woman in labour in hospital

Whether you’re hoping to use solely self-help techniques or want the option of drugs, it’s useful to know what pain relief is available in hospital…

If you have your baby in hospital, you’ll usually have access to a wide range of pain relief choices, including epidurals (NHS, 2015). But that doesn’t mean you have to use all of them.

"It’s fine to keep your options open until the birth is actually happening. You can then decide what you need and want."

You can also use the Which? Birth Choice tool to compare services near you and to find out their contact details. It’s also a great idea to book a tour of your hospital if they are offered. On a tour you’ll be able to ask questions about pain relief.

Here is some info about the different types of pain relief available.

Entonox or gas and air

Gas and air is inhaled through a mouthpiece or a mask. It won’t completely take the pain away but it might help to dial down the intensity. Other benefits of gas and air are:

  • it’s quick and simple to take
  • there are no risks for your baby, although it can make you a bit lightheaded or sick. (OAA, 2018)

Pethidine and other injected opiates

These drugs relax your skeletal muscles and may make you feel sleepy, confused or like you’ve just downed a large rum and coke.

Some women love the feeling that pethidine gives them and feel less anxious when they’re on it. But others find it doesn’t relieve their pain well and can make them feel nauseous, helpless or out of control (OAA, 2018).

Another down side is that opiates can make your baby sleepier and slower to start breastfeeding.

"The best thing to do is to speak to your midwife about whether pethidine or other opiates are something that would be right for you. That way you can go through the pros and cons."

TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation)

TENS is a machine that passes a gentle electric current through pads on your back (OAA, 2018). It might be used at the beginning of labour.

Don’t worry, it’s not remotely as scary as it sounds. TENS works by creating a tingling sensation that can reduce pain.

It has no side effects but there’s no guarantee your hospital will have TENS machines. So do think about buying or hiring them in advance if you want to use one.

Water birth

Ask before you go into labour whether water births are available at the hospital where you’ll be having your baby.

A water birth could help you relax, feel less pain and give you less chance of having an epidural (Cluett et al, 2018). Having your baby in water is just as safe as having your baby out of water, just so you know (OAA, 2018).

Epidural or spinal block

Epidurals are injections into your back that stop you feeling pain in certain parts of your body. Epidurals are an option for you when you’re giving birth in hospital as long as there’s an anaesthetist present and available.  

Ask your hospital or midwife whether there are anaesthetists on call day and night for when you’re in labour, or if the times are restricted.

The downsides of epidurals are:

  • If the anaesthetist is with someone else, you might have to wait until they are free for your epidural. This can be quite frustrating.
  • Epidurals can slightly slow down the second stage of labour, which ups the likelihood of needing forceps or ventouse(OAA, 2018)

Serious side effects though are very rare (OAA, 2018).

Low-dose epidural

You might prefer a lower dose epidural so you can still move around a bit in labour and have some feeling during the birth. Yet because an epidural can’t be adjusted exactly, a lower dose might mean you’re a bit more uncomfortable during labour. 

Chat to your midwife about whether a low-dose epidural is available in your chosen hospital (OAA, 2018).

Self-help techniques

As well as the more traditional methods, self-help techniques can be a massive win for a lot of women when they’re in labour. You could try:

  • switching positions
  • swaying, walking, dancing and circling hips to get your baby’s head to come down into the right position
  • focusing on breathing out very slowly, panting or blowing
  • making sounds, e.g. singing, moaning and humming
  • distracting yourself with TV or music
  • a warm bath or shower
  • getting your birth partner to give you a massage
  • pregnancy yoga techniques
  • any other relaxation techniques.

Some self-help techniques, like distraction, might help you in the early stages. Other techniques like warm water, movement and focusing on your breathing could be useful all the way along (Smith et al, 2006; Laurence et al, 2009; Cluett et al, 2018).

You could also use alternative therapies like:

Just be aware that with those, you’ll probably need to arrange some stuff in advance, e.g. classes or booking a therapist to be with you in labour (OAA, 2018).

This page was last reviewed in September 2018.

Further information

Our support line offers practical and emotional support with feeding your baby and general enquiries for parents, members and volunteers: 0300 330 0700.

We also offer antenatal courses which are a great way to find out more about birth, labour and life with a new baby.

Make friends with other parents-to-be and new parents in your local area for support and friendship by seeing what NCT activities are happening nearby.

Which? BirthChoiceUK provides information aimed at helping parents make the right choice about where to give birth.

Cluett E, Burns E, Cuthbert A. (2018) Immersion in water in labour and birth. Available from: http://www.cochrane.org/CD000111/PREG_immersion-water-labour-and-birth [Accessed 30th May 2018].

Lawrence A, Lewis L, Hofmeyr GJ, Styles C. (2009) Maternal positions and mobility during first stage of labour. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. (10):CD003934. Available from: https://www.cochranelibrary.com/cdsr/doi/10.1002/14651858.CD003934.pub4… [Accessed 30th May 2018].

OAA. (2018) FAQs pain relief. Available from: https://www.labourpains.com/FAQ_Pain_Relief [Accessed 30th May 2018].

NHS (2015) Where to give birth? NHS Choices. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/pregnancy-and-baby/where-can-i-give-birth/ [Accessed 30th May 2018].

Smith A, Collins C, Cyna A, Crowther C. (2006) Complementary and alternative therapies for pain management in labour. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. (4):CD003521 Available from: https://www.cochranelibrary.com/cdsr/doi/10.1002/14651858.CD003521.pub2… [Accessed 30th May 2018].

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