Tag Archives: labor

Stages of Labor and the 3R’s

An overview of the stages of labor and comfort techniques for the first stage of labor: Early labor, as the cervix moves from 0 to 5 cm dilated is the longest phase of labor, but also the least intense. The focus is on Relaxation, so techniques like slow deep breathing visualization, massages and baths all help. In active labor as the cervix goes from 5 to 8 cm, contractions are longer, stronger, and closer together and take more work to cope with. The focus is on Rhythm, so rhythmic breathing helps, as does movement such as walking, slow dancing, or rocking on a birth ball or in a rocking chair. In transition, as the cervix dilates to 10 cm, contractions are coming hard and fast and it can be very overwhelming. So, the focus is Ritual – find something that works to reduce pain, and just keep doing it on every contraction to help feel like there’s some control over the process. [Transcript of podcast episode 3 at: https://transitiontoparenthood.wordpress.com/for-parents/labor-and-birth/]

Medical Mindset Tool

When making choices about medical care, are you a maximalist or a minimalist? A maximalist may use lots of tools to prevent and treat problems. A minimalist may try to use as few tools as possible, letting things run their natural course. What kinds of medical tools do you use? Natural remedies and self-help techniques or medicine and technology? A maximalist naturalist might prepare for birth by attending prenatal yoga, drinking raspberry leaf tea, and frequent love-making to get her oxytocin flowing. A minimalist technologist might choose a hospital birth with an OB, but ask for as few interventions as possible.

Helping your students or clients understand their medical mindset may help them in choosing care providers and birth places, and may also help them explain their decision making in labor to their partners and care givers. There are a few tools you can use to learn more and help your clients to understand this idea.

Jerome Groopman has written a book on Your Medical Mind: How to Decide What is Right for You. (He also wrote How Doctors Think and some other great books.) You can read an article which summarizes it here: http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2012/02/%E2%80%98your-medical-mind%E2%80%99-explored/ or watch a video here that presents the idea to medical professionals: http://practicalbioethics.tv/2012/06/11/jerome-groopman-pamela-hartzband/when-experts-disagree.html

Kim James and Laurie Levy discuss this in their childbirth classes and with doula clients. They designed a worksheet you can find here: http://kimjames.net/Data/Sites/3/groopmanspectrumsforlamaze2012landscape9.24.12.pdf

I liked their idea, but found the worksheet complicated and a little dense on information for my client population, so I made a simplified version of the worksheet. Click here for the PDF. If I were using this in a class, I might give one copy to the pregnant parent, and one to the support person to fill out separately, then compare and discuss.

[Added on 7/28/15: a 2-page version of the handout that looks at more factors that affect decision-making. Find it here.]

Research Summary on Effectiveness of Non-Drug Coping Techniques

There have been several literature reviews of available research on the available non-pharmacological techniques for coping with labor pain. Each of these reviews acknowledges the limitations of the research that they compile: primarily the studies are small sample sizes, and are not properly randomized control trials. (Women are typically allowed to choose which coping techniques to use with their labor.) So, all conclusions come with the caveat that “more research is needed.”

This chart summarizes those reviews. (Note: the birth ball results are based on a single study rather than a review.) Pain coping techniques are compared to “usual care.”

The chart compares the following factors that might be desired outcomes coping measures: less pain intensity, less likelihood that the laboring mother will turn to pain medications (unless that was her goal), higher satisfaction with pain relief, shorter labor, higher chance of spontaneous vaginal delivery (vs. instrumental delivery or cesarean), and less use of Pitocin to augment a slow labor.

Source Less pain? Less pain meds? More satisfaction Shorter labor Spontan. vaginal Less pitocin
Acupressure yes *
Acupuncture yes yes
Acupuncture yes yes * yes * yes *
Aromatherapy NSD
Aromatherapy NSD NSD NSD NSD
Birth Ball yes * NSD
Continuous Support yes yes yes yes yes
Epidural & Pain Meds yes N/A yes no no no
Hypnosis yes * NSD NSD yes * NSD
Hypnosis yes yes yes yes
Immersion in Water yes NSD
Massage yes
Music / audio NSD NSD NSD
Positions & Movement yes yes yes
Relaxation yes yes yes
Sterile Water Inj. yes NSD
Sterile Water Inj. yes yes
TENS yes * NSD
Yoga yes yes yes

* means limited data; NSD means there may have been a difference, but it wasn’t statistically significant

(Note: In a 2014 review by Chaillet, et al, these techniques were pooled into 3 categories, which helped to increase the statistical significance of the findings. Learn more. Also check out more articles about coping with labor pain.)

New Ways to Talk about Labor Pain V: Research on Effectiveness of 3 Mechanisms


In 2012, a new Cochrane review of pain management for women in labor was released. Although it had positive things to say about the non-pharmacological techniques, it also said that research into their efficacy was unclear due to limited evidence…

“WHAT WORKS: Evidence suggests that epidural, combined spinal epidural (CSE) and inhaled analgesia effectively manage pain in labour, but may give rise to adverse effects. … WHAT MAY WORK: There is some evidence to suggest that immersion in water, relaxation, acupuncture, massage and local anaesthetic nerve blocks or non-opioid drugs may improve management of labour pain, with few adverse effects.  Evidence was mainly limited to single trials. …INSUFFICIENT EVIDENCE: There is insufficient evidence to make judgements on whether or not hypnosis, biofeedback, sterile water injection, aromatherapy, TENS, or parenteral opioids are more effective than placebo… Most methods of non-pharmacological pain management are non-invasive and appear to be safe for mother and baby, however, their efficacy is unclear, due to limited high quality evidence.”

A 2014 review by Chaillet, et al (Chaillet, et al. (2014) Nonpharmacologic approaches for pain management during labor compared with usual care: a meta-analysis. Birth, 41(2): 122-37. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24761801) is a significant addition to the research about non-drug approaches.

Chaillet, et al pooled techniques into three categories. If you’ve read my posts from the past few days, you’ll be familiar with these concepts. Also, see the chart at the top of this post for more information.

  • Gate Control mechanism = apply non-painful stimuli on the painful area. Methods included massage, bath, positions, walking, and birth ball. The theory is that this will block some of the intensity of the pain.
  • Diffuse Noxious Inhibitory Control (counter-irritant) = create pain or discomfort anywhere on the body. Methods included acupressure, acupuncture, TENS, sterile water injections. The theory is that this discomfort causes the body to release endorphins which reduce pain intensity. (Birth combs also fit in this category although they were not included in the research.)
  • Central Nervous System Control (cognitive/support techniques). Methods included  attention focus, education, relaxation, hypnosis, continuous labor support.

By pooling studies together, you get larger sample sizes which increases the statistical significance of the results. Note, all techniques were compared to “usual care” which might have ranged broadly depending on the preparation of the laboring family and the support they were given by caregivers. It is possible that some in the “usual care” groups were also using a variety of coping techniques. So, the true difference between people who use some coping techniques and those who use none may be even greater than these results indicate.

The results of this review were:

  • Gate Control mechanism. Those who used these techniques had lower pain intensity (as predicted), were less likely to use epidural, and needed less Pitocin.
  • Diffuse Noxious Inhibitory Control (counter-irritant). Those who used these techniques had lower pain intensity, were less likely to use epidural, and more satisfied with birth. (Two trials found women felt safer, more relaxed, and more in control.)
  • Central Nervous System Control (cognitive/support techniques) Those who used these techniques were less likely to use epidural, Pitocin, less likely to need instrumental delivery or cesarean, and had a higher satisfaction with birth. The CNSC did not reduce the intensity of the pain so much as they reduced the unpleasantness of the pain. (See more on intensity and unpleasantness here.) So, although labor still hurt a lot, women felt better able to cope – more like they were working with labor pain.

The most effective technique overall was continuous labor support, such as that offered by a doula. The effectiveness of support was already demonstrated in a Cochrane review by Hodnett et al, (Hodnett E, Gates S, et al.. Continuous support for women during in childbirth. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2013. CD003766)

The best results in pain coping were from combining the labor support and education which reduce the unpleasantness of pain with gate control or DNIC techniques that reduce the intensity of the pain.

Recommended: be sure to also check out Henci Goer’s discussion of this study on Science and Sensibility.

New Ways to Talk about Labor Pain, IV: Bonapace Method

The Bonapace Method for reducing pain during childbirth can be used instead of, or in conjunction with, a traditional childbirth education class.

This method does not just teach pain coping techniques, but also teaches about the role of labor pain, how pain messages are transmitted in the body, and three mechanisms that help moderate the perception of pain. Those mechanisms are:

Cognitive structuring / central nervous system control (CNSC). Understanding labor pain and progression – what’s happening and why – enhances a sense of self-control. Focusing on something positive (like a self-affirmation) helps with labor pain.

Gate ControlTheory. Non-painful stimulation blocks part of the pain message transmitted by the spinal cord. Note: Bonapace interprets this differently than I have see elsewhere, saying specifically that it is pleasant sensation applied where the pain is located. The description on their website says “To activate this mechanism during childbirth, the fingers must be run lightly over the painful area, particularly during contractions.”

Diffuse Noxious Inhibitory Control (DNIC). (I call this counter-irritation) Creating a second pain elsewhere on the body (i.e. not where you’re already hurting). The brain wants to reduce the pain’s effect on the body as a whole, so releases endorphins to do so. But the sensations near the second pain are still felt because the body is assessing them. (So, under this theory, holding a birth comb tightly causes a release of endorphins which helps with the labor pain, but the user is still aware of the pressure points from the comb on their palm.) In the Bonapace method, sensitive points on the body (trigger areas) are massaged by the partner, causing pain.

In a journal article (“Evaluation of the Bonapace Method: a specific educational intervention to reduce pain during childbirth”, J Pain Res 6: 653-661 at http://www.dovepress.com/articles.php?article_id=14256), Bonapace et al, compare the results of a “traditional childbirth training program” (TCTP) with the Bonapace method. Study participants chose which class to take from these options.

The TCTP was a 4 week class, with a total of 8 hours of class time, started around the 23rd week of pregnancy. It covered A&P of childbirth, exercises, stages of labor, variations, pain meds and newborn care. Relaxation, visualization, massage, and labor positions were not taught. Only breathing techniques were practiced.

The Bonapace class was 4 weeks, 8 hours, starting in the 30th week. The entire program was dedicated to pain management and partner participation. It covered 1) CNSC through breathing, relaxation, and cognitive understanding of labor pain and endorphins, 2) Gate control – non-painful stimuli such as walking and light back massage between contractions, and 3) DNIC where the partner did painful massage of acupuncture triggers points in the lower back, hands, and buttocks.

39 women participated in the full study. In labor, every 15 minutes, participants were asked to rate their pain on two scales: intensity and unpleasantness. (If pain medications were given, they stopped assessing pain after the medication. If that participant had pain scores for two phases of labor, they were kept in the study, if not, they were dropped.

Those who had learned the Bonapace method had an average of 45% less pain intensity and 47% less unpleasantness than those who had received the “traditional” childbirth education. No difference was found in the use of pain medication.

The reduction in intensity of pain was consistent for nulliparous and multiparous parents. On the “unpleasant” ratings, there was a larger reduction in scores for nulliparous than multiparous. This is likely due to anxiety… a nulliparous woman with no birth experience and no training / childbirth preparation is likely to be anxious about labor pain (and, of course, anxiety increases pain). With the TCTP, her anxiety may have been somewhat reduced and thus her pain unpleasantness would be reduced, but with the Bonapace method, her anxiety and thus unpleasantness were much more reduced.

This study indicates that being given information about the physiology of pain, and plenty of education in clear, simple techniques to manage it, has a significant impact on pain intensity and pain coping.

Prolonged Labor: New definitions

A 2010 journal article by Zhang, et al for the Consortium on Safe Labor, titled Contemporary Cesarean Delivery Practice in the US, and a 2014 consensus statement from ACOG and Society for Maternal Fetal Medicine argue for a re-definition of what should be considered prolonged labor, and when intervention should happen.Here is a brief summary:

Phase Definition Friedman / standard practice Consortium on Safe Labor / ACOG & SMFM
Latent When mother perceives regular contractions Prolonged if over 20 hr in nullips, and 14 in multips A prolonged latent phase (e.g. over 20 hours) is not an indication for cesarean. If it is not treated, women may stop contracting or may eventually reach active labor. If treated with AROM and Pitocin, most will enter active labor.
Active When rate of dilation significantly increases. Protracted = slow. Arrest = progress has stopped. Protracted if < 1.2 cm/hr for nullips and < 1.5 for multips. Typical dilation ranged from .5 cm/hr to .7 for nullips, and from .5 to 1.3 for multips. From 4-6 cm, dilation is slower than historically described. After 6 cm, progress speeds up. Protracted labor should not be diagnosed before 6 cm. After 6 cm, protracted labor is not an indication for cesarean as long as there is progress, even if it’s slow.
Arrest if no change in 2 hours (after 4 cm and with adequate contractions) Cesarean for arrest should only be for women who are beyond 6 cm with ruptured membranes who fail to progress despite 4 hours of adequate uterine activity or, for those with inadequate contractions, at least 6 hours on Pitocin.
Second Stage When cervix is fully dilated through delivery. (Note: some researchers argue we should define it as when the mother develops the urge to push) Typical practice has been to limit nullips to three hours, and multips to two, even with epidural. (ACOG) Parity, delayed pushing, use of epidural analgesia, mom’s BMI, birth weight, and OP position affect length of pushing. (e.g. pushing is one hour longer on average with epidural). No absolute maximum length of pushing has been defined. Arrest should not be diagnosed until after 3 hours pushing for a nullip, and 2 for multip – longer if she has an epidural or diagnosed malposition. In case of prolonged second stage or arrest of descent, vacuum, forceps, and manual rotation of the fetus should be considered prior to cesarean.

In an induced labor, latent phase may go 24 hours or longer. It should not be considered a “failed induction” until Pitocin has been administered for at least 12 – 18 hours after AROM.