The actual onset of labour is usually much more elusive than the dramatised births we see. For weeks leading up to birth you may have already been experiencing on and off Braxton Hicks contractions. So you might not notice your first real contraction, but sooner or later, you feel it - a painful contraction that commands your attention as it rolls like a wave through your abdomen.
You’re in early labour and you likely have hours to go before it’s time to go to the hospital. What can you do to manage labour pain naturally?
We spoke to Singaporean doula, Brigid Ren Chiew Gin to get some tips on the most effective drug-free comfort measures for labour and birth. Here are 8 things you can do:
- Apply a Warm Compress
Applying a warm compress to your lower back and belly can help ease your discomfort. You can use a warm towel, heating pad, or make a Rice Sock (a homemade heat compress). Simply fill a long cotton sock with uncooked rice and tie up the open end of the sock. Microwave the rice sock for 1.5-2 minutes. Be sure to use a 100% cotton sock so that the sock doesn’t melt. Place a cup of water in the microwave for moisture (optional).
- Take a Bath
Hydrotherapy has long been used to bring comfort and decrease pain. Take a leisurely warm shower or bath. Water is very calming and the buoyancy helps with finding a comfortable position to labour as well. Don’t use overly hot water and don’t soak for too long if you’re doing this on your own. However, with the guidance of a professional, hydrotherapy and water birth can be a great strategy for managing your pain throughout your birthing experience.
- Use a Labour TENS Device
TENS (Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation) is a method of pain relief that has been used successfully worldwide for many years by pregnant women and professional midwives to treat labour pain naturally.
If you are planning for a drug-free birth, consider using the Elle TENS 2 Maternity, Labor & Postpartum Pain Relief Device by Babycare TENS to help manage your pain. Specially designed for labour, the TENS device delivers tiny electrical pulses to your nerves that promotes the release of endorphins, your body’s natural neurotransmitters that block pain and promote feelings of well being. Endorphins are the same natural chemicals your brain releases when you exercise that give you a sense of reward and help you push on. At the onset of labour, place the four pads on your back. The pads are strategically positioned to send signals to the nerves connected to your uterus. You’ll feel a gentle pulsing sensation. The Elle TENS 2 machine emits a program of pulses specially designed to help manage the pain of your escalating contractions.
After delivery, TENS is helpful to manage after birth pains when your uterus is contracting back to its pre-pregnancy size. After birth cramps can come on and off for the first few weeks after birth.
- Practise the 3 R’s of Labor
Veteran Doula Penny Simkin outlines the 3 R’s approach to self-comfort in labour - Relaxation, Rhythm and Ritual based on her observation of countless women coping in labour:
Relax during and/or between contractions. As your contractions become more intense, you may find movement or vocalisation helpful to get you through a contraction. But always try to relax in between contractions.
Rhythmic activity has a soothing effect and can be expressed in many ways such as breathing, rocking, swaying, repeating a thought or chanting.
In this case, ritual refers to a repeated rhythmic activity that has personal meaning. It could be a particular pattern of activity you practised during your pregnancy or a soothing movement you instinctively fall into during labour. For example, your partner rubbing your shoulders a certain way through each contraction, or breathing while counting through a contraction. Some women even bake as their soothing ritual!
- Massage & Counterpressure
Massage and counterpressure can help relieve pain, offset the intensity of contractions and prepare your body for childbirth. Here’s where your partner can get involved to help you through the pain. Your antenatal class and doula can teach you and your partner some helpful massage techniques.
Start learning breathing techniques for labour early on in your pregnancy. Practising these techniques through your pregnancy will help you come into a routine that will be very useful once you’re in full labour. Focusing on your breathing technique takes your mind off your pain, relaxes your body and keeps your oxygen supply up.
Lavender, frankincense and geranium are soothing oils doulas routinely use to bring calm and comfort to labouring mums. Clary Sage can help with the effectiveness of contractions in labour.
- Eat and Drink
While eating and drinking are not exactly pain management strategies per se (except that they might be good distractors), eating a light meal and staying hydrated are important steps that you can take in the early stages of labour to prepare yourself for active labour and birth.
Practise these 8 steps and when the time comes to leave for the hospital, you’ll feel more relaxed and prepared. Remember that you are not doing this alone. Your partner and caregiving team are there to support you all the way.
Much thanks to Brigid Ren Chiew Gin for her advice on natural strategies for relieving labour pain. Inspired by her own birth experience, Brigid has been a doula since 2010, empowering Singaporean women to make choices towards a positive birthing experience. She is registered at Thomson Medical Centre, K K Women’s and Children’s Hospital & Gleneagles Hospital.
“Along the way, the parents and babies continue to inspire me to continue with this calling. They are the ones who teach me that there is no black and white, but rather, it is to focus on their needs and respect their choices. That is what makes the birth experience truly belong to them.” - Brigid
For more info on how you can get support for your birthing journey, check out our resources page.