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Natural Childbirth

Reviewed by: Larissa Hirsch, MD
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What Is Natural Childbirth?

Natural childbirth is giving birth using no medicines at all, instead using techniques such as relaxation and controlled breathing for pain. For many, having a natural childbirth isn't about being "brave" — it's about treating labor and delivery as natural events. Many find the experience, despite the pain, empowering and rewarding.

Natural childbirth is a way of giving birth that lets nature take its course. This may include:

  • going through labor and delivery without the help of medicines, including pain relievers such as epidurals
  • using few or no artificial medical interventions such as continuous fetal monitoring or episiotomies (when the perineum, the area between the vagina and anus, is cut to make room for the baby during delivery)
  • letting the woman lead the labor and delivery process, dealing with it in any way she is comfortable

Why Do Women Choose Natural Childbirth?

Women with low-risk pregnancies may choose natural childbirth to avoid possible risks from medicines. Pain medicines can:

  • lower blood pressure
  • slow down or speed up the labor
  • cause nausea
  • make it hard for laboring moms to feel in control

They also might choose natural childbirth to feel more in touch with the birth experience and to help them feel in charge of their labor.

Where Can I Have a Natural Childbirth?

Birth Centers

Some who opt for natural childbirth choose to deliver in a non-hospital setting such as a birth center. There, they can move around during their labor, get in positions that are most comfortable to them, and spend time in the tub or jacuzzi. The baby is checked often, such as with a handheld ultrasound device. Comfort measures such as hydrotherapy, massage, warm and cold compresses, and visualization and relaxation techniques are often used. Moms can eat and drink during their labor.

A variety of health care professionals may work in the birth center setting — such as registered nurses, certified nurse midwives, and doulas (professionally trained providers of labor support and/or postpartum care) who act as labor assistants.

Hospitals

It's also possible to have a more natural childbirth in many hospitals. Some hospitals have birth centers with a focus on a natural approach with medical intervention available if needed. For low-risk births, many hospitals offer homelike settings where women can labor, deliver, and recover in the same room. They may take their cues from the laboring woman, letting the labor proceed more slowly and without intervention if all seems to be going well. They may use alternative pain-management techniques if requested and welcome the assistance of labor assistants like midwives or doulas.

As in birth centers, besides the partner, other children, grandparents, and friends might be allowed to attend the birth. After birth, babies might remain with the mother longer. In its fullest form, this approach is sometimes called family-centered care.

It’s best for anyone having a high-risk pregnancy to give birth in a hospital, where they can get any needed medical care, especially in case of an emergency.

What Happens During Natural Childbirth?

Managing pain during labor can be different for every mom. Many try to control the pain by channeling their energy and focusing their minds on something else. Two common childbirth approaches are:

  • The Lamaze technique: This teaches that birth is a normal, natural, and healthy process. But it is not against using pain medicines and encourages women to make decisions based on what’s right for them.
  • The Bradley method: This emphasizes a natural approach to birth and the active participation of a birth coach. Medicines are avoided unless absolutely needed. It also focuses on good nutrition and exercise during pregnancy and relaxation and deep-breathing techniques to cope with labor. The classes do prepare parents for unexpected complications or situations, like emergency C-sections.

Other natural ways to handle pain during labor include:

  • hypnosis (also called "hypnobirthing")
  • yoga
  • meditation
  • walking
  • massage or counterpressure
  • changing position (walking around, showering, rocking, or leaning on birthing balls)
  • taking a bath or shower
  • immersion in warm water or a jacuzzi
  • distractions via activities to take the focus off the pain
  • listening to soothing music
  • visual imagery

What Will Natural Childbirth Feel Like?

How women in labor experience pain can vary. For first-time mothers, the pain is new and their labors can take longer than those who have already been through it. 

What Are the Risks of Natural Childbirth?

Natural childbirth is, in general, very safe in a low-risk pregnancy. But it can become risky if a woman doesn’t follower her health care provider's recommendations or refuses medical intervention if needed.

It's important for the well-being of you and your baby to be open to other options if complications happen. In an emergency, not getting medical help could put your life and your baby's at serious risk.

What If I Change My Mind?

Labor might hurt more than you had expected. Some women who said they wanted no pain medicine change their minds when they’re in labor. This is very common and completely understandable.

If the pain is too much, don't feel bad about asking for pain relief medicine. And if something doesn't go as planned, try to be flexible. That doesn't make you any less brave or committed to your baby or the labor process. Giving birth is a beautiful and rewarding experience, no matter what help you do or don’t need.

Reviewed by: Larissa Hirsch, MD
Date reviewed: April 2022