• Amanda Sharp

Handling Labor With A Low Pain Tolerance

Laboring woman leans over hospital bed while partner applies heat pad to her back.

I hear from a lot of moms who have anxiety about their impending delivery. Many women consider themselves to have a "low pain tolerance", and worry that this will lead to being in a lot of pain during labor and delivery. The good news is - most women are stronger than they think, especially when it comes to childbirth! In this article we will go over some real-life stories from moms who have been through labor with a low pain tolerance, as well as some tips and techniques from childbirth educators and doulas who have experience teaching and supporting laboring moms.

1. How will labor feel if I have a low pain tolerance?

While many women expect labor to be the most painful event of their lifetime, many find that this just isn't true! In fact, for some women labor and birth are empowering life events.

Some report that labor contractions feel like stronger and more defined period cramps. There is an aching sensation around the tummy that usually extends into the back as well. Some women will also experience stomach and bowel discomfort. In some cases, a malpositioned baby can lead to a more acutely painful experience. This usually presents in the back, but can sometimes be present in the hips or legs. There are measures that can be taken to stop or lessen this pain, including positioning changes, counterpressure, chiropractic adjustments, and more advanced techniques like those discussed on the Spinning Babies website.

"...Mindset is honestly everything. My first was medicated and I had so many side effects and my natural birth wasn’t nearly as painful as that. Also, I’ve experienced an ectopic pregnancy that burst my Fallopian tube, kidney stones, and ovarian cysts rupturing and natural birth wasn’t nearly as painful as those events." - Jessica W

Woman labors in tub with support of partner and doula. Managing labor with a low pain tolerance.
Water can be an excellent source of pain relief for many laboring moms. Photo courtesy of Birth Boot Camp.

2. What are the most effective techniques for laboring with a low pain tolerance?

"I definitely have a low pain tolerance. I found that low vocalizations, movement, hip squeezes, music, hypnosis tracks, and just giving myself over to the process with zero fight got me through it. I came away thinking I could do anything after handling that! But apparently my low pain tolerance still exists because I about ran out of the room screaming when I went in recently for a tattoo" -Kausaundra T

"It’s all about mindset. I had an unmedicated birth and used essential oils, counter pressure, and birth affirmations." - Jessica W

"I changed positions a lot and was really calm, did a lot of deep breathing. The position I found most effective was on my knees facing the back of bed and on a blow up seat thing. That is how I ended up having her..." - Sarah

"What worked for me ended up being half my butt on the bed, hands gripping the back of a chair, and visualizing the energy of the pain flowing from me into the chair. Having somewhere to "put" the waves of pain helped more than anything!" - Melissa M

"The main technique I used was breathing (breathing in for a count of 8 and out for 8. I also had my husband and doula doing counter-pressure on my lower back. After 12 hours I did end up getting an epidural, not because I was in too much pain, but because I had too much anxiety about the pain that possibly would be happening soon during transition. Honestly I LOVED laboring naturally, and I also LOVED the epidural while I was in transition and pushing! Overall I feel like I had the best labor and birth experience ever." -Becca B

"While seated every time a contraction came I would breathe deep (yoga breathing) while my husband and doula applied pressure on my knees. Pressure applied to my hips also helped. I made sure I was still relaxed in my hands and didn’t clench any of my muscles. Also a warm bath helped as well." - Brianna G

"Three home births. Very low pain tolerance. Faint when I get a shot. Vocalization, counterpressure, and relaxing my face and throat helped most." - Jackie A

Laboring mom sits on birth stool and receives back massage from doula in birth center. Managing labor with a low pain tolerance.
Doulas can provide counter pressure or massage, both of which help relieve pain for laboring moms. Photo courtesy of Birth Boot Camp.

"I wanted a natural and got an epidural and found the epidural the most effective at managing the pain . Now I’m just fine with the epidural and if the natural happens that’s great too" - Marietta P

"I have a relatively low pain tolerance and had two unmedicated births after an epidural birth. My first natural birth was in a hospital and the second at home. Laboring through transition in a seated position with my knees being pressed toward my chest by my husband was helpful with my first birth. My second birth was a water birth and the water was AMAZING for pain relief as was counter pressure. Breathing made everything easier with both of those births. As soon as I would stop focusing on my breathing I would tense up and the pain would be almost unbearable during those times." Danielle B

Here are some things to be aware of that made labor worse for some women:

"I knew I wanted an epidural, but was shocked how quickly I needed one lol. I was induced so when they broke my water, the contractions weren't that bad, but once they put me on the pit drip- I was screaming for one. Pain went from 2 to 10+ in 3 contractions. It took 2 hours for the doctor to come to give me my epidural. So they had to turn the pit drip back, because it was brutal..." - Darriel B

"I have a very low pain tolerance. With my first, I thought I was going to die and ended up getting an epidural. With my second, I wanted to have a birth center birth, so I received a recommendation and visited and started care there. Also with my first, they broke my water and that was when it became unbearable, and with my second, my water broke and about 2 minutes later, my babe was born. I also enjoyed listening to the shower running- the sound of flowing water helped calm me." - Heidi T

"So with my first I was induced and got an epidural. It was awful. Lol. With my 2nd I was determined to have an all natural birth so I did a LOT of research. During labor with my 2nd I found the most helpful thing was to really concentrate. When a contraction would come along I would choose a focal point and inhale and exhale and tried my best to not tense up but instead to “ride the wave” of pain. I loved my labor and birthing experience the 2nd time around!! I ended up achieving my goal and had a 100% natural birth ." - Cat L.

Couple studies Birth Boot Camp student manual together. Managing labor with a low pain tolerance.
Taking a birth class and reading are both vital parts of your pregnancy that can lead to a better birth experience. Photo courtesy of Birth Boot Camp.

3. How can I prepare myself for my birth if I know I have a low pain tolerance?

The consensus among most moms was that education and mindset were the most powerful tools. We have been conditioned to fear childbirth, and because of something called the Fear-Tension-Pain cycle, this can actually cause us to perceive more pain than is actually present. Reframing the way we view childbirth, as a uncomfortable but tolerable (and sometimes empowering and beautiful) event can make a big difference. Another place that pain originates from is fear of the unknown. If we don't understand what is happening, this causes a heightened anxiety response which can lead to more tension and pain. Women who were educated through a birth class and books felt more empowered and less fearful.

4. What do doulas and childbirth educators say to clients or students with a low pain tolerance?

"In my opinion, pain tolerance and labor are not equatable because labor pain is not the same as hurt pain. Labor pain is powerful but with a purpose. Labor pain is normal and not a sign of a problem, and thus the body itself perceives it differently. Labor pain is unique in that it isn’t indicative of a problem, and the only time your body brings on more - longer, stronger - because it’s a positive thing not a negative thing. Reframing the way we look at labor pain is key. Recognizing that it’s ok, normal, and relaxing into it helps. Fear makes the pain painful. Assuming low pain tolerance applies can increase that fear. Acceptance, movement, confidence, all those things can change the pain into feelings of power and pressure." - Jen Valencia, Colorado Springs, CO -

"Ignore it. It’s probably prodromal labor. Ha! I’m a labor denier. That seems to help. I planned and had two unmedicated home births. Being very educated helped me with birth number two. I knew what to expect and didn’t feel like I needed to ask permission or for guidance. " - Jillian Blakeman, Keller, TX -

"I consider myself one with a low pain tolerance. Lots of movement and double hip squeezes were my saviors. Least effective: I’m in the minority but I HATED being in the water. I wanted to move and being in the tub was restrictive for me. My advice: have a variety of tools in your toolbox to use to cope with the pain. And take a Birth Boot Camp class to learn them all! And hire a doula. " Shannon Sands, Omaha, NE -

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