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Using a TENS Unit in Labor: Everything You Need to Know

Approaching labor, whether you’re an expectant mother or a nervous partner, can be more than a little daunting!

Other parents like to share their own stories (whether you ask for them or not!) and you’re likely wondering about the labor pain and how you’ll cope.

If you’ve been taking childbirth classes you may have heard about TENS units.

In this article we’ll break down exactly what a TENS machine can do for you during labor, including first hand experiences from our community, to help you make the right decision for your family.

What is a TENS machine?

A TENS unit is a small battery-operated device that connects to electrodes that you place on the surface of your skin.

A mild electrical current is sent from the device to the electrodes, reducing the pain signals going to the spinal cord and brain.

If you want a full rundown, we’ve written a more detailed article about TENS that explains the science in a little more detail.

Do TENS units work for labor?

Research has shown that using a TENS device is a drug-free way to reduce the pain of labor.

It allows you to control your pain relief, with no adverse effects for mother or child.

To explain more clearly we’ve highlighted the various benefits of TENS for expectant mothers:

It’s a drug-free way to reduce the pain of labor.

Scientific research into the effectiveness of TENS is limited, but positive.
A review of all the available evidence was conducted in 2011 and published in the Midwifery journal.

14 studies were reviewed, including 1256 women, with the conclusion made that TENS reduces the pain of labor. The majority of respondents also said they would use the therapy again for future pregnancies.

Later research seen in the International Journal of Gynecology & Obstetrics found that TENS helped to reduce the duration of the first stage of labor and the amount of analgesic drugs administered.

The sample size was relatively small, with just 104 women taking part, however researchers did conclude that the results were significant.

New mother, Claire Hirst, based in the UK spoke directly to The Good Body about her own experience of using TENS for the birth of her first child in 2023:

I was keen to avoid taking drugs for pain relief in labor, but was realistic and knew that breathing techniques and relaxing music probably wouldn’t be enough to get me through so I looked into it and purchased a TENS unit.

I honestly would say it was one of the best things I took to hospital with me. It helped me so much and took my focus away from the pain.

It’s great that you can change the intensity so as labor progresses and surges get stronger you can increase the intensity of the TENS.

In labor there are many things out of your control so being able to have control of easing the pain was a contributing factor to a more positive labor.

It’s worth mentioning that not everyone has positive things to say about TENS, with some anecdotally feeling like it had little to no impact on their pain.

Mothers on the Digital Spy forum, when discussing TENS for labor, described how it didn’t really do the job they were hoping for. Some even found the various settings frustrating.

One mother made the valid point that “an epidural is more effective with less wires!”.

It really depends on your attitude to pain medication and the birth plan you have in place.

It puts you in control of your pain.

Possibly the biggest benefit of using a TENS machine in labor, is the fact that it gives you control over your pain. You have the power to increase or decrease the intensity as required.

As you likely already know, there can be very little that is under your control when you’re giving birth, so this can be a huge advantage.

Spending time before birth getting to grips with the different settings can help you approach labor with more confidence.

One mother on the NetMums forum described her experience:

I have had 2 children now and have used the tens machine for both!

My 1st birth 8 years ago was awful, so many issues, but I felt that the tens machine really did help and also took the focus off the pain.

My 2nd birth was an amazing experience, totally different, again I had the tens machine. Because this birth was better I felt a lot more in control of the tens machine and felt its effects a lot more.

I started to use it at a low dose when the contractions started and let it build up as they got stronger and stronger.

There are little or no known side effects.

The aforementioned research, published in the International Journal of Gynecology & Obstetrics, also highlighted that there were no adverse effects on mothers or newborns following the therapy.

This is a big selling point for those who want to take a more holistic approach to labor.

Michaela, a client of The Natural Doula, an empowering birth support professional, spoke about her experience:

My goal for the birth of my daughter was to have a completely unmedicated birth.

I ended up needing to have pitocin to speed up the labor process, but with the TENS unit I was able to withstand the pain.

In the beginning I could hardly feel the contractions with the TENS unit, but when it got more intense the unit helped create a distraction to the waves and I was able to push through them.

Where do you put a TENS unit for labor?

Maryland State Doulas who support women in labor, and recommend TENS therapy, offer the below advice on TENS pad placement:

TENS unit pads should be placed on the lower back on either side of the spine.

Place the pads of the TENS unit above and below the bra and underwear lines.

By centralizing access to the nervous system in the lower back, place the pads on either side of the spine in a square formation.

The pads do not have to be equidistant from one another.

Activating the nerves in this region is a similar spot to receiving epidural support with much more ability to move and customize the strength of nerve stimulation.

FAQs about TENS for Labor

Can a TENS unit trigger labor?

When should I use a TENS machine during labor?

Can I use a TENS machine at 39 weeks pregnant?

Where should I not put my TENS unit?

Ready to start shopping around?

We’ve searched the market and tested numerous devices to create our roundup of the best TENS machines out there, including the Beurer EM44, which we think is a great choice for labor.

Laura Smith


Laura Smith

Associate Editorial Manager

Specialist health & wellbeing writer, passionate about discovering new technologies & sharing the latest research.