11 Secrets to an Easier Labor

From exercise to water therapy, check out our guide to what helps—and what doesn't—when it comes to preparing for and coping with labor.

01 of 13

Keep Fit

pregnancy exercise
Brooke Slezak

"Pregnant women who stay in shape tend to have shorter labors," says Tekoa King, a certified nurse-midwife and an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of California at San Francisco. "Fitness improves endurance, and if you're better able to tolerate labor, you're less likely to end up needing medical intervention."

So, talk to a health care provider about which exercises are safe for you. Walking, swimming, and prenatal exercise classes are good options for most people.

02 of 13

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03 of 13

Take a Childbirth Class

pregnant couple
Buff Strickland

Familiarizing yourself with the stages of labor and practicing comfort measures before the big event will help you feel less anxious, which can make for an easier labor, says Robert Stern, M.D., co-chair of obstetrics and gynecology at Vassar Brothers Hospital in Poughkeepsie, New York.

Shop around for the right childbirth classes, suggests Teri Shilling, director of Passion for Birth and past president of Lamaze International. Look for a small class (with fewer than 10 couples), a certified instructor, and goals that mesh with yours.

04 of 13

Enlist Good Support

woman in hospital
Corbis/Jupiter

Even if your partner will be by your side throughout labor, you may want to line up additional help. According to a study in the Journal of Perinatal Education, people who had continuous care provided by a doula (a person trained to support a laboring person and their partner) were less likely to need a C-section, instrumental vaginal deliveries, and labor augmentation. In addition, they experienced shorter labors than those without doula care.

Community doula care may be especially important for Black parents, who experience disportionate rates of maternal mortality and morbidity. In fact, it is one component the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is utilizing to address the Black maternal health crisis. So, discuss labor support with your prenatal health care provider: Both of you should be comfortable with the doula you hire.

05 of 13

Distract Yourself

Pregnant woman
Image Source/Veer

In first-time pregnancies, active labor lasts an average of 12 to 14 hours. So when contractions begin—you'll feel them first in your lower back or as lower-abdominal cramps—try to stay calm, King says.

"If you start worrying from the onset, counting contractions, and breathing through every ache, you'll wear yourself out," she says. So instead, lose yourself in other activities, like taking a walk, enjoying a shower, or baking cookies. Anything that relaxes you will help speed things along.

06 of 13

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07 of 13

Snack Carefully

pregnant woman eating apple
Juice Images/Veer

A light snack in the early stages of labor, while you're ideally still at home, will help maintain your energy level. But avoid fatty or hard-to-digest foods because a too-full stomach could make you feel nauseated and cause vomiting during the later active stages of labor. Muscle contractions and rapid breathing during labor can also cause you to lose fluids quickly.

A 2013 Cochrane review found that when people do not freely drink fluids throughout labor, intravenous (IV) fluids at double the standard rate can reduce the length of labor. However, the study authors note that it may be possible to increase oral fluid intake rather than increasing IV fluids. In fact, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) suggests drinking clear liquids throughout labor and administering IV fluids as needed. Either way, staying hydrated is important to maintain stamina in labor.

08 of 13

Take a Shower

Shower Niche

"Pain can cause you to tense muscles all over your body, which creates even more discomfort," says Marcie Richardson, M.D., an OB-GYN with Artrius Health (formerly Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates) in Boston.

"A warm shower can counter that response." For massage-like labor relief, aim a showerhead at the small of your back or wherever contractions are most intense. A shower is fine at any stage of labor.

09 of 13

Get in the Tub

water birth
Comstock/Jupiter

Soaking in a warm bath can work wonders to increase comfort during labor. Some people find that the weightlessness they experience in the water can offer relief and allow them to change positions easily. In addition, aiming the tub's Jacuzzi jets at your lower back can help ease intense contractions.

According to ACOG, immersion in water during the first stage of labor may shorten labor. So, even if you don't plan to have a water birth, using a tub for relaxation in early labor may be just the thing to keep things moving.

10 of 13

Get a Massage

pregnant woman getting head massage
iStock/Jupiter Images

In a small 2017 study published in Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice, researchers found that lower back massage during labor significantly reduced labor pain and increased satisfaction with birth.

"When you stimulate an area that's in pain, whether with pressure or heat, you soften the pain messages sent to the brain," King explains. Let your partner know what feels best. For example, you may want a shoulder or neck rub in labor's first hours, then firm pressure on your lower back or your hips during the intense transition stage. By the same token, there may be times when you don't want to be touched at all.

11 of 13

Don't Lie Down

pregnant woman walking in hospital with husband

Staying upright throughout much of labor lets gravity work to your advantage: The baby's head pressing on your cervix will help it dilate. And trying a variety of positions—standing, kneeling, or squatting—can lessen discomfort and move labor along. "Movement helps widen your pelvis, allowing the baby's head to pass through," King says.

12 of 13

Be Open to Medication

epidural
istock

"If you're in active labor and dilated past 3 centimeters, an epidural will not significantly prolong childbirth or increase your chances of a C-section," says Philip Samuels, M.D., an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Ohio State University College of Medicine in Columbus. In fact, if you're tense, the anesthetic injected into the space outside your spinal cord can speed dilation by relaxing your muscles.

Epidurals are considered safe, but like all medications, they carry some risks. For example, according to ACOG, if an epidural contains opioids, a fetus may experience side effects like changes in heart rate, respiration, drowsiness, and trouble breastfeeding. Fortunately, these effects do not last long.

Since an epidural can limit mobility, some people opt for an analgesic, such as butorphanol, given via an IV. "Analgesics don't entirely take away the pain, but they do dull pain perception," Dr. Samuels explains. Also, while not widely available in the U.S., nitrous oxide (laughing gas) can reduce anxiety and make labor easier to tolerate.

13 of 13

Keep Breathing

lamaze
iStock

Patterned breathing not only helps you focus during contractions, but taking slow breaths between the intense cramps also helps you rest and relax, Shilling says. During labor, draw on relaxation strategies that help you in everyday life—deep breathing, visualizing a favorite place, or listening to music.

Above all, remember that although there are few certainties about labor and birth, there is one you can count on: Every labor eventually ends. And that end signals the beginning of a new life—your baby's and your own as a parent. That's why even the toughest labor is probably the most worthwhile work you'll ever do.

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