Guide to Natural Childbirth

Newborn baby in birthing pool with mom after natural birth
Frank Herholdt / Getty Images

While all forms of childbirth are beautiful and natural, historically, the term "natural birth" has referred to vaginal childbirth without pharmaceutical pain relief and other medical interventions. If you are considering a natural, unmedicated birth, you are not alone.

About 40% of women who deliver singletons vaginally opt not to have epidural anesthesia. Some of these women planned for a natural birth while others have gone this route simply because there was no time for an epidural.

The decision to give birth without medications or interventions is an extremely personal one. If you make this choice, it will require some research and preparation to make it happen.

Here's an overview of what you need to know in order to prepare for a natural childbirth.

Natural Birth Education

When it comes to planning for your natural birth experience, comprehensive childbirth education provides the foundation, and there are a plethora of classes available.

Options include classes from Lamaze, the Bradley Method, International Childbirth Education Association (ICEA), Birthing From Within, Childbirth and Postpartum Association (CAPPA), and the International Birth and Wellness Association.

There are even classes on HypnoBirthing, which is sometimes called the Mongan Method. People who use this method of natural childbirth learn how to use self-hypnosis with the goal of having a calm birth experience. The idea is that hypnosis also will minimize the pain and discomfort inherent in childbirth.

Regardless of what method you choose, during childbirth class you will learn a lot of the things that you can do to prepare your body and mind for labor. In fact, some childbirth educators may pull from several different methods and present you with a multitude of ideas on how to manage your labor.

You will learn about relaxation and labor support as well as how to manage contractions. You also will learn about breastfeeding, common interventions in labor as well as pain medications, c-sections, and even vaginal birth after cesarean (VBAC).

Because you want to be sure you are making an informed decision, it might be worth the time to take as many classes as you can, including the ones that cover pharmaceutical options like epidurals or having a second baby. Classes like these will help you confirm whether or not natural childbirth is right for you.

Your Labor Support Team

Who you choose to attend you in labor is a very important decision when you're considering a natural birth. Having someone there to support you helps you feel loved and cared for during your labor and birth. But it also can give you some added help when it comes to managing pain, feeling more comfortable, and advocating for your preferences and desires.

Family and Friends

Most women choose to have their partner, a family member, a friend, or a combination of people support them during labor. The key, however, is to limit the number of people who will be in the delivery room with you to only those who are prepared to provide the kind of support you need.

Although you want to be surrounded by people you love, too many people can be distracting and can interfere with your labor management.

Likewise, delivery rooms can sometimes feel small and you want plenty of room to move around during labor. Too many people in the room can keep this from happening.

You also want to choose people that you know will support you and your decisions. If your sister or your mother, for example, is opposed to a natural birth or nervous about the concept, you may not want to include them on your labor support team.


Additionally, many women hire experienced birth doulas in addition to their doctor or midwife to help them in labor. Using a doula can help reduce your need for pain medication and may be able to help you make labor more comfortable.

Keep in mind that a doula doesn't replace your family or provide medical care, but instead brings knowledge, experience, and a dedicated skillset to help you cope with labor. What's more, you will define their role before you go into labor and outline it in your birth plan.

Coping With Labor Pain

In order to manage and cope with the pain of labor, you will want to have a variety of tools at your disposal.

Positioning and Movement

One of the most beneficial ways to cope with labor is movement. Rocking, swaying, walking, and other movements can all help you deal with the pain of contractions and keep your labor progressing.

You will want to learn how different positions and various movements will help guide your unmedicated labor.

Sometimes you can use these natural movements to make your labor progress more quickly and manage discomforts like back labor. You also can use them to slow down your labor or increase your comfort. Most of the time, this information is taught in childbirth classes, so make sure the one you choose covers it.

There also are a variety of laboring positions. Some positions will ease your pain while others can even help with the position of the baby. For instance, getting on your hands and knees is a gravity neutral position that can give you a break between contractions.

Meanwhile, squatting can help you widen your pelvic area to speed things along; and you can use the side-laying position to slow down your labor. And if you get in a sitting position either on a birth ball or on a chair turned backwards, you can allow gravity to assist you in your labor.

Pain Relief

There are also lots of ways to cope with discomfort in labor by using physical methods. Some of these like movement may come naturally while others like massage and counterpressure can be employed by your doula or support person. Many pain management tools are taught in a childbirth class.

For instance, using heat therapy with a rice-filled sock or heating pad or using cold therapy can help alleviate pain. A heating pad on your lower limbs or on the perineum area toward the end of labor can be particularly helpful. Meanwhile, a lot of women use water to alleviate pain and promote relaxation, especially if their delivery room is equipped with a shower or a tub.

Relaxation and Breathing

Relaxation and breathing are what many people think about when it comes to labor and delivery. In fact, various breathing techniques are taught in most childbirth classes—even those that aren't specifically focused on preparing for a natural birth.

What's more, there are so many techniques, that even if you don't like some of them, there are others you can try. The following are some of the most commonly taught relaxation and breathing techniques:

  • Abdominal breathing for childbirth: The cleansing breaths that you take with this type of breathing allow you to center yourself and work on releasing tension. It also can be used to signal to your partner, your doula, or your midwife that the contraction has ended. This type of breathing also is very effective in calming and relaxing you.
  • Lamaze breathing: This type of breathing works on two levels. First, as you concentrate on your breathing, your attention is diverted away from your labor pains. Second, as your breathing deepens, your muscles receive more oxygen and, as a result, your contractions become more efficient.

Water Birth

The use of water in labor (often referred to as "hydrotherapy") is nothing new, but while once only offered in home birth or birth center settings, water birth is something that has slowly been adopted in some hospitals. The use of a bathtub or shower in labor can produce some of the best pain relief available without an epidural. It is a safe, simple, and effective way to cope with labor.

You may need to do some extra preplanning if you want to labor in or give birth in water at a hospital. But you may find that the benefits of water birth are worth the extra effort you must put in to make it happen.

Choosing a Provider and Birth Location

Who you choose to attend you in labor and where you give birth are both important decisions when preparing for a natural birth. Look for a doctor or midwife who is open to and experienced with natural childbirth techniques and a hospital or birth center that supports them.

After all, you're going to want someone who does more than just tolerates these techniques and your preferences; you deserve someone who will actively encourage and support them during labor. You also want to ensure that any hospital or birth center policies aren't at odds with your desires. For example, if the hospital requires certain interventions that you don't want and your provider agrees aren't necessary, then you may need to find another location.

How to Find a Provider

When interviewing possible doctors and midwives, start by asking questions about previous clients, natural birth experiences, and primary cesarean rates. These questions provide you with some insight into their approach to labor and delivery and will help you identify someone who is a good fit for you.

The last thing you want to have happen is to discover you have to switch practitioners in the middle of your pregnancy. So, take your time when interviewing and choose the person or practice that will help you meet your goals regarding labor and delivery.

How to Find a Birth Location

When it comes to determining where you will give birth, you have three main choices including a hospital, a birth center, and, in some cases, even at home. While not everyone will have access to a birth center or a home birth due to location or medical conditions, these are potentially safe options for women with low-risk pregnancies supported by qualified providers.

If you have access to a couple of different hospitals or birth centers, by all means, research your options. Not every hospital is as patient-friendly as you would imagine. Make sure you tour the hospital and ask the tough questions. Research to find out what others have to say about the hospital, especially those who have given birth recently.

Your Natural Birth Plan

Once you have an idea of what your ideal birthing experience might be like, you need to develop a birth plan or a list of birth preferences. This birth plan should be a one-page statement that includes what you would like to have happen before, during, and after labor.

If you are planning a natural birth, it's important that you find out what policies and procedures are recommended by your provider and your birth location. If there is anything that doesn't fit with your preferences, talk to your provider about other options. For instance, some hospitals require routine IVs, but if you don't require an active IV line, you might be able to ask for an IV port (saline lock) so that you can move around untethered.

You also should address possible deviations from your plan, including a c-section. It's important that you consider and discuss with your provider and support team what might become medically necessary and indicate how you want deviations from your plan handled.

For instance, if a c-section becomes necessary, you might express your preference for a family-centered c-section in which your partner is allowed into the operating room. Keep in mind, though, that in true emergencies you may not have a say.

Once you have your birth plan written, discuss it with your provider during one of your office visits. Be sure that you have done your research ahead of time and be willing to make minor alterations if needed.

Of course, if there is something you feel strongly about, don't be afraid to let your provider know. Afterward, alter the plan as needed and discuss it with your labor support team, including your doula if you have one.

A Word From Verywell

As you plan your birthing experience, remember that you have a say in how the experience goes—barring any medical emergencies of course. So be sure you think through what you want and why, discuss it with your partner and your provider, and outline it in your birth plan. When it comes to your birth, you can decide just how much medical intervention you are comfortable with.

Giving birth "naturally" isn't an all or nothing experience. Being prepared to be flexible with changing circumstances is often the best way to have an empowered birth experience—whether it goes "according to plan" or not. Every labor is different. Instead, focus on the fact that you are bringing new life into this world, and that on its own is miraculous.

3 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Robin Elise Weiss, PhD, MPH
Robin Elise Weiss, PhD, MPH is a professor, author, childbirth and postpartum educator, certified doula, and lactation counselor.