Blame it on my vegan, holistic parents, but I’ve never been a big fan of pain medication. I don’t even like to take Advil when I have my period. So when I got pregnant (and shortly after I watched the natural birth doc The Business of Being Born), I knew I wanted to try my damndest to deliver my baby without pain meds.
During my pregnancy, I quickly learned not to talk about this goal much, because it was always met by one of two responses: 1) “WHAT? You WHAT?” And 2) “Oh, sure, that’s what you say now, but as soon as you’re in active labor you’ll be screaming for the epidural. Trust me.”
But you know what? Despite my nurse repeatedly asking me every hour if I was sure I didn’t want an epidural, and my husband’s look of horror as I projectile vomited Exorcist-style into a trash can for three hours, I didn’t even for one second think of asking for drugs. Oh, yeah, and I was induced, with back labor—arguably the most painful kind of labor there is.
And before you dismiss me as someone with an outrageously high pain tolerance, let me just make it clear that I cried when I stubbed my toe yesterday morning. Here’s what ended up working for me (and what was just a waste of time and money).
What Worked: A Doula
My husband is extremely supportive and wanted to be hands-on in the delivery room—but even with his help, I would 100% have gotten an epidural if I hadn’t hired a doula. I knew that I wanted to use HypnoBirthing techniques during my labor (more about that later), so I chose a doula who was also a HypnoBirthing instructor and would help me stick with my goal to go pain med–free. It is, hands down, the best $3,000 I have ever spent. (Yes, $3,000. I live in New York City. Don’t even get me started on how much a private hospital room costs here.)
Don’t get me wrong. My husband was great. But because he was totally new to the labor process, it was tough for him to determine whether those weird growling noises I was making were normal or something to panic about. “Are you OK?” he kept asking me. “Now are you OK?” I found myself quickly getting annoyed by his concern. I just wanted him to be quiet and rub my back. (“No, higher… No, lower… A little bit harder… No, not so pointy! What are you doing with your elbow?”) But because I needed to focus all of my energy on my contractions (or surges, as you’re supposed to call them in HypnoBirthing), I didn’t want to have to say anything. As soon as the doula arrived, she showed him exactly what to do (like how to apply counter pressure to relax the muscles in my back) and we were both extremely relieved.
But my doula really came in handy right at the end of my labor. On hour ten, I had been laboring on my hands and knees on top of the hospital bed for at least three hours, and my legs were shaking and exhausted. I was deep into transition (the point in labor when you start to seriously doubt you’re going to live through the night, let alone deliver a baby) and I begged my doula to help me find another position. In seconds, she whipped up a setup that included a squat bar, a scarf and me basically playing tug-of-war with myself to take the pressure off my back. The relief was euphoric, and I was able to push comfortably (yep, I’m serious) for half an hour before my baby was born. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Doulas are WORTH EVERY PENNY.
What Didn’t Work: Essential Oils and Candles
Before my labor, I had a vision of a serene delivery room with the lights dimmed, LED candles flickering and essential oils spritzed all around. I had a lavender face pillow that I thought I’d rest on my eyes as I calmly told my body to relax and open like a flower.
But if the doula did end up decorating the room with LED candles, I never saw them, because my eyes were clamped shut for pretty much my entire labor. The lavender face pillow never left my birth bag—I was too busy writhing around on the birth ball, trying to breathe through each surge. While my doula did bust out the essential oils to mask the smell of my vomit, they didn’t do much for me except make me feel even more nauseated.
What Worked: HypnoBirthing
Before my labor, I went to a six-part HypnoBirthing class and read HypnoBirthing: The Mongan Method cover to cover, twice. For the uninitiated, HypnoBirthing is the birthing technique du jour, sort of like what Lamaze was in the ’80s—even Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle have purportedly used it. You can read more about what HypnoBirthing entails here, but in a nutshell, it’s a combination of breathing techniques, positive affirmations and guided meditations that are designed to keep you as relaxed as possible during your pregnancy and into labor. The basic idea is that, if you stay in the zone, your labor will be less painful and require less medical intervention.
I ended up having as much medical intervention as you possibly can short of an emergency C-section. (Due to the baby’s varying heart rate, I was on oxygen, unable to get up to use the bathroom and was tethered to all sorts of IVs, wires and monitors throughout the entire birth. Her umbilical cord ended up being short, but don’t worry, she was born totally healthy.) But I did manage to stay pretty damn relaxed throughout most of it. And while my OB estimated it would take about 30 hours for the induction medication to take effect and for me to deliver my baby, my daughter was born in less than ten.
And—you’re not going to believe me—but I wouldn’t consider my labor painful. There were some extremely strange sensations, and at times it felt like the worst case of food poisoning of my life. But before I knew it, I was holding my baby in my arms and saying to my husband, “Wow, that wasn’t so bad. I could do it all over again right now!” (Thanks, oxytocin.)
What Didn’t Work: Music
In the last month of my pregnancy, I spent hours painstakingly making playlists. I put together a chill playlist with all of my old college favorites (hello, the Decemberists and Death Cab for Cutie). I made an upbeat playlist for extra motivation (which may or may not have included “Eye of the Tiger”). I even made a playlist of musicals I loved in case I wanted to belt out Les Mis at the top of my lungs in between contractions (er, surges).
But my portable speakers never made it out of my bag. In the moment, I found that listening to anything besides my own breathing felt too distracting. Any additional noise kept me from putting all of my energy into the task at hand: getting this damn baby out of me already.
What Worked: The Birthing Ball
I bought a birthing ball early in my pregnancy, and for the first few months, I hated it. It took up way too much space in my small two-bedroom apartment, and it felt weird to bounce on for more than a minute or two. But as sitting began to hurt my back and insomnia kept me up watching back-to-back episodes of Teen Mom, I started to understand its appeal. By week 41 (ugh), I was sitting almost exclusively on the birthing ball.
Because I was rushed into triage after a routine doctor’s appointment, I wasn’t able to go home to get my stuff. So my saint of a husband went home to grab the unwieldy ball, along with two suitcases, two pillows and two backpacks. In retrospect, we way overpacked, and I didn’t use most of the stuff he brought. But the birthing ball, which I labored on for several hours, ended up being an absolute must, especially because I was having back labor that made it very difficult to lie down or stand up.
What Didn’t Work: The Peanut Ball
I’d heard great things about the peanut ball, a large (you guessed it) peanut-shaped ball that’s designed to keep your hips open while laboring on a hospital bed. At one point, the baby’s heart rate took another dip, and I was told I needed to lie down and stay in bed for the rest of the delivery. I asked my doula if I could give her peanut ball a try, so she spent a few minutes getting it sanitized and blown up so I could use it. “Nope, I hate this,” I said, pushing it away as soon as I wrapped my legs around it. It might do the trick for some women, but it put my hips in an awkward position and I couldn’t figure out a relaxing position without putting pressure on my back.
What Worked: A HandHeld Fan
On a whim, I bought a cheap handheld fan on Amazon (the kind you bring to Six Flags for a middle-school band field trip) and tucked it into my suitcase. Since hospitals usually keep the air conditioning cranked up and I’m almost always cold, I thought it was unlikely that I’d actually use it. But lo and behold, it was a complete game changer.
About three hours into labor, I got so overheated that my typically modest self yelled, “Get this stupid thing off of me,” and ripped off my hospital gown. I stayed naked for the entire rest of the labor, and my husband was tasked with holding a cold washcloth on my back, then blowing the handheld fan against the washcloth. After about five hours of this, my husband began to get nervous that the fan’s battery would conk out, but thankfully it held up for my entire labor and was one of the things that ended up keeping me the most comfortable.
What Didn’t Work: Yogurt and Lollipops
Remember the two backpacks we brought? They were both filled with all sorts of snacks (my awesome OB-GYN said it was fine for me to eat whatever I wanted during labor, and my doula suggested I bring a variety of snacks and drinks to keep my energy up). I brought granola bars, yogurt, applesauce, coconut water, lemonade and lollipops…and at the end of the day, the only thing I ate or drank during the entire labor was water. My doula recommended getting a CamelBak Eddy water bottle because it has a straw that you can drink from even while lying down. Not only was it super convenient for labor, but I drank from it for the next two days at the hospital and used it while nursing for the first month postpartum. On the other hand, three months later, the snacks are still sitting in my pantry. Anyone want a lollipop?