BACKGROUND:The pain experience associated with labour is complex. Literature indicates psychosocial and environmental determinants of labour pain, and yet methods to support women usually target physiological attributes via pharmacological interventions. AIM:To provide an update of our understanding of labour pain based on modern pain science. The review aims to help explain why women can experience labour pain so differently - why some cope well, whilst others experience great suffering. This understanding is pertinent to providing optimal support to women in labour. METHOD:A literature search was conducted in databases Medline, Cumulative Index to Nursing and Allied Health Literature and PsycINFO, using search terms labor/labour, childbirth, pain, experience and perception. Thirty-one papers were selected for inclusion. FINDINGS:Labour pain is a highly individual experience. It is a challenging, emotional and meaningful pain and is very different from other types of pain. Key determinants and influences of labour pain were identified and grouped into cognitive, social and environmental factors. CONCLUSION:If a woman can sustain the belief that her pain is purposeful (i.e. her body working to birth her baby), if she interprets her pain as productive (i.e. taking her through a process to a desired goal) and the birthing environment is safe and supportive, it would be expected she would experience the pain as a non-threatening, transformative life event. Changing the conceptualisation of labour pain to a purposeful and productive pain may be one step to improving women's experiences of it, and reducing their need for pain interventions.