First time moms always wonder what labor and delivery feels like. Experienced moms always get asked, “How painful is childbirth?” Every new mom’s perception of the pain is different and every labor is different. A first pregnancy may be a breeze, while a second and third pregnancy may be excruciating. Even with an epidural, moms still could not really describe the experience. Read on for more information about pain and childbirth.

Why Does Childbirth Hurt?

Pain during labor is caused by contractions of the muscles of the uterus and by pressure on the cervix. This pain can be felt as strong cramping in the abdomen, groin, and back, as well as an achy feeling. Some women experience pain in their sides or thighs as well.

Other causes of pain during labor include pressure on the bladder and bowels by the baby's head and the stretching of the birth canal and vagina.

How Painful Is Childbirth?

Childbirth pain is different for everyone. The main description is usually a very intense pain and pressure in the lower abdomen and lower back. When the baby drops down near the birth canal the pressure and pain move to deep within the pelvic area. Here are a few other descriptions of the pain of childbirth:

  • Cramping. Labor pain can feel like really severe menstrual cramps. The cramping radiates from the pelvis to the back or the back to the pelvis.
  • Tightening. Some people only complain of the discomfort as a muscle tightening when the contractions come. They may not have any back or abdominal pain until it is time to push.
  • Pounding. Some women describe contractions as the feeling of being hit in the stomach. This is not as common, but powerful contractions can sometimes give this sensation.
  • Stabbing. This sensation usually comes on just as the baby enters the birth canal. It feels as if a “hot poker” is being stabbed into the pelvic area and lower abdomen.
  • Burning. This sensation also comes on as the baby’s head crowns. The outer area of the vagina stretch around the baby’s head and produces a very strong burning sensation during pushing.
  • Waves of pain. Sometimes labor doesn’t hurt all the time and only hurts during contractions with relief in between. The pain often starts in the back and moves around to the front of the abdomen. It can also start low in the abdomen and move around to the back.
  • Pressure. There may be lots of pressure and the urge to bear down like when having a bowel movement. The pressure may be constant or only with contractions.

Pain in Different Labor Stages

Answering how painful is childbirth also depends on which stage you are at. As labor progresses the pain builds with each stage of labor and continues in a mild form after the baby is born. 

  • In the early stages of labor: This stage can last from 8 hours to a few days. Your cervix is beginning to thin out and dilate up to 4 centimeters. The pain feels like menstrual cramps in the abdomen with a mild to moderate backache.
  • In active labor: This stage can last up to another 8 hours and the cervix dilates up to 7 centimeters. Active labor can seem like the most painful because of the long duration. During this time you can request pain medication and is a good time to practice techniques learned in birthing class.
  • The transition phase: Transition lasts about an hour and is the final stages of labor. The baby is now moving into the actual birth canal and the cervix is finishing dilation to 10 centimeters. The pain is very intense, but this stage is very quick.
  • The pushing phase: The cervix is now fully dilated to 10 centimeters and the baby’s head is crowning. There will be pain in the rectum and outer vagina that feels like searing and burning as it stretches. There is a strong urge to bear down and now is the time to push, which actually can relieve the pain.
  • After the baby is born: For the first few minutes you will still have contractions and cramping as your body expels the placenta. Period like cramps will continue for a few days up to a week as the uterus shrinks back down and controls any bleeding.

What About Epidural for Pain Relief?

For pain relief to your lower body, you can ask for an epidural. This just numbs the lower abdomen, pelvis, low back and the tops of your legs. You don’t go to sleep, but you can feel when you need to push.

They place a thin catheter into just outside your spinal cord. This is very common and administered by an anesthesiologist. They will have you curl up into a ball and insert the needle into the epidural space. After between 10 and 20 minutes you will notice the effects. The medication will continue to go in throughout your labor and delivery. After your baby is born they will remove the catheter.  

The best time to get an epidural is when you are in active labor at about 4 to 5 centimeters. Make sure you let your nurse know that you would like an epidural when you are checked into your hospital room. If your baby is already crowning, it is too late for an epidural.

After you have an epidural you will have to stay in bed for the duration of your labor due to leg numbness. You will be monitored closely for blood pressure and your baby’s heart rate.

How to Reduce Pain in Childbirth

  • Use breathing exercises. When a contraction hits, try to breathe slow and in a rhythmic fashion. Moan quietly as you breathe out. You can try quick short breaths at 2 or 3 second intervals.
  • Try visualization. You can try listening to soft music, nature sounds or focus on your partner’s face. Visualize yourself in another setting like on the beach or in the mountains by a bubbling stream.
  • Get in the tub. Getting into a warm bathtub (if your water has not broken) can help relieve pain and ease anxiety. If your water has broken, you can get into a warm shower.
  • Walk or sway in place. If you have not had an epidural, you can walk or stand in place and sway your hips back and forth. This can also help speed up labor using gravity to move the baby down.
  • Get a massage. Have your partner massage your back. You can also have them roll tennis balls across your lower back or just apply firm pressure.

Experiences and Advices of Other Moms

How painful is childbirth? Here's what others have to say.

“After four babies, the best pain relief I found was soft music and just trying to keep as calm as possible. As soon as the baby is born, you forget the pain.”


“I was really scared from all the horror stories. I had to realize that was someone else’s experience not mine. I ended up getting an epidural and had a really good experience with my daughter.”


“When my labor started, I was terrified. They were so strong and painful and my labor went on for 3 days. It was really painful and pushing took hours. It burned really bad. After I saw my baby I forgot about the pain and would do it all over again.”


“I was amazed when I realized everything my body went through giving birth to my son. It was a beautiful experience. My labor started with cramping that felt like period cramps. My tummy got really hard. I had an epidural at 6 centimeters and had just enough pressure to push. It was physically exhausting but worth every minute.”


“I used a birthing tub for my second baby and it felt great. My midwife filled the tub with warm water and I was in it for 6 hours. The last two hours I went into bed and without the tub, I never would have made it through without pain medication, but I did.”