Tips for a Non-Medicated, Low-Intervention 'Natural' Birth

Every birth is natural, but if you are looking to give birth without medication, you can follow these guidelines to create a birth plan with minimal interventions. 

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While "natural birth" is an outdated term, it is often used to refer to an unmedicated vaginal delivery with minimal interventions. While this type of childbirth isn't for everyone, going medication-free can offer potential advantages for some pregnant people, such as the potential of reduced need for other interventions.

That said, it's important to note that every birth is natural and unique—and they don't always progress as planned or expected. Even if you intend to have an unmedicated birth, it might not happen due to unforeseen complications or your experience with the pain involved.

However, for many pregnant people who hope to have a "natural" birth, this goal is attainable. The following tips can help improve your odds of successfully—and comfortably—giving birth without medication.

Editor's Note

The term "natural birth" is problematic. Labor and delivery are natural processes for all pregnant people, whether they have a C-section, a medicated vaginal delivery, or an unmedicated one. No method of delivery is superior to others. When referring to a low- or no-intervention birth, a better term would be "drug-free birth" or "unmedicated birth.”

What Is a 'Natural' Birth?

Traditionally, when people use the term "natural childbirth" or "drug-free birth," they mean giving birth vaginally without the use of medications to dull any pain. This type of childbirth also avoids the use of other medical interventions, such as forceps, labor induction, or episiotomy. Some pregnant people who choose to have an unmedicated birth do so in a hospital setting or birthing center, while others opt to have a home birth.

Typically, good candidates for an unmedicated birth are those with low-risk pregnancies who aren't expecting multiples and don't have pregnancy complications like high blood pressure, diabetes, or an active infection. Having a good birth support system, such as a doula and loved ones at your side, and being well-informed about childbirth and drug-free pain relief options also helps.

However, even for "ideal" candidates, unexpected issues can crop up in labor or delivery that make using medications or interventions more preferable or needed. For those in a high-risk category, certain interventions such as a cesarean section (C-section) can make birth safer for everyone.

Additionally, even if you plan for a medicated birth, you might end up not needing or wanting pain medication on the big day. Or your labor and delivery may go so quickly that you end up having your baby before you get a chance to get an epidural. Conversely, some pregnant people who think they want a drug-free birth may change their minds once they are in the throes of labor—and that's OK.

Remember, there is no better or best type of childbirth, just what works best for you and feels needed or right at the moment to manage your pain and safely deliver your baby.

Benefits of 'Natural' Birth

There are multiple potential benefits to opting for a drug-free birth. These include the following:

  • Avoiding potential epidural side effects, including low blood pressure, headache, and fever
  • Being able to move around freely during labor (walking as well as getting into a variety of positions) rather than being confined to a hospital bed
  • Experiencing each sensation of the birth and following the body's instincts for the birthing process
  • Having a stronger urge to push and control over pushes, which can translate into less pushing and less tearing
  • Lower incidence of interventions to get the baby out, such as artificially rupturing the membranes, vacuum extraction, delivery by forceps, and emergency C-section
  • Quicker recovery ("These parents are up faster, feel better, and often experience less tearing and swelling," says Ryan Dickerson, M.D., an OB-GYN in Baton Rouge.)

Risks of 'Natural' Birth

There are important risks of "natural" birth and potential benefits to using medication to consider as well, such as:

  • Feeling severe pain during labor and delivery
  • Potentially having a higher risk of maternal morbidity or complications, such as postpartum hemorrhage, compared with pregnant people who get an epidural
  • Needing general anesthesia if complications, such as a cord prolapse, drop in the baby's heart rate, or another issue, occur that require emergency interventions like a C-section
  • Possible disappointment if medications end up being needed or desired

Tips for a 'Natural' Birth

Unmedicated childbirth is an achievable and reasonable goal for many pregnant people. Remember, it's your choice and you are always allowed to change your mind during labor! The key is knowing your own risk and making a plan for what is best for you and your baby. If you do want to try for a drug-free delivery, tap into these "natural birth" tips from experts that can help you have a calmer and more comfortable birth experience.

Know why you want an unmedicated birth

What does "natural birth" mean to you: giving birth without any intervention at all or just without pain medication? Do you want to limit intervention because of possible side effects, previous experiences in medical settings, or a sense of personal accomplishment? Every person will have a different reason why, and finding yours will help you address that concern, no matter what happens in your labor.

Take a comprehensive childbirth class

Wondering how to prepare for "natural birth?" Start by getting a solid prenatal education with classes that include how labor and birth work, as well as natural labor pain management techniques like breathing, self-hypnosis, and relaxation. Some popular options include Lamaze, the Bradley Method, Hypnobirthing, and Hypnobabies.

Create a birth plan

Once you have an idea of your ideal birthing experience, the next smart step is creating a birth plan that details what you'd like to happen before, during, and after labor. Along with general preferences, such as who you'd like to be in the hospital room during delivery, what the physical environment should be like, and your feeding plans, your "natural birth" plan may include extra preferences like the following:

  • No medication
  • Free movement
  • Natural water rupture
  • Intermittent monitoring
  • No episiotomy
  • Preferences for baby medications
  • No bath for baby
  • No IV
  • No membrane sweep
  • Pitocin only if necessary

Pick a health care provider who's into "natural" birth

Choose a supportive medical provider. "Look for a midwife or doctor who is just as invested as you are in 'natural' childbirth," advises Maria Lorillo, a licensed midwife (LM) and certified professional midwife (CPM) at Wisewoman Childbirth Traditions in San Francisco. "[They] will manage the entire birth in a way that's most conducive to success." You can also consider hiring a doula, who acts as your own personal cheerleader and supports you before, during, and after labor.

Learn to face contractions

One of the secrets to an unmedicated birth is being able to relax in response to pain—a tall order, we know. When you're afraid in the throes of contractions, your body's reaction is to stiffen, which tends to exacerbate discomfort, explains Heidi Rinehart, M.D., an OB-GYN in Keene, New Hampshire.

Fear and stress increase tension, which ups the agony. "When you're tense, some muscles are tightening and trying to hold the baby in, while the muscles in your uterus are tightening to try to push the baby out," says Dr. Rinehart. "The muscles are fighting with each other, which makes it hurt more."

If you can stay (somewhat!) relaxed in the face of strong contractions, you'll have less resistance to opening up for the baby to come out. One trick to try is an exercise called The Grip throughout pregnancy. "It simulates contractions and allows you to up your pain threshold," says Julietta Appleton, certified childbirth educator, hypnotherapist, and labor doula in Bedford Corners, New York.

To practice The Grip, lie down on your side with a pillow between your knees, and if you're in your third trimester, with one supporting your belly too. Have your partner apply steady pressure to the muscle between your neck and shoulder for one minute.

Focus on relaxing that muscle beneath your partner's gasp. Wait for the pressure to grow very strong before tapering off. The idea is to get used to relaxing your muscles rather than tensing them in response to pain. You can also try the space between your thumb and index finger, or an even more sensitive area, such as the Achilles tendon at the back of your ankle. Additionally, you can discuss other relaxation techniques with your medical provider or doula.

Know how to squat

Contrary to what you see in most movie birthing scenes, you don't have to be lying in a hospital bed to have a baby. In fact, many people are more inclined to squat during labor. Squatting opens the pelvis and helps the baby get into the ideal birthing position (head down, face toward back, chin tucked in), explains Henry Dorn, M.D., an OB-GYN in High Point, North Carolina. This position is most effective if you've been practicing your squats throughout your pregnancy and building those muscles in your legs.

It's generally safe to practice squatting throughout pregnancy, and there's no evidence it can induce labor. "If your doctor tells you the baby is not in an optimal place in the last trimester," says Dr. Dorn, "try kneeling, sitting cross-legged, or perching on an exercise ball for as much of the day as possible." Or open a door, hold onto the doorknobs on either side, and drop into a squat for one or two minutes with your knees wide apart. Pull yourself back up using the doorknobs.

Start an exercise routine

Like long-distance running, childbirth calls for energy and stamina. "You increase your chances for success [of drug-free birth] by being very physically fit," says Dr. Dickerson. You'll want to consider the nine months of pregnancy your training period and start preparing for labor early on by working out regularly.

If you don't already have an exercise routine, try Dr. Dickerson's prescription: 30 minutes of movement, seven days a week. Hit the elliptical machine or stationary bike and aim to get your heart rate up, or lace up your sneaks and walk whenever you can. (However, if you were not physically fit before becoming pregnant, check with your doctor to come up with a safe cardio plan for you.)

Flexibility, especially in your hips, will help you when it comes time to push, so stretching sessions are important, too. Shoot for 30 minutes of prenatal yoga one or two days a week. A cautionary word to the wise: Your body produces relaxin in pregnancy, which makes you more flexible, so be careful not to overstretch or work yourself too hard.

Exercise will also help you maintain a healthy weight during pregnancy. The larger the baby, the harder they will be to get out, emphasizes Dr. Dickerson. Of course, following a healthy diet is also key. Pass the veggies, please!

Spend early labor at home

If you want an unmedicated birth, you might want to stay home from the hospital as long as possible, especially if this is your first baby. That's because the best strategies for achieving drug-free labor are often easier to put into action at home than in the hospital.

Most low-risk pregnant people are perfectly safe spending early labor at home. According to The March of Dimes, early labor can take between six and 12 hours for a first-time parent and typically a bit less for those who have labored before. During this phase, the cervix softens, thins, and eventually dilates. Doctors used to say that pregnant people should head to the hospital when they were in active labor, which was defined as starting at 4 centimeters.

But research suggests that people admitted early in their labor may end up with more Pitocin (a drug used to speed along labor) and C-sections. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) also recognizes that early labor may take longer, especially for first pregnancies, and that heading to the hospital too soon may come with an increased risk of unnecessary interventions.

If you're spending early labor at home, give the midwife, doctor, or hospital a call when your contractions are at least five minutes apart for an hour or more. Also, call your doctor if contractions are getting progressively stronger and closer together no matter how you move. If they're five minutes apart while you're lying in bed but spaced further apart when you move to the tub or go for a walk, it's probably not time to go to the hospital yet.

Move around during labor

When labor begins, keep moving to stay comfortable. Walking, rocking, squatting, sitting, swaying, and switching sides while resting can help your body work with your contractions as gravity and mobility help your baby move into the birth canal. Plus, movement eases tension and gives your mind something to focus on other than pain.

"Walk and stretch, sit on a birthing ball, and hop in and out of the birthing tub if it's available," says Dana Gossett, M.D., an OB-GYN at NYU Langone Health in New York City. It can also help to use a combo of gravity and hip movement to help the baby come down, advises Dr. Rinehart, who delivered two of her own three children without medication.

"When you take the cork out of a wine bottle, you don't take it straight out, you jiggle it back and forth to get it to ease through," says Dr. Rinehart. "Movement of the hips, belly dancing, hula dancing, squatting, rocking, pelvic tilts, and such help maneuver the baby down and through to find the easiest path out," she says.

Use water to manage labor pain

Some pregnant people find a lot of relief in water during labor. Even if you're not aiming for a water birth, you can use a shower, bathtub, birthing pool, or hot compresses for easing pain and helping you relax. Experiment to see how using water may be able to reduce your discomfort.

Remember to relax and breathe

Rhythmic breathing, meditation, self-hypnosis, and other relaxation techniques are excellent tools for all stages of labor, but they're easier to manage when you're not being interrupted. Once you're in the hospital, your nurse will frequently check your vital signs, hook up monitors, draw blood, start IVs, and do other interventions that may clash with your zen. You can ask for fewer interruptions, so long as your and your baby's health is not at risk. At home, you can light candles, close your eyes, follow your breath, meditate, and create an ambiance that promotes relaxation.

Practice patience when following 'natural' birth tips

Some labors start with days of on-and-off contractions that can wear a person out long before "real labor" begins. Even after contractions get organized into a regular pattern, early labor can take many hours. As much as you'd like labor to be over, there's usually no need to rush things.

Keep yourself entertained, relaxed, hydrated, and nourished. Plan on labor being a marathon, not a sprint. Be sure to let your midwife or doctor know if you're becoming exhausted. They'll help you decide on the next steps, whether that's at home or in the hospital.

If you're bleeding heavily, your baby's not moving, you feel ill, or have any other concerns that your labor isn't progressing as expected, then forget about staying home and go to the hospital, where your provider can evaluate you and your baby. And, if you arrive at the hospital only to discover that everything's OK and your doctors recommend you return back home until you're further along in your labor, remember that there's no shame in that and you're still one step closer to meeting your baby.

Be open to change

Often, the best thing you can do for yourself and your baby is to be open to change. In fact, having an open mind can help your body open, too! Aiming to have an unmedicated birth is an admirable plan, but if the plan is rigid and unforgiving or it prohibits you from having a safe and positive experience, it's not serving you or your baby.

If you can't focus during contractions or relax between them, for example, doctors typically agree it's probably a good idea to ask for pain meds, which may even help move things along. Your pelvic muscles can tighten if you're in too much pain, making it difficult for the baby to descend and for labor to progress. By relieving your pain, having an epidural can help the pelvis do its job. Plus, if you're not overwhelmed by pain, you may be able to focus on your breathing and pushing more effectively.

And remember: Whether or not you end up using pain medications during childbirth, delivering your baby is a beautiful, wondrous achievement to celebrate.

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Parents uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Use of Labor Neuraxial Analgesia for Vaginal Delivery and Severe Maternal Morbidity. JAMA Netw Open. 2022.

  3. Variations in outcomes for women admitted to hospital in early versus active labor: an observational study. BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth. 2020.

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