The truth about pain relief during childbirth

Three births, four different pain relief options. We ask one mother who has been through it all.

Written by Sophie Jackson
Mid adult pregnant woman is touching her stomach, holding her arm on a fitness ball and feeling a bit pain and sitting on a fitness ball near the window at home

Making a decision about which pain relief option is right for you during childbirth is difficult. From breathing techniques to epidurals – everyone has an opinion and there is so much information out there.

So, what does someone who has experienced it all have to say? We spoke to Renee about pain relief during her three births, what each pain relief option was like and what advice she would give her younger self.

First baby – mostly natural

“Like lots of first time mothers, I wanted to do it all naturally. But I didn’t know what sort of pain to expect,” Renee says.

During the second stage of labour, Renee decided she needed some help with the pain. But she wanted to have something that didn’t have a lasting effect on her or the baby. She decided to try remifentanil.

Remifentanil is an ultra-fast acting pain medication, which means it takes effect and wears off quickly. It can be administered through a patient controlled analgesia machine so you can control when and how often you receive the medication. The machine does have a safety mechanism to make sure you don't have too much.

It offered some pain relief for Renee during her first labour, but it wasn’t long before she got to the pushing stage of labour and could no longer use it.

“I am glad that I had my first experience with minimal pain relief. Even though it was horrendous pain, I’m glad that I know what it feels like. It’s very cliché, but it was the making of me.”

Second baby – nitrous oxide and pethidine

Renee’s approach to pain relief the second time around was a bit different.

“I had a more of a realistic idea of what sort of pain I was going to endure, my own personal pain thresholds and what I could cope with."

Renee says she wasn't opposed to pain relief, but didn't go in with a specific plan. She started with nitrous oxide, or laughing gas as it’s commonly known. You inhale nitrous oxide through a mask as you need it, and has been used as a form of pain relief during childbirth for decades. Side effects can include nausea and vomiting.

“The gas didn’t really agree with me. I was in hysterical fits of laughter - every time I looked at my husband it set me off.”

By the time Renee entered the second stage of labour, she had stopped using the gas, but was starting to struggle with the pain. The midwife recommended pethidine.

Pethidine is a strong pain killer, usually injected into the thigh or buttock. It takes longer to take effect than some other pain-relief options, and it can make you and your baby feel drowsy. Renee was hesitant to try it at first.

“They make you very aware that pethidine might make the baby a bit sleepy and that scared me. As a mother, you feel like your baby needs to be born perfect. It feels slightly selfish to relieve your own pain if it means that they will be affected.”

However, she says her fears were unrealistic in hindsight. “It was not what I imagined. He was totally fine and responsive. It was more my uneducated fear that was holding me back.”

“It definitely helped me to get through my labour. It has a sort of wash-over calming effect that really helped,” says Renee.

READ MORE: Childbirth and your pain relief options explained

Third and fourth baby – epidural

Third time around, Renee gave birth to twins. One of the twins was in a breech position, and because the chances of an emergency caesarean were high, doctors recommended an epidural.

During an epidural anaesthetic is injected into the space around the spinal nerves in your lower back. It’s an effective way to block pain from the abdomen down.

“I was terrified of having an epidural, which is why I hadn’t considered it for my previous births. Unfortunately it wasn’t a great experience for me, as the local anaesthetic they gave me before the epidural wasn’t very effective.”

When it came to the birth, she says the pain was a zero. And while many mothers prefer this type of pain relief, it made Renee feel disconnected from the birth.

“It was weird. I only really felt one contraction and it was just a little ‘oop’. I had a nap in the second stage of labour, and at one point I had to ask if I should be pushing or not because I couldn’t feel anything.”

“The only thing you can feel is pressure, especially in your pelvis when the baby is ready to be born.”

On having a plan (and not necessarily following it)

Renee says that having a plan was a coping mechanism for her.

“You feel like you may not have control and that’s scary. But my advice is to be open minded. You do need to lean on the people around you – the health professionals, your support person. Things can change, and they can change quickly and you just need to adapt.”

“I was told a lot about the pain factor of childbirth and honestly, in the beginning, I was really anxious about it. What I was less prepared for was the overwhelming feeling of love and joy that I experienced once my baby was in my arms. That’s what makes it all worth it.”

It’s always interesting to hear about other mothers’ experiences - but everyone is different. If you’re pregnant, speak to your midwife or obstetrician about which pain relief options are best for you.

READ MORE: Hospital birth options

Written by Sophie Jackson

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