factors to Consider and Birth Center vs Home Birth: Similarities and Differences.

Other Things to Consider About Your Birthing Environment

Regardless of birth location, you’ll want to know what choices you have over your environment. Some things to consider are:

  • If you can dim the lights
  • What kind of sounds you’ll be hearing, including if you can listen to music or recorded audio
  • How much space you will have to move around in
  • How many people will be with you and who those people are
  • If you can use essential oils
  • If you can control the temperature of the room
  • If you’ll stay in the same room the whole time or be moved between rooms

These things, and any others you think of, would be good to include in your list of questions to ask care providers you interview and birth locations you visit as you are making your decisions about where and with whom to give birth.

A Few More Things That Help with Natural Pain Relief

Though the five categories we covered are the main things to consider when figuring out how to cope with contractions, there are a few other factors that contribute to your experience.

Hormones

First, you might be interested to know that when you give birth unmedicated, you have hormones on your side. If uninhibited by medications, oxytocin and endorphins (among other hormones) help reduce stress and relieve pain naturally.

READ MORE >> The Hormones of Labor and Birth (and Why You Should Care)

Education

Second, education can help you feel more ready to handle labor. Like I talked about in the section about visualization, understanding what’s going on in your body can make contractions less scary and more manageable because you understand why they’re happening and what they’re accomplishing. 

Education can be done on your own – like reading this and other blogs or watching videos – but it’s also a good idea to take a childbirth class.

You can find nearly endless options for childbirth classes online, all offered by different people and focusing on different things. However, if you want a course you know is tried and true, consider going with one of the big names – The Bradley Method, Lamaze, or HypnoBirthing.

Learn about each in Choosing a Natural Childbirth Class: Comparing the Big 3.

Pregnancy Diet and Exercise

Finally, what you do during pregnancy matters, specifically what you eat and how you move. 

What you eat matters because your tissues are only as good as what you feed them. The more nutritious your diet, the more likely it is that your muscles and other tissues are ready for the stress of labor. The more ready your body is, the less pain you’ll likely experience. And less pain means less to cope with.

Similarly, the ways you move during pregnancy affect your experience in labor. The stronger and more flexible your legs and hips are, for example, the more likely it is that you’ll be able to move in the ways you need to to facilitate effective labor. And the less likely it is that you’ll get tired or that the muscles and tissues involved in labor will get hurt.

Conclusion: You Were Created for This

To sum up, if you want to give birth unmedicated, you need to know how to cope with contractions.

You have lots of coping techniques to choose from and those techniques can be separated into five categories: movement, touch, self-calming, words, and setting up a safe, comfortable environment. 

Once you choose the techniques you think will work best for you, make sure to practice regularly during pregnancy so you don’t have to give it too much thought during labor.

That said, don’t totally disregard anything on the list. Remember “SWETM” because, if you’re like me, labor may surprise you and you’ll have to try whatever your body is telling you to try in the moment.

Finally, in addition to developing some coping skills, prepare before contractions begin for an easier and more comfortable labor by educating yourself, eating well, and exercising. 

Through it all, remember three things: trust God, trust yourself, and trust your body…because you were created to do this. 

Until next time,

Allison

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