5 Medications You May Receive During Labor and Delivery

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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woman in delivery room

When you’re pregnant, it’s normal to feel somewhat anxious about labor and delivery. What will it feel like? How will you handle the pain? Will you have the birth experience you want? Thankfully, your doctors and nurses are there to help you. They can offer many different types of medications to help you manage labor and childbirth.

1. Pitocin 

If your contractions stall or they aren’t strong enough to help labor progress, your doctor may give you a medication called Pitocin. Pitocin acts like oxytocin—a hormone your body naturally makes. It helps start the labor process and helps you push out your baby.

Although Pitocin can speed up your labor, sometimes it can cause contractions that are too quick or strong. This can make your baby’s heart rate drop. For this reason, your labor and delivery team will closely monitor you and your baby after they give you Pitocin.

2. Narcotics 

Also called opioids, these pain relievers act on the whole nervous system—not just a specific area—to lessen pain. Narcotics are often given early in labor and can help you relax. They ease dull labor pains but don’t block them.

You can have narcotics by IV (intravenous) line or injection. If you get an IV, you may be able to control your own level of pain relief during labor by pushing a button that releases a fixed amount into your bloodstream. Pain relief begins within minutes, and you can still get an epidural or spinal block (see below) later in labor.

In addition to causing drowsiness, narcotics can lead to nausea or vomiting. Also, if you have narcotics too close to delivery, they can slow your baby’s breathing and heartbeat.

3. Epidural 

This is the most common type of pain relief used during labor and delivery in the United States, and it can be administered for both vaginal and cesarean births. It allows you to be awake and participate during childbirth but feel little pain.

An epidural involves placing a catheter in the lower back, next to the spinal cord. This allows anesthetic medicine to be delivered through the catheter as needed during labor, lessening or blocking pain below the waist. You should notice pain relief about 10 to 20 minutes after you get an epidural.

Side effects are rare. However, an epidural can cause your blood pressure to drop, which in turn, can cause the baby’s heartbeat to slow. It can also cause low-grade fever as well as severe headache, if your healthcare provider pierces the covering of the spinal cord while placing the catheter. Some women’s labor slows down after an epidural.

4. Spinal Block 

This medication is similar to an epidural, in that it lessens or blocks pain below the waist while allowing you to be awake and alert through labor and delivery. It also shares some of the same risks and potential side effects. However, a spinal block is a shot of anesthetic into the fluid surrounding the spine. A spinal block provides immediate pain relief but wears off within an hour or two, unlike an epidural. Because of their unique benefits, sometimes a combination of an epidural and spinal block is given during labor for quick as well as continuous pain relief.

5. Pudendal Block 

This is a numbing medicine your doctor may inject into your vagina and nearby pudendal nerve late in labor, often just before the baby is delivered. The nerve block, which provides some pain relief to the lower part of your vagina and vulva, may also be used if you need an episiotomy (an incision in the tissue between the vaginal opening and anus) or if your doctor needs to make vaginal repairs after birth.

Making Plans for No Medication

If you’d rather not have medication during labor and delivery, it’s important to let your doctor and healthcare team know your wishes. You can create a birth plan that outlines how you want your birth experience to occur. However, even if you want natural childbirth—without pain medicines or other medical interventions—it’s wise to learn about your pain relief options and their risks in advance. Every labor and delivery is different, and only you can decide whether you need pain medication. If you change your mind about medication during labor, just ask your doctor.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Jul 9
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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