Pain medication options during labor and delivery

There are many options for managing pain during labor, from natural methods to pain medications. As you prepare yourself for the birth of your baby, learn as much as possible about your pain management options by taking a childbirth class, reading up on methods, and most importantly, talking to your healthcare provider about what the specific options are at your hospital or birthing center.


These medications are given in small doses and used in the earlier stages of labor. They are a good option for those looking for pain relief. Narcotics will reduce pain and take the sharp edge off contractions, but still allow you to have feeling during labor. They can also help to reduce anxiety. Narcotics are administered through an IV, usually work within a few minutes, and can last up to six hours. You and your baby will be monitored closely while you receive this medication. They may make you feel sleepy, which can be helpful for those who have not slept well in the days leading up to labor. Common types of narcotics used include: Morphine, Stadol, Fentanyl, Nubain, Demerol.

Nitrous oxide

While common in places like Australia and the U.K., fewer people in the U.S. opt to use nitrous oxide (more commonly called laughing gas). It might be a good fit for you if experience general anxiety or fear of needles (required to place the epidural), or if you’re hoping to avoid an epidural or narcotics. While nitrous oxide will not eliminate pain, it will mute it and help you feel more calm. It’s also non-invasive and self-administered, and so you have more control.


This is the most common form of pain management used in childbirth in the United States. An epidural blocks pain and other sensations in the lower half of your body, offering relief from contractions but still allowing you the ability to move within your bed and feel the urge to push your baby. When you’re admitted to the hospital, it’s a common practice for someone from the anesthesia team to come to your labor room to introduce themselves and tell you about the epidural. They’ll review the benefits and risks and explain how it’s placed. As soon as you’re ready for an epidural, they will come to your room for the placement and it will work within 20-30 minutes. An epidural catheter is inserted into your epidural space, and medication continuously runs until after you have your baby. Ask your healthcare provider if anesthesia is located on your labor floor and when they recommend asking for an epidural. Be sure to get all the details during a visit prior to your delivery so you feel well informed when the big day comes.

General anesthesia

While it’s unlikely, general anesthesia might be used during labor and delivery. General anesthesia is used as a back-up plan for delivery in the event of an emergency C-section or if an epidural or spinal dose is not able to be administered in a timely way. It puts you to sleep and causes a total loss of sensation. While general anesthesia is used in emergency situations where the benefits outweigh the risks. It’s important to know that it can cause a decrease in uterine blood flow and respiratory depression in the baby, so it is common for a hospital to have their NICU team present for delivery to support the baby at birth.   Learn more about pain management

About the author: Boston NAPS, LLC is a Boston-based, private nursing company and team of qualified Registered Nurses that specializes in providing nursing care to expecting, new, and experienced parents and families. Boston NAPS services include prenatal, postpartum, lactation, and newborn support and education to families throughout Massachusetts. All services are offered in the privacy and comfort of your home, with some services also offered in a group setting. For more information about Boston NAPS, please visit their website at


  • Danforth, David N, Scott, James R. Danforth’s obstetrics and gynecology. 9th edition. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins. 2003.
  • Heidi Irwin. “5 FAQ about laughing gas for pain relief during labor and delivery.” Mayo Clinic. Mayo Clinic. June 12, 2019.

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