They call it labour for a reason. Childbirth isn’t exactly easy, and the pain is sometimes (or, more than sometimes) too much for even the toughest mother.

What if you could get pain relief during childbirth – minus the needles and injections? University of South Australia midwifery researcher Dr. Julie Fleet may have just the solution.

In a Flinders University and University of Adelaide study, Dr. Fleet and her colleagues found that a fentanyl nasal spray could relieve some of the pain during childbirth. What’s so special about this spray? Is it magical? Does it work like a wizard’s wand and swiftly swish away every last contraction pang? No, probably not. But, it may take your pain level down a notch without all of the harsh side effects found in other drugs.

And, bonus – it’s a self-administered spray. This doesn’t mean that you can suck up all the nose goodies that you want. Even though mums-to-be can give themselves a spray or two, it must be under the supervision of a medical professional (such as a doctor or midwife).

So, what is the fentanyl stuff and why will it help you not feel like you’re squeezing a melon out of something big enough to fit a fairly small orange out of? Well, it won’t. Even though fentanyl dulls the pain, it doesn’t take away all sensation (as an epidural does). You’ll still have the ability to feel the childbirth process and push when ready.

Administration by nasal spray allows mums to still feel some sensation, meaning it doesn’t completely get rid of the pain – it dulls it. According to the Australian Drug Foundation, fentanyl is an opioid pain reliever that is 80 to 100 times stronger than morphine is. It’s typically given through transdermal (skin) patches, lozenges or IV injection.

Fleet’s research shows that the spray is as effective as pethidine injections when it comes to controlling labour pains. Why take fentanyl instead of pethidine? Aside from the obvious ease of a nasal spray (over an injection), fentanyl has fewer side effects than the other pain medication. The UK’s National Health Service notes that pethidine may cause mums in labour to feel woozy or sick. It may also make pushing a challenge – if it hasn’t quite worn off by the end of labour. Fentanyl also comes with possible side effects (such as nausea and drowsiness), but these may not be as severe.

Both drugs are passed from mum to baby.

Pethidine is processed by the body into another drug. This remains in the baby’s system for the first three or so days after birth. In the baby, the drug can cause irritability and drowsiness or breathing difficulties.  Fentanyl isn’t processed in the same way as pethidine, making it potentially less harmful to the baby (but, there may still be effects).

A prime benefit of the proposed nasal spray is the ability for the mum in labour to give herself a sniff (again, under the supervision of a medical professional). Fleet said, in a University of South Australia press release

“Women can self-administer a controlled dose using the nasal spray, under a midwife’s supervision, which helps them feel more in control of their pain management and avoids the need for additional intervention and painful injections.”

The study included 156 mums at the Adelaide Women’s & Children’s Hospital and the Gawler Hospital. Of the women given the fentanyl spray, 80 percent said that they would use it again (during labour with a subsequent pregnancy). In comparison, 44 percent of the women taking pethidine for labour pains said that they would use the injections again.

If you’re wondering where and when you can get one of these nasal sprays you may have to wait – but, not for very long. The treatment isn’t currently available for mums in labour. A $25,000 UniSA Pathfinder grant will allow Fleet to continue her research on the spray. It’s possible that the fentanyl nasal spray will be in use in South Australian maternity hospitals within the year.


Belinda's a passionate advocate for community and connection. As the founder of the Mum Central Network she’s committed to celebrating the journey that is Australian parenthood. Mum to two cheeky boys, and wife to her superstar husband, they live a busy but crazy lifestyle in Adelaide. Great conversation, close friends and good chocolate are her chosen weapons for daily survival. Oh, and bubbles. Champagne is key.

Write A Comment