What is Back Labor? Causes, Symptoms & What You Can Do

Team Peanut8 months ago6 min read

You may have heard the horror stories whispered on Peanut by weary mamas. Back labor: a pain so excruciating it rivals a co-occurrence of shingles, a slipped disc, and the worst toothache ever. (File it under ‘Fun Things to be Concerned about During Childbirth’.)

Woman in labor

Yes, back labor is real and it can be pretty damn sore. But you’ll be pleased to know, back labor doesn’t last forever and there are measures you can take to relieve the pain.

Back labor pain

Back labor is really back labor pain. It’s experienced in the lower back and can feel rather excruciating while you’re in the throes of contractions.

In most cases, back labor happens when your little peanut has decided to face your belly button rather than your back.

Why is this a source of pain? Well, in this front-facing position (known as the occiput posterior position, if you must know) your baby’s hard head is pushing down on your lower back, invading the nerves down there and causing some serious discomfort.

While there are some minor risk factors—such as a lower chance of having a vaginal birth, if that’s important to you—babies tend to figure out that they’re doing it all backwards and correct their position before it’s time to exit through the birth canal.

But it’s not always your baby’s position that causes back labor. Sometimes it just happens, regardless of what position your baby has decided to face.

If you have lower back pain during your periods or have experienced back labor before, you might be a little more prone to it. There’s also some debate as to whether being past your due date can increase your chances of back labor.

And then, there’s good ol’ chance, too. Some mamas get it, some mamas don’t. All bodies have their own ways of doing things.

Your next question is probably How do I know if it’s back labor? And not just run-of-the-mill backache? Let’s take a look:

What does back labor feel like?

Back labor symptoms

The main differentiator between regular pregnancy backache and back labor is the labor part.

Essentially, the back pain that comes from pregnancy harmonizes with your contractions—back labor, however, can make a far louder noise. While your contractions will give you some moments of rest, back labor can be unrelenting. The pain is often at its most intense when your contractions are at their crescendo—so, yes, it can feel like it’s all just happening at once. You may also experience back spasms that coincide with your contractions. Of course, this can seriously up the ante of your labor experience.

If your contractions are starting to come closer together (as in about 5 minutes apart), it’s time to get to the place where you want to have your baby.

Having said that, if your contractions are still far apart but your back pain is excruciating, it can’t hurt (more than it does already) to get in touch with your healthcare provider.

What to do about back labor

Because the most common cause of back labor is the position of your baby, there are no fool-proof methods to prevent it entirely.

During your pregnancy, however, there are certain exercises you can do to help your baby get into a position that is less strenuous for you when the time comes. Pelvic tilts (or what yogis call the “cat-cow”) can be useful. But, ultimately, if your baby wants to look toward your belly button, well, sometimes there’s no persuading them otherwise.

Don’t fret though. There’s a lot you can do to alleviate the discomfort of back labor pain. Keep this list of tips handy for if it strikes:

  • Get moving: Sometimes it’s just about mixing things up a little. With some trial and error, you may find your back pain lifting simply by changing how you position your body. Some positions for back labor include:
    • Lean, lean, lean. That might mean leaning against a surface while standing or while on your knees, depending on what feels good to you. The point is to give your body a break from doing all the work.
    • Kneel against the support of a birthing ball or birthing pillow (or just a regular old pile of pillows also works).
    • Sit backwards on a chair. Like a cool kid from the 90s.
    • Get on all fours. Okay, fair enough. Not one of your more elegant poses, but it can seriously help to get the pressure off your back. Then rock your pelvis back and forth.
    • Try the spider position. This helps to round your back and, in doing so, get rid of some of the pressure. It involves lying on your side with your top leg bent and your bottom leg extended, with some sort of support between them.
  • Get a massage. Whether it’s from your healthcare practitioner or a loved one, getting a lower back massage can go a long way to relieve the symptoms of back labor. You may want to couple this with some good leaning. Pro tip? Use a tennis ball for the massaging process.
  • Get meds. If this is something you want to consider, an epidural will seriously help relieve back labor pain. There are also some other pain medication options, like injecting sterile water into the pain points.
  • Get wet. There’s nothing like a warm bath or shower to soothe a painful situation. Hydrotherapy can help relax your body and make the back pain subside a bit.
  • Get hot or cold, or both. Ice packs or hot compresses? Both work. It can be soothing to alternate between them.

Finally, this whole giving birth thing can be a lot to deal with. Surround yourself with the people and comforts that you need to make it as easy on yourself as possible.

More from The 411:
What is Precipitous Labor?
Can You Take Ibuprofen While Pregnant?
How to Induce Labor (Yourself)