How Much Does Labor Hurt?

by | May 8, 2023 | You Ask, Henci Answers

You ask:

How much is it going to hurt? I don’t want an epidural, but I’m afraid of how painful labor might be. What can you compare the pain with?

I answer:

I can’t tell you how much labor will hurt because the experience of pain varies from person to person and even from labor to labor for the same person. I can tell you a few things, though, that might be helpful.

One is that the experience of labor pain differs from the pain of illness or injury in ways that make it easier to tolerate. Here’s a table from my book Labor Pain: What’s Your Best Strategy? that compares the two.

Another is that your experience of labor pain is modified by a couple of factors that you have some say over (Whitburn 2017). One is your perceptions. If you see labor pain as positive, purposeful, and productive, you are likely to feel that you can cope without an epidural. If you view it as threatening or experience a mismatch between what you expected to be feeling and what you are feeling, you are likely to feel that you need an epidural. The second is that you are influenced by those around you. If your caregivers, birth partner, or other labor companions are supportive, encouraging, and helpful, you will likely feel that you can cope without an epidural. If you feel unsupported, emotionally alone, and vulnerable, you will likely feel you need an epidural.

Finally, while only epidurals can completely relieve pain, other options are effective at reducing pain, and that may be all you need. (I discuss those in detail in the book.)

One last word: you can plan and prepare to avoid an epidural, but everyone has an “enough” point, and despite your best efforts to line things up in your favor, you may reach yours. If you do, my advice is be at peace and accept one as the modern blessing it can be.


Whitburn LY, Jones LE, Davey MA, et al. The meaning of labour pain: how the social environment and other contextual factors shape women’s experiences. BMC Pregnancy Childbirth 2017;17(1):157.


Medical Disclaimer: Henci Goer is neither a physician nor a midwife. Content and information on this website are for informational and educational purposes only and do not constitute medical advice. Users are advised to consult their physician or midwife when making decisions about care.

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