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Whether you decide to give birth at home in your bathtub or schedule a C-section, all forms of birth are natural. You’re a superhero regardless of how that baby comes out of your body.

But the term “natural birth” historically has been used to describe childbirth without medication.

In some cases, this means not using any pain medication during labor, but having other medical interventions, such as fetal heart monitoring. Or it can mean not having any medical intervention at all.

Without pain medication, women rely on relaxation techniques and controlled breathing to help relieve the pain.

While this type of birth sounds like it would take place in a birthing center with a midwife and/or a doula, it may also happen in a hospital.

If you think giving birth without medication sounds impossible, there are many reasons why some women choose to do it.

Pain medication can affect labor, such as speeding it up or slowing it down. It can also have effects on the mother, such as lowering blood pressure or causing nausea.

Other women choose a “natural” delivery because they want more control over the labor process, including their pain management. Or they may feel that forgoing medication will help them feel closer to the birthing experience and remember it more clearly.

Not to state the obvious here, but you’re going to feel pain. Even if you’ve had a baby before, you don’t know how bad your pain will be during labor or how well you’ll be able to cope with it.

Every delivery, whether you use pain medications or not, has a risk of complications, such as heavy blood loss or issues with the umbilical cord. These complications may be harder to detect or treat without medical intervention.

If you choose to have a delivery without pain relievers, you may want to remain open to other options, such as an emergency cesarean delivery (C-section), if they become medically necessary.

People with low-risk pregnancies are the best candidates for a delivery without pain medication.

Why a ‘natural’ delivery may not be the best option for you

If you have a high-risk pregnancy, your healthcare provider may recommend that you do not have a “natural” birth.

Your pregnancy may be considered high risk if you:

  • are older than 35
  • drank alcohol or used drugs while pregnant
  • have had previous surgery on your uterus, such as a C-section
  • have a history of medical conditions such as diabetes, preeclampsia, or blood-clotting issues
  • are carrying more than one fetus
  • have had certain complications during pregnancy, such as fetal growth restriction or issues with the placenta

You let your labor start spontaneously and progress without medical intervention until you give birth. Your labor is not induced or sped up unless medically necessary.

If you plan to have your baby at a hospital or birthing center, your doctor or midwife can help you choose the best time to go. Depending on preferences, you might be monitored constantly, such as with a fetal heart monitor, just monitored as necessary, or monitored at regular intervals to make sure everything is going smoothly.

When your body is ready, you’ll have a vaginal birth in a birthing position you find most comfortable. You won’t have medical intervention unless it’s necessary for the safety or health of you or your child.

As with all types of childbirth, “natural” birth takes a different amount of time for everyone. Without medical intervention, your cervix will dilate naturally, and you won’t be given medication to speed up labor, so it can take longer.

On the flip side, medical interventions such as epidurals can also slow labor. And keep in mind that delivery often takes longer for first-time moms as well.

The pain level of delivery is also different for everyone. There are a variety of common pain relief methods you may use during delivery.

methods to relieve pain during delivery
  • breathing techniques
  • massage
  • warm shower or bath. You may also be able to give birth in a tub, depending on what your birthing center or hospital offers.
  • finding the most comfortable position for you
  • distraction techniques, such as music or games
  • heating pad or ice pack
  • birthing ball
  • acupressure
  • emotional support

In most cases, you’ll be able to stay with your baby right after birth and begin breastfeeding, if you choose to, as soon as you’re ready.

To prepare for a delivery without medical intervention, make sure your birth plan is clear, and that your healthcare provider, doctor, midwife, doula, or other support people know how you want your labor to proceed.

You may also choose to go to childbirth education classes, alone or with a partner, to learn what to expect as well as pain management and relaxation techniques. Be sure to practice those techniques to find the ones that work best for you.

Some women may change their mind during labor if the pain becomes too intense. And that’s totally fine if you do. Don’t be too hard on yourself if you don’t follow your birth plan. You can have some pain medication at almost any time in your labor, as long as the baby’s head has not started coming out.

Earlier in labor, you might be given an epidural or spinal block. These both allow you to be awake and alert during labor, but with very little pain. Different types of medication can be given in an epidural or spinal injection.

One type is a pain reliever, such as a narcotic. This works well because it relieves pain without creating numbness. It should not affect the baby, like getting an intramuscular or intravenous injection of pain medication might. The other type is a numbing medication that may make you numb from the waist down.

Epidurals start relieving pain within 20 minutes after they’re given, and the amount can be adjusted throughout labor. Spinal blocks start working right away but only last one to two hours. They can only be given once during labor.

Depending on the medication given via an epidural, it can make it harder for you to push. Therefore, pudendal blocks are usually given in late labor. A pudendal block relives pain in the vagina and rectum but allows you to control abdominal muscles and to push. It’s usually given right before the baby starts coming out.

The pain relief isn’t as great as with epidurals, but you’ll be able to push the baby out. Pudendal blocks also don’t affect the baby.

Recovery after any type of childbirth depends on the individual. Many women feel fully recovered in six to eight weeks, but for others, it can take months.

Recovery from a “natural” childbirth is similar to any other vaginal birth. You’ll probably be sore for at least a few days. Sitting on an icepack or taking a sitz bath can help. Don’t forget to take care of yourself and rest as much as you can until you feel fully recovered.

potential medical emergency

The following symptoms could be signs of a post-delivery complication:

If you have any concerns, even if you don’t have these symptoms, talk to your doctor.

Your doctor, midwife, or doula can help you better understand the birth process and what to expect. If you’re interested in a delivery without medication, talk to them about whether it’s right for you, and the best way to create your preferred birth plan.