Use of Heat for Comfort and Pain Relief During Labor

Woman sleeping with a hot water bottle

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The use of heat for comfort in labor is not new, though most hospitals do not have ready access to sources of heat. The most common type of heat is a heating pad, water bottle, or rice sock. With the exception of an electric heating pad, most options actually lose heat as they go, meaning that while they need to be reheated, they are safe to sleep with.

Heat is great for helping you relax. Heat can be used for pain in a specific location, like a tight muscle, or it might be just used generally to help you relax, such as a warmed blanket or a warm tub or shower. You need to figure out what works for you at the moment, but you might already have a good idea from your everyday life. If you are a big fan of a heating pad or other source of warmth, this might be a great thing to add to your birth plan.

Using a Heating Pad During Labor

Heat can be used at any point in labor or even for comfort at the end of pregnancy, except on areas numbed from an epidural or if you have a fever.

Common places to put heat sources include:

  • Back: If you are experiencing back labor, using a heat source can feel better and relieve your pain. You can also use this in conjunction with cold, alternating them for even better pain relief.
  • Neck: Using warm compresses on the neck is something that many people use to help them relax. There is no greater time that you need relaxation than in labor.
  • Pubic bone: You might feel a lot of tightness or pressure at your pubic bone. This is particularly true if you've experienced symphysis pubis dysfunction (SPD) in pregnancy. Heat can help you relax and increase your mobility.

Keeping Warm During Labor

Sometimes you may get chills in labor. Heat can help warm you in labor and reduce feeling chilly. Simply take your heating pad or rice sock and cuddle up with it, wherever it feels best. Hospitals may also be able to offer you heated blankets for full-body coverage.

Remember to test the heat source with your hand. You may need to wrap it with a towel or two to avoid burning your skin and to make it more comfortable to the touch. If you don't have access to a rice sock or heating pad, you can also use a warm blanket or a warm shower or bath.

When Not to Use Heat

The good news is that experts don't believe that there is risk associated with using heat in labor as far as labor progress or fetal monitoring. There have not been many studies on the topic specifically, though a very small study showed it was not problematic.

Do not use heat or cold on skin that does not have a feeling, such as areas that are numbed from an epidural. This can cause you to burn yourself accidentally.

It is important to be very careful using any source of heat if you have an epidural. In addition to being a burn risk on numbed skin, it can also cause you to overheat since epidural changes how your body dissipates heat. The same warning goes for a person with a fever in labor—heat may not be appropriate.

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