Managing pain safely while pregnant or breastfeeding

With the right advice you can take pain relief without harming your baby.
Learn more
  • Updated:31 May 2011

01.Relieving pregnancy aches and pains


Back pain, headaches and aching legs are all common ailments which can become even more aggravated when you’re pregnant or mum to a little baby. But many mums and mums-to-be are too scared to take anything to relieve the pain for fear of harming their baby.

But armed with the right information, you’ll find there are options says Dr Debra Kennedy, Director of MotherSafe, a free NSW counselling service for NSW women and their healthcare providers who are concerned about exposure - such as medicines - during pregnancy and breastfeeding.

Dr Kennedy says pregnant and breastfeeding women should not suffer pain unnecessarily. In fact, leaving pain untreated can actually do more harm than good.

“Inadequately managed persistent pain can result in depression and anxiety. These may impact on a woman's physical and psychological wellbeing and can potentially have an adverse effect on her pregnancy.”

Dr Kennedy advises pregnant and breastfeeding women to talk to their health professionals about the risks of treating pain versus not treating it.

The pros and cons of over-the-counter pain relievers


Paracetamol is the most widely used pain reliever in Australia, particularly by pregnant women. Although paracetamol readily crosses the placenta, at recommended doses it does not appear to increase the risk of birth defects or other adverse outcomes of pregnancy.

The risks: Taking more than the recommended dose of paracetamol may cause harm to the mother or baby's lives or kidneys.

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)

Aspirin and other NSAIDs such as ibuprofen, are not expected to cause structural birth defects or malformations, or other adverse outcomes such as preterm delivery or low birth weight.

The risks: NSAIDs should not be used in the third trimester without specialist advice. They may harm the baby during this stage of pregnancy by closing one of their blood vessels too early, raising blood pressure in their lungs and delaying labour and birth. High doses of these medicines in the third trimester may also impair the function of the baby's kidneys. NSAIDs can also increase the risk of bleeding complications in the baby or mother.


Opioid pain relievers such as codeine have not been associated with an increase in birth defects or miscarriage.

The risks: The main concern is that persistent use may lead to dependence and tolerance in the mother, with resultant drug withdrawal effects in the newborn. Use of opioid pain relievers may also impair the baby's lung function.

What MotherSafe advises

“We recommend paracetamol to treat fever and pain during pregnancy,” says Dr Kennedy. “Codeine or another opioid analgesic can be added to treat more severe pain.

“Inadvertent use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medicines in the first trimester is not usually harmful but these medicines should not be used in the third trimester.”

The best thing you can do is to talk to your doctor before taking any medications or drugs while pregnant or breastfeeding.

More information

Here’s a list of contact numbers you can call to get more information on the safety of medications and other exposures during pregnancy and breastfeeding.


Mothersafe - Royal Hospital for Women, Randwick
Phone: 9382 6539 (Sydney Metropolitan Area)
Phone: 1800 647 848 (Non-Metropolitan Area)


ACT Drug Information Service
The Canberra Hospital
Ph: 02 6244 3333


Royal Women's Hospital
Ph: 03 8345 3190

Monash Medical Centre
Ph: 03 9594 2361

South Australia

Women's and Children's Hospital
Ph: 08 8161 7222

Western Australia

Women's & Children's Health Services
Ph: 08 9340 2723

All states/territories

NPS: better choices, better health
NPS Medicines Line 1300 MEDICINE (1300 633 424)

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