Medications in Labor


3 Main Uses

1. Sleep: if a woman has early labor that goes for days, sometimes she will be given a sedative to help her sleep, a barbiturate such as Nembutal or Phenobarbital. These can relieve anxiety and induce sleep only in the absence of pain. If the woman is experiencing pain, sedatives without analgesics increase anxiety, may make her hyperactive and disoriented. Sometimes morphine is used for sleep; one study of morphine use found that after sleeping for several hours, 2/3 of the women woke up in active labor, but 1/3 woke up to find their labor had stopped.

2. High anxiety; mom experiencing excessive fear and apprehension which may complicate early labor. May be given sedatives or tranquilizers, such as Thorazine. (See side effects chart at the bottom of this page.)

3. Most common use: Pain relief.


Communicating with your partner about pain medications

Some time in late pregnancy you and your partner should sit down and really talk about what your preferences are regarding pain medication so that when you’re in labor, your partner will know what your preference is. (See Simkin, Whalley, and Kepler for the Pain Medication Preference Scale, a good starting point for this discussion.)

Also, agree on how you will communicate that the time has come for pain medication. I had a client who really wanted to have a birth without pain medication, but knew there would be times in labor she would feel discouraged, and was likely to say things like “I can’t do this anymore, it’s too painful.” We agreed ahead of time that if she said things like that, it was a call for more active emotional support and reassurance, and some suggestions about positions and comfort techniques to try, and that we should not discuss pain medications. However, she wanted to know that she could choose pain medications if necessary, so we agreed that if she said “I’m done”, we would know to begin discussing medication with her.

Narcotic Analgesia (e.g. Morphine, Fentanyl)


Epidural Anesthesia

The most common pain medication during labor and birth is epidural anesthesia. It is covered in a separate article.


By Janelle Durham, 2002. Sources: Pregnancy, Childbirth, and the Newborn by Simkin, Whalley, and Keppler (2001 edition). Maternity & Women’s Health Care by Lowdermilk, Perry, and Bobak (6th Edition, 1997). Family-Centered Maternity and Newborn Care by Celeste R. Phillips (Fourth edition, 1996).


Epidural Anesthesia

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