How to Practice Ice Holds to Prep For Labor and Birth Pain

One of the most common questions I get in clinic is “What does a contraction feel like?”

Ask ten women what a contraction feels like and you’ll get ten different answers: “charlie horse”, “cramping”, “hot poker in the stomach”, “dying”…

This is closely followed by “What childbirth classes do you recommend?” (These ones are FREE online, Tucson Medical Center or Pampers, but many communities offer classes that are great).

Answering these two questions often leads me to recommend practicing ice holds.

I was really surprised when I searched on the web for ‘practicing ice holds for labor pain.’ Surprisingly, there are a lot of negative opinions. A lot of these opinions are based in associating cold with pain/contractions and that a negative pain pathway is created that isn’t helpful in labor.

Well, I’m going to offer a different viewpoint today. The basis of my viewpoint is simple: in general, most women don’t prepare to be in pain during some part of their labor.

I see a lot of women that don’t cope well because they haven’t been in such intense pain before, they don’t know how to keep on top of the pain/stay mentally in control, or they don’t have a plan to manage their pain.

Enter: Ice holds.

I first practiced ice holds teaching a Centering Pregnancy class years ago. The idea is pretty simple, you hold some ice in a bag or a scoop of ice from a bowl for 60-90 seconds and then you observe what your response is. The 60-90 second time period is the average length of a labor contraction during the active phase of labor (about 6 centimeters dilated). You then try the ice hold with a series of other things – meditation, controlled breathing, candy, sound/music, counting…etc., and then you reflect on what your response was and how you handled the intensity of the cold.

You’ll find that you like some things – maybe lavender essential oil helps you or sucking on a hard candy – but, counting to 30 or concentrating on your breath isn’t helpful. Either way, it’s a fast way to learn what interventions help you cope with discomfort and what interventions don’t.

Here’s another truth: The discomfort from the ice doesn’t feel anywhere near the intensity of the big labor contractions.

But the practice will tell you very quickly how you respond to pain.

This can be hard to explain to women but anyone who has had contractions will understand. The other difficulty lies in the fact that contraction pain feels different to every person and labors or births are often very different from one to another (even in the same woman).

Lastly, I saw that childbirth classes either stopped meeting or moved to virtual platforms during the pandemic. At the same time, I saw fewer women coming into triage prepared to cope with labor pain. With that thought, here’s how to pracitce ice holds at home.

How to Practice Ice Holds


Get your ice.

Place 2 cups of ice in a sandwich bag.


Set a timer for 90 seconds.

Open the timer on your phone or use your microwave timer, set it to 90 seconds. Pick up your bag of ice and hold your bag with both hands. For this first round, don’t focus on anything in particular except that you are holding a really cold bag of ice. At the end of the 90 seconds, set your bag down and wait about 3 minutes. The 3 minutes simulates the rest period between contractions. During your 3 minutes, think about what your body did and didn’t do. As the ice got colder, did you start to tense up your shoulders and back? Was your breathing a little faster, but then more controlled as the seconds went by? Did you do something that made the intense cold feeling easier?



For round 2, try rhythmic counting. At the end of three minutes, restart the timer for 90 seconds. Pick up your ice, hit start on the timer, and try counting from one to thirty slowly and back down to one. At the end of 90 seconds, set the ice down for another three minutes. Note if counting helped you to concentrate better and distracted you from the ice. If it did, counting might be helpful for you in labor!


Repeat and take notes.

Repeat 3-4 more times. Try adding your favorite music to listen to or some white noise – a lot of women like to listen to waves or water. Try using some aromatherapy as well. Common scents that are calming and energizing in labor are lavender and citrus scents (lemon, orange, lime). Also try swaying, walking or humming during your simulated contraction. After 10-15 minutes, think about what was most helpful and calming to you during the discomfort. Make a birth plan that includes these practices during your labor. Don’t hesitate to combine the practices that were helpful to you.

There you go!

I hope the practice helps you prepare for labor.

I always tell mamas, almost every woman will feel pain at some point during her labor and birth. For this reason, it’s important to prepare your mind and body for labor and birth.

If you’re looking for some birth plan templates, try these;

Share this post with a mama you know is expecting!



1 year ago on the blog…Friday Five (#48) – If you love this post, sign up for the newsletter! The Fives were moved into a newsletter format about a year ago!

2 years ago on the blog…Women Ask Wednesday: How do I make a reproductive life plan?

3 years ago on the blog…The State of MIdwifery (Part 1)

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