Labour pain

There is an urgent need to improve approaches to supporting women through childbirth, to promote normal birth and positive experiences for women.

The pain associated with labour is unique and complex. While typical occurrences of pain tend to be associated with injury or disease, labour pain is different: It arises during a natural process in which it plays a role in driving the hormonal events of labour.

Despite the unique context and function of labour pain – which differentiates it from the pain associated with injury or disease – labour pain is most commonly treated as a pathological pain,associated with suffering. In countries such as Australia, intervention rates are escalating. Over three-quarters of women use drugs for pain relief during labour, and one-third of women give birth by caesarean section. Although epidurals are very effective for pain relief, they paradoxically do not enhance women’s labour experience and reduce their chances of having a normal birth. Concerningly, the use of pharmacological pain interventions during labour increases the chance of poor health outcomes for women (e.g. emergency caesarean sections)and their babies (e.g. admission to special care), and is costly to the health sector.

Dr Laura Whitburn leads an innovative research program to reconceptualise labour pain. This program aims to develop a more sophisticated understanding of the nature and determinants of labour pain utilising contemporary pain science theories, and is based on the principle that labour pain is not a pathological pain condition. This research includes an investigation of the influences on women’s attitudes and confidence as they approach labour (particularly on decisions to use pharmacological pain interventions) and the impact of the labour experience (particularly the ability to manage pain) on transition to parenthood. This knowledge can then inform the development of novel strategies to improve women’s experiences of labour and birth, enhance non-pharmacological pain management and reduce medically unwarranted interventions.


Researchers from

  • Monash University, VIC
  • Singapore Institute of Technology, Singapore
  • Griffith University, QLD
  • Mercy Health, VIC
  • La Trobe University, VIC

Team members

Group leader: Dr Laura Whitburn