Labor Pain Relief Options: Alternatives to Natural Births or Epidurals

Often people think of labor pain relief, as all or nothing— epidural or “natural”. We’re here to tell you that is not the case! You have several choices between these two extremes, so you can find the pain management solution that feels right to you..

The environment around you

This is one that people don’t often think of, but creating a soothing environment can be a very powerful influence on your pain level. Picture these two examples:

  • Scenario #1: A hospital room with all the bright lights on, a hospital gown waiting for you on the bed, a nurse that has already started asking you what feels like 100 questions before you can even change or lie down. Your partner or support person follows you in the room and isn’t even acknowledged. 
  • Scenario #2: A hospital room with the lights dimmed, a nurse speaking quietly, welcoming you and encouraging you to get comfortable wherever you’d like in the room (no mention of changing clothes.) Your partner or support person greeted, asked their name and welcomed. Perhaps even some soft music playing and a diffuser emitting a pleasant aroma of essential oils.

What was your body’s reaction to the difference? Could you feel the tension leave your body as you went from Scenario #1 to #2. The same happens in labor. Pain relief can be dramatic in an environment where you feel respected and empowered. 

Hydrotherapy or Water Baths

Laboring in the shower or a tub of water is a wonderful way to relax in labor. Let’s go back to our scenarios to give you an idea of how it might feel.

  • Scenario #1: You’ve had a terrible day at work. You arrive home with aching feet, a headache and neck pain. You try to take some deep cleansing breaths and walk around the house trying to process all that happened, while analyzing what could have made it better. You begin to tell your partner all about it while holding your head in your hands. 
  • Scenario #2: You’ve had a terrible day at work. You arrive home with aching feet, a headache and neck pain. Your partner has a warm bath prepared for you with candles around. They say they’d like to hear all about your day, but first you need to soak for 20 minutes in the water in silence. As you climb into the tub your pain melts away first in your feet and then your neck, shoulders and head. You sit there, floating in silence, having a difficult time remembering why the day was so bad. 

Water has a way of relaxing us, even when we try to dwell or hold onto negativity. It’s a great way to relieve pain in the labor process. 


Moving in labor not only helps to relieve pain, but it also helps your little one maneuver through the pelvis. Shifting your pelvis gives them more space to move through in order to get into position for birth. Try walking, lunges, squats, side lying, getting on your hands and knees, sitting on a birth ball—these are all good ways to support pain relief for you.

Counter pressure

Throughout the duration of your contraction, try having someone put pressure on your hips or lower back. This is firm, constant pressure will offer some pain relief.


A great way to find total relaxation between your contractions is to have someone rub your shoulders, back, legs or feet. It’s a gentle reminder to take deep breaths and let your energy refill before the next contraction. 


TENS Units are light electrical impulses delivered to your back through pads. You control the intensity and frequency of the impulses. It helps to scramble the pain pathways of the nerve endings bringing you pain relief. 

Sterile water papules

These are small injections of water under the skin on your lower back. This works in the similar way as the TENS Unit in that it scrambles the pain pathways and brings relief. 

Nitrous Oxide (Laughing Gas)

When it comes to using nitrous oxide for pain relief, think laughing gas at the dentist. You are in control of when you inhale it and when you don’t. It doesn’t get rid of all the pain but takes the edge off or dulls it enough that you care a lot less about it. It’s a great way to take your mind off of the pain and bring some relief. 

IV Pain Medication

Taking a pain medication through an IV in your arm will bring short term relief. This is a great way to help you get over a hump from active labor to pushing or even before. It is a great way to allow you to rest for about 10-15 minutes, so you can get your energy up for pushing. Since it wears off fast, it can be given frequently. 


This is one of the more well known pain relief options. A catheter is placed in your back to deliver anesthesia which results in a loss of sensation in your pelvis and legs. Given the loss of sensation in your legs, it is not safe for you to walk and hence you are to stay in bed for the duration of the epidural. That said, you get complete pain relief with this method. 

As you can see, there are a lot of options across the spectrum for you to think about and explore – maybe even some you had not considered before! Talk to your provider about pain relief prior to labor and be sure to include your preferences as you build out your birth plan.

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