Back Labor: What Is It, and How to Cope With It?


So, you have found out you’re pregnant, and thrown yourself into the mountains of research that surrounds pregnancy in order to arm yourself with knowledge. You have waded through thousands of articles about the stages of pregnancy, birthing methods, and nursery designs. You feel as if you might be able to win a game show devoted entirely to the minutiae of having a baby until you suddenly hear another mother complain about how terrible her back labor was. You do your research and find yourself facing the boogey man of labor and delivery: Back Labor. If you end up caught unawares by it, back labor can take your delivery day from exciting to delayed so here is everything you need to know about how to defeat back labor.

What is Back Labor?

Back labor refers to the intense pain and discomfort that occurs in the middle to lower back of women who are in labor. Most women will report a mild degree of discomfort or slight cramping in their backs during labor, but for 25% of those women, the pain will become intense and severe between contractions and will intensify even more during the contractions themselves. In addition to the severe pain, women who experience back labor might also experience irregular contraction patterns, a longer period of pushing, and slow moving labor.

What Causes Back Labor?

Back labor positions

Now you know what back labor is, but what causes it? The most common belief held by doctors is that the positioning of the baby in the womb causes back labor. When your baby is in the occiput posterior position, better known as “sunny side up”, its head is down near the cervix where it should be but is facing your stomach instead of your spine. This positioning causes the baby’s head, which is the hardest part of its body, to press down onto your tailbone and lower spine. This presses on the nerves and creates the sensation of cramping or pain that we associate with back labor. You can tell if your baby is “sunny side up” if when you press on your stomach, it is soft and somewhat bumpy. That is because if the baby was in anterior position, which is the correct position, your stomach would feel hard and smooth because the baby’s back would be pressing against your stomach.

This is not always a tried and true reason behind back labor, however. Sometimes the baby might have been “sunny side up” but recently switched position, which leaves the back nerves still sensitive. Also sometimes, you might experience back labor even if your baby was never “sunny side up” at all! This type of back labor can come on randomly, though many doctors believe that if a woman experiences back pain during her normal menstrual cycle, she might be more likely to suffer back labor during delivery. Additionally, women who are more than 40 weeks pregnant or who have a higher body mass index of 29 or more are more likely to have a child who sits in the occiput posterior position. This position might also happen with women who have had their membranes artificially stripped or women who have had their labor induced.

[Read more about Labor]

Can Back Labor Cause Any Complications?

According to research, back labor does not cause any complications during delivery. However, the research does state that if the back labor is due to the baby being in an undesirable position, such as the previously mentioned occiput posterior position, that CAN cause complications. This is because it makes it far more difficult for the baby to descend into the birth canal in the right manner. This might extend the length of your labor and might disrupt your birth plan if you were hoping for a natural birth, as longer labor might make you need pain medicine. The baby being stuck in the birth canal could also lead the mother to needing an episiotomy (incision in the vaginal canal to widen it for the baby), and could lead to fatigue and exhaustion. All of these complications could then result in you needing an emergency cesarean, or C-section. If not, your child might still need to be assisted in its labor with a vacuum or forceps.

[Read more about C-section]

How Can You Soothe the Symptoms of Back Labor?

So now that you know the symptoms of back labor, and what causes it, how do you survive it if it happens to you on delivery day? Below are some options ranging from the medical methods of soothing back labor to the more natural methods.

3 Medical Methods

1. Flipping

Back labor baby positions

The first method that your doctor or midwife will try will be to check the position of the baby. If the baby is in fact “sunny side up”, the doctors will then try to encourage the baby to flip over into the proper position. This occurs when the doctor injects a medicine to help the uterine muscles relax in a way that will not harm your baby. Then, using gentle but firm pressure, the doctor will push the baby and attempt to turn it to the right position.

2. Epidural and Spine Blocker

A lot of women will choose a pain reliever during their labor, especially if the labor is as intense as back labor can be. The epidural does not have a great success rate with helping back labor, but the spinal block and other narcotics can help.

[Read move about Epidural]

3. Sterile Water Injections

If pain medication does not help relieve the pain, some physicians might opt for sterile water injections. This is what it sounds like. The doctor will inject sterile water into key points in your back to help relieve the pressure on the nerves and the muscles.

9 Natural Methods

1. Non-Recumbent Positioning

This is the first step you should take if you are hoping to relieve the pain naturally. Non-recumbent positioning simply refers to getting you off your back during labor. Trying different positions such as holding your body up on all fours, squatting, and others might help relieve some of the pain.

2. Improving Fetal Position

If you know that the position of the baby is the problem there are several things you can try to naturally encourage the baby to flip into the right position. These include walking around, doing squats and lunges (with assistance), and sitting on a yoga or birthing ball. You might also try using a sheet to help shift the position of the pelvis.

Pregnant woman doing hula hoop exercise

3. Hula Hooping

Unbelievably, this is an actual method for relieving back labor! Hula hooping can help shift the position of your hips and pelvis. The motion of hula hooping as well can encourage your little bundle of joy to flip into the proper position as well. The motion also helps relieve the muscle and nerve pain you might be feeling.

4. Sitting Backwards on Chair or Toilet

Sitting backwards on a chair or a toilet is another way to help shift your pelvis and tip your spinal column backwards. This position mainly helps to relieve any nerve pain you might be feeling.

5. Hot and Cold Compresses

While in labor with back pain, some women might have their discomfort relieved by having a hot or cold compress applied to their backs. Alternating hot and cold can also help to reduce the painful cramping.

6. Pressure

Another way to help relieve the cramping and nerve pain is to apply pressure to the back, either with a massage or by pressing a hard object into your back. You can ask the nurse or your partner to rub either with their hands or potentially with a harder object such as a golf ball. This can help break up the tension in certain achy spots on your back.

7. Warm Water

If your birthing suite has a tub or shower, or you have chosen to deliver your baby at home, sitting in a bath of warm water can also help relieve the intense pain felt in back labor. Standing in a warm shower with the water running down your back may also help. This method is also known as hydrotherapy.

8. Pelvic Tilts

Pregnant exercise-pelvic tilts

Pelvic tilts are a type of exercise that you can do if you are experiencing back labor. In order to do this exercise you need to get onto all fours with your arms shoulder-width apart and your knees hip-width apart. While breathing in, you then tighten your abdominal muscles, and tuck your butt in and around your back. As you exhale, you can relax your body back into its natural starting position. You can repeat this exercise at your own pace, even following the rhythm of your own breathing to pace yourself.

9. Singing

Like hula hooping this seems to be a method that would not be practical, but in fact, it is! Singing or talking to your baby while still in the womb might help soothe the child enough to get them to flip back into the right position, if they are “sunny side up”. If it does not appear to be working for you to sing or speak to your own baby, often times you can have your partner or another loved one assist you. They should get down close to your abdomen, and speak directly to the baby. Singing to the baby, or even asking it to “roll over” or “flip over” might help get your baby moving in the right direction and off your poor spinal nerves.

How Can You Prevent Back Labor from Occurring?

It is almost impossible to know before you go into labor whether you will be one of the lucky quarter of all women who will experience back labor. However, there are some ways in which you might be able to help prevent the likelihood of having back labor. Keep in mind, though, that if you have experienced back labor in the past, you are far more likely to have it again.


During the last stages of your pregnancy and the beginning of labor, exercise can be very important. This helps train your body into being more coordinated, flexible, and stronger so that you can work out the pain you experience during back labor. Having a loose knowledge of yoga can assist you as well, so you might know the proper way to do a pelvic tilt, or other yoga positions known to help with lower back pain.

[Read more about Exercise]

Move Around as Much as Possible

Pregnant lady holding balloons by the sea

In the early stages of labor, try to stay as active as possible. This can help keep the baby from getting into the wrong position, and can help you warm up your body in preparation for labor. This goes hand in hand with exercising throughout your pregnancy. Having stronger control over your muscles can help you feel in control over your body as a whole, even when your bundle of joy tries to prove otherwise.

Be Careful of Your Posture

How you sit during the late stages of your pregnancy might affect your back labor as well. You should be trying to sit in a position that keeps your knees higher than your hips and you should avoid sitting in furniture that sinks down too much. You should also try to lean in as much as possible. You might consider sitting on an exercise ball to help keep the right position, or straddle a chair backwards, resting your arms on the back of the chair.

Visit a Chiropractor

Regular chiropractic appointments throughout your pregnancy can help keep your body in the right alignment, which can also encourage your baby to stay in the right position as well. This can also ensure that your spine is in the less painful alignment to help withstand the pain.

Back labor is definitely the boogey man of labor. It sneaks up on you and can take labor from exciting to painful. However, once your sweet baby is finally out, it will have all been worth it. The pain ends as soon as labor ends, and with your new baby in your arms, you are sure to feel as if surviving back labor was completely worth it.


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