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Vaginal birth

  • Most babies are born through vaginal birth.
  • Labor feels different for every woman.
  • You may decide to have medicine to help with labor pain.
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Spinal block for labor pain

A spinal block is medicine you get in a shot you get in your lower back that numbs your lower body from the chest down. It’s good for fast pain relief. The shot blocks pain in the lower half of your body. 

You may want medicine like a spinal block to help with labor pain. Or you may want to have natural childbirth without medicine. Talk to your health care provider about all your pain-relief options to decide which is right for you. Write your pain-relief choices on your birth plan and share it with your provider and with the staff at the hospital or birthing center where you plan to have your baby. A birth plan is a set of instructions you make about your baby’s birth.  

How do you get a spinal block?  

While you’re sitting or lying on your side with your back curved outward, your provider inserts the needle into your lower back. He injects medicine into your spinal fluid. This is fluid that surrounds the spinal nerves in your lower back. Your provider can give you a spinal block during active labor or just before a cesarean section (also called c-section).

Your provider may recommend a spinal block if he needs to use instruments to help your baby out during vaginal birth. You also may get a spinal block along with another pain-relief method called an epidural. This provides you with immediate pain relief and the option of more medicine if you need it. 

What are some pros and cons of having a spinal block? 

Learning about pros and cons can help you decide if a spinal block is right for you. 

Pros

  • Pain relief starts right away.
  • You stay awake and alert.
  • The needle used to inject the medicine is thinner than the needle used for an epidural.

Cons

  • Pain relief lasts only 1 to 2 hours. 
  • It may provide uneven pain relief, affecting one side of the body more than the other. 
  • Your blood pressure may drop during a spinal, which may slow your baby's heartbeat. To prevent this, you get extra fluids through an intravenous (also called IV) tube. Your provider also may ask you to lie on your side.  
  • The medicine may make it hard for you to control or empty your bladder. You may need a catheter (a small flexible tube placed in the body) to help with this.
  • You may get a bad headache called a spinal headache. This is rare. But if it’s not treated, it may last for days. 
  • You may feel some soreness from the injection. This may last a few days. 
  • If you get too much medicine, it can affect your chest muscles. This is rare. But you may feel like you're having trouble breathing. 

Can you get a spinal block even if you try to have natural childbirth? 

Yes. Labor pain affects each woman differently. You may have mild discomfort or you may have intense pain. If you try natural childbirth and decide during labor to use pain medicine, it’s OK. You can ask for pain relief at any time during labor and birth.

Last reviewed June 2014

Most common questions

What is an epidural?

An epidural is the most popular and effective kind of pain relief for labor. You get a needle with a small tube attached placed in your lower back. Medicine goes through the tube while you're in labor. It numbs your lower body so you can't feel the pain from your contractions. The medicine doesn't make you go to sleep, so you can be wide awake when your baby is born!

What is fetal-scalp blood sampling?

Fetal-scalp blood sampling is a quick test your health care provider can use to check if your baby is getting enough oxygen during labor.

During labor, your cervix dilates (opens) to let your baby out. Your cervix is the opening to the uterus that sits at the top of the vagina. In order to have fetal-scalp blood sampling, your cervix must be dilated enough that your provider can reach your baby’s head.

The test may remind you of a pelvic exam. It takes about 5 minutes. You lie on your back with your feet in stirrups. Your provider places a plastic cone in the vagina that fits up against the baby’s head. Your provider pricks your baby’s scalp and takes a small amount of blood. The blood is tested, and results are ready in a few minutes.

You may feel some pressure during the test, but it shouldn’t hurt. Your baby may have some bruising or bleeding at the spot where he’s pricked.

If you have an infection, like HIV or hepatitis C, your provider may not recommend fetal blood sampling. This is because you can pass these infections to your baby through the spot where he’s pricked.

What is oxytocin?

Oxytocin is a hormone your body makes to help start labor contractions. Contractions are when the muscles of your uterus get tight and then relax. They help push your baby out of your uterus (womb).

Your body also makes oxytocin during breastfeeding. Oxytocin helps your uterus shrink back to its original size after giving birth.

If labor is slow to start or your contractions stall, your health care provider may give you a medicine called Pitocin. Pitocin acts like oxytocin and can help start contractions or make them stronger.

What is Pitocin?

Pitocin is a medicine that acts like oxytocin, a hormone your body makes to help start labor contractions. Contractions are when the muscles of your uterus get tight and then relax. They help push your baby out of your uterus (womb). Health care providers often use Pitocin to:

  • Help induce labor
  • Help labor move along if your contractions slow down, or if they aren’t strong enough

You may start having labor contractions shortly after you get Pitocin. It can make your contractions very strong and lower your baby's heart rate. Your provider carefully monitors your baby's heart rate for changes and adjusts the amount of Pitocin you get, if needed.

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