IV Medications for Pain in Labor

female medical assistant is preparing an infusion

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Since the advent of the epidural and other forms of anesthesia many women have forgotten about the use of intravenous (IV) medications for the relief of pain in labor. You receive these medications through:

Though others are available, the most common forms of these medications are:

  • Stadol (butorphanol tartrate)
  • Demerol (meperidine)
  • Nubain (nalbuphine hydrochloride)

How IV Labor Pain Meds Make You Feel

Unlike epidural anesthesia that causes an area of your body to become numb, typically the entire area between your breasts and knees, IV medications promote relaxation and reduce the sensation of pain.

Many women report that the IV medication makes you feel sleepy or as if you drank an alcoholic beverage. These medications can help you relax, which allows you to focus on coping with the contractions of labor and do not completely take away all sensation.

Confined to Your Bed

Once you take the IV medications, your health care provider may confine you to bed for a short or long period of time. The amount of time you need to stay in bed depends on:

  • Which medication they gave you
  • Your reaction to the medication
  • The hospital's or birthing center's policy

You Still Have Control

Many women really enjoy having a feeling of control over their bodies during childbirth and IV pain meds, in contrast to an epidural, can help with that.

You will be able to feel your body and work with it. For example, you will be able to feel to push and you will be able to assume other positions that you probably wouldn't be able to get into if you get an epidural. 

Timing of IV Meds Is Important

The timing of the IV medication is the biggest factor in its use. Usually, the attending OB or midwife will leave an order on your labor chart for this administration without a separate phone call to the doctor.  

Your healthcare provider may administer IV medications for labor prior to administration of the epidural since it takes effect more quickly and does not require an anesthesiologist.

As with many medications, if given too early this medication can actually slow labor down. If given too late, it can cause potential breathing problems for the baby. Talk to your practitioner about how and when they use IV medications.

Side Effects of IV Meds for Labor Pain

Some women experience side effects after receiving IV labor pain medication, including nausea and vomiting. More importantly, babies do, too.

According to the American Pregnancy Association, side effects of IV labor pain medications that the baby may experience include:

  • Depression of the central nervous system
  • Respiratory depression or hypoventilation
  • Impaired early breastfeeding
  • Altered neurological behavior
  • Decreased ability to regulate body temperature

A Word From Verywell

IV medications are another tool to add to your bag of tricks to take with you in labor. They can be an option for a woman who doesn't want an epidural, can't have an epidural or needs to delay the use of an epidural. Be sure to talk to your midwife or doctor about other side effects and potential benefits to the use of IV medications for labor pain.

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.
  • Obstetrics: Normal and Problem Pregnancies. Gabbe, S, Niebyl, J, Simpson, JL. Fifth Edition.

By Robin Elise Weiss, PhD, MPH
Robin Elise Weiss, PhD, MPH is a professor, author, childbirth and postpartum educator, certified doula, and lactation counselor.