Most women will agree the pain they experience during labor and delivery miraculously melts away almost as soon as they lay eyes on their newborn. But, in the hours before that moment, women must endure a painful process of contractions and pressure “that can last anywhere from a half hour to 30 hours,” says Sarah Smith, D.O., gynecologist/obstetrician with the Center for Women’s Health, a NorthBay Affiliate. Each labor and delivery process is unique and varies greatly, depending not only the woman herself, but the position and size of the baby, and whether it is her first or a subsequent delivery, Dr. Smith notes.
“If you’re concerned about how you will handle the process, don’t wait until the heat of the moment,” she advises. “Talk to your doctor ahead of time, during your regular visits. We can go over what medications are available, and if you want them, or we can make recommendations for techniques that will help.”
Women in labor can take advantage of pain-relieving medications, non-drug options, or a combination of both, she explains. Medications would include analgesics—which relieve pain without the total loss of feeling or muscle movement, such as during an epidural block—or
anesthetics, which would completely block out all feeling, such as during a cesarean.
Non-drug options could include changing position frequently, or using breathing and relaxation techniques learned during a labor and delivery class. “I know that some people also have tried acupuncture or hypnosis with success,” Dr. Smith adds.
During labor and delivery classes, expectant moms and their “labor coaches” are taught about the three stages of labor—latent, active and transition—and what one might expect during each phase.
The first stage is the longest and least intense, when the cervix dilates to about 3 or 4 centimeters.
During the active phase, the cervix dilates from 4 to 7 centimeters and contractions become much more intense. Pressure can build on the back and/or abdomen, and some women will also start to feel the urge to push. They will be encouraged to wait until the cervix is completely open, at 10 centimeters.
The cervix reaches this milestone during the transition phase. At this time, contractions are very strong and painful. They may come every three or for minutes and may last from 60 to 90 seconds.
“The time a woman is in the transition phase varies from about a half hour to an hour and a half,” Dr. Smith notes. “It can be a very emotional time and she will need a lot of support.”
Even if you have chosen the non-drug pain relief option, you can always ask for pain medications at any point, Dr. Smith says. “We will take whatever steps a mom needs to be comfortable, and be respectful of her wishes.”