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When it comes to handling labor pain, you have options.

When you’re expecting a baby, there’s a lot to check off your to-do list — from decorating your baby’s nursery to choosing a pediatrician. And now, the moment you’ve been (anxiously) waiting for: Your little one’s arrival.

As you near the end of your pregnancy, you’re likely looking forward to seeing your feet more and the bathroom a little less.

You’re also likely starting to get a little anxious about giving birth, wondering what labor will be like and how much pain you’ll experience.

Here’s the lowdown on pain during childbirth, and your options for managing it.

So, how painful is childbirth exactly?

While you can count on experiencing pain during labor, it can be hard to predict how much. “Every woman — and pregnancy — is different,” explains Heather Mecone, CNM, certified nurse midwife at Geisinger. “And pain is highly subjective, meaning your experience may vary greatly from your mother, sister or friends’ experiences.”

From contractions to muscle pain and pressure as your baby is delivered during vaginal birth, it can all seem a little daunting. But remember: It’s a healthy, natural and necessary process for bringing your baby into this world.

Don’t worry, it’s completely normal to be nervous. Your healthcare team will be there to help you manage the pain and support you every step of the way.

Options for reducing pain during childbirth

If you’re nervous about giving birth, try to remember that the pain of childbirth is manageable. “Pain relief options — either medicated or non-medicated — are available to you before and during birth,” says Mecone.

There are a few things you can do before giving birthto help prepare you (and your body) for labor and delivery including:

Here’s a breakdown of pain relief options during childbirth:

Pain relief during labor is a personal choice. Some women choose medicated options like an epidural, while others take a more holistic approach, using breathing techniques and massage.

Non-medicated options

If you’d like to avoid traditional medications during childbirth, and would like to try for a natural childbirth, some of these drug-free options may be right for you.

  • Relaxation and breathing techniques: Breathing exercises and other relaxation techniques like meditation can help you manage your pain.
  • Water: Spending some time in a warm shower or birthing tub can help relieve some of the pain that comes with childbirth.
  • Massage: Massage and applying pressure to certain areas of the body can help relieve your pain and counter some of the discomfort you may be feeling.
  • Movement: Walking, squatting, bouncing on a birthing ball and even dancing can help progress your labor and relieve pain.
  • Doula: A doula can provide support, comfort and encouragement during labor. She can also guide you through non-medicated pain management techniques.

Medicated options

A variety of medications can be used to help ease the pain of labor, so you can focus your energy on bringing your baby into this world. If you’re concerned about the pain, one of these medicated options may be right for you.

  • Nitrous oxide: Nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, is a fast-acting option to help relieve anxiety and pain during childbirth. This may be a good option for you if you’d like to avoid other traditional medication options.
  • Epidural: An epidural is the most common pain medication used during childbirth. With an epidural, the medication (an anesthetic) is injected directly into your spine and can take about 10 to 20 minutes to start working. Once the epidural kicks in, your lower body will feel numb — although you may still feel pressure.
  • Intravenous (IV) narcotics: If you don’t want an epidural, pain-relieving drugs (or analgesics) administered via an IV can help lessen the pain you’re experiencing.

Preparing for labor and delivery

While pain during childbirth is inevitable, know that options are available to help you have the best birth experience possible. “If you’re not sure which options are right for you, talk with your healthcare provider,” advises Mecone.

It’s a good idea to discuss your wishes with your healthcare provider before the big day but remember that they may change once labor starts — and that’s okay. Your healthcare team will do their best to support your plan, while keeping you and your baby safe.

Next steps:

Meet Heather Mecone, CNM
Learn about pregnancy care at Geisinger
Here’s what you can expect during labor

Mother-to-be discussing pain management options with her health care provider.