Should I Get An Epidural During My Labor?

epidural, photo, spinal epidural anesthesiaphoto of an epidural procedure from Shutterstock

To epidural, or not to epidural – that is the question I have been asking myself as I try to get ready for the second go-round of popping out a baby. I didn’t have an epidural with baby #1 and generally found it to be a positive experience to go drug-free – certainly an empowering experience if not exactly pleasant, but I can’t help wondering; What would it be like to have a relaxed, calm and pain-free delivery – free of screaming, cursing, and the overwhelming fear that one’s body is going to rip in half? There are pros and cons to going both au natural and numbed from the waist down:


Au Natural

Cons:
Pain, sometimes very intense pain
Can be scary
Sometimes the exertion of dealing with labor can wear you out and make you too exhausted to push, slowing labor

Pro:
After you’re done you feel amazing – like ‘OMG I just did that?’
Endorphins
No drugs will get into your baby’s system
Cheaper
Labor generally goes faster
Less risk of stalling labor and needing vacuum, forceps, C-section
You can walk around, work with gravity and take a more active role in the birth of your baby

epidural, photo, spinal epidural anesthesia


Epidural

Cons:
Can delay labor, leading to further medical interventions like Pitocin, Forceps, or C-Section
Risk of C-section is significantly higher with epidural
Someone is sticking a big needle IN YOUR SPINE
You are hooked up to an IV and confined to bed afterwards
You can have complications with the epidural like nausea, itching, headaches, fever, problems breathing, or pain/nerve damange at injection site afterwards
Drugs can get into your baby’s system
Sometimes nursing is adversely affected (most often from babies being sleepy when they come out)

Pro:
No pain!
You can relax and actually enjoy your labor
Pushing can be easier when you’ve had some time to rest

While I know the pros and cons for both, and the rational reasons to consider both options, I wanted to hear some of the opinions and experiences of fellow mothers about their labor experiences, so I asked around to some friends and family and the Inhabitots crew, and here’s what I found…

epidural, photo, spinal epidural anesthesiaPhoto courtesy of Aaron Fulkerson

To epidural, or not to epidural, that is the question


JASMIN

I got an epidural with the birth of my daughter, and I would do it again. I wanted to give natural labor a shot, but I completely overestimated my threshold for pain. To make matters worse, I had back labor, meaning that the pressure of my baby’s head against my tailbone caused severe pain in my lower back. I asked for an epidural as soon as I arrived at the hospital. Although it slowed down the labor process—I didn’t feel the urge to push as much—the birthing process was a great deal more relaxed because of it. Aside from a slight headache the morning after, I experienced no ill effects, and had the complication-free birth that I wanted, so all-in-all, it was a good decision. I would do it again!


JENNIFER

I planned to have a natural, midwife attended, drug-free birth experience. Ha. I ended up with a doctor and an epidural. Labor doesn’t always go like you expect. I had some unexpected pregnancy complications, plus I was one of those rare mamas-to-be whose water broke before I went into labor. All the above was bad news for my natural birth plans. My midwife sent me to the hospital for a couple of hours to see if my labor would start naturally. It didn’t, so I was given the dreaded pitocin drip. Rumor has it that pitocin increases contractions and labor pain significantly.  I’ve only had the one birth, so while I can’t say labor without pitocin is easier, I found one mama online who did have both a pitocin birth and a regular birth and she notes, pitocin is way harsher and puts you into “Hard rockin’ labor.” My labor with pitocin was insanely painful. There were no ebbs and flows like regular contractions. My contractions got hard quick and offered little rest between.

epidural, photo, spinal epidural anesthesia, labor and delivery, giving birthphoto courtesy of George Ruiz

Still, harsh contractions or not, I’d spent NINE months planning a drug-free birth, and I wasn’t giving up because of pitocin. This may have worked, but my labor wasn’t going anywhere and the nurses kept increasing the pitocin drip, which made my contractions worse. After 5 hours the nurses starting offering pain medications. I refused. After 10 hours they gave me the epidural speech. I refused. After 18 hours of excruciating contractions, I was ready to crash and burn, my yet-to-be-seen son’s heartbeat was sketchy and the staff got anxious. They said I needed to sleep or I’d be too tired to push. I couldn’t sleep through pit labor, which they knew, so they added, “It’s a c-section OR an epidural and maybe you can still have a vaginal birth.” That’s why I give in. Well, that and I was so tired and in so much pain, what could I do? All I remember was falling in love with the guy who came to give me the epidural. I specifically remember thinking, “Oh, man, he’s so cute… sigh.” That’s what epidural pain relief in serious situations is like; a bit like love. The epidural worked fast, relieved ALL my pain so I could sleep for two hours and when I woke up, I had enough fleeting energy to push my son into the world, which thanks to the epidural so late in labor, was 100% pain free, but also less efficient. Because I couldn’t feel much, I was a poor pusher, and the doctor who had been called in in case of c-section, ended up having to use forceps. Still, although my birth didn’t go as planned. I’d get the epidural again. I was very relieved I had that option over a c-section, which is more serious in my opinion.

epidural, photo, spinal epidural anesthesiaphoto courtesy of Nadia Santoyo


EMILY
:
PRE-BIRTH (SEPTEMBER 2012)
I’m a more open to epidural having been through a birth without one. I had my daughter at a birthing center with no epidural. When it was time to push, I’d been awake for 31 hours and was exhausted. My contractions basically stopped, and I ended up pushing for 3.5 grueling, miserable hours. For my next daughter, who is due any day now, I’m hoping to get an epidural so I can get some rest, then hopefully have an easier time pushing and be more alert and present at the moment of birth. Maybe because this is my second child, I’m less worried about the potential downside of an epidural (slowing down labor to the point that I need Pitocin and/or a C-section) and more optimistic that it will make this birth a better experience than the first.

POST-BIRTH (OCTOBER 2012):
I can tell you the epidural was AWESOME and I’m so glad I got it! I would do it again in a heartbeat!


LAURA

Based on my experience switching from traditional MD to midwife at the end of my pregnancy when I found out my MD was not supportive of my natural birth plan, and then having a successful home birth but lots of complications after the fact, I would never tell anyone what they *should* do with their birth. Each situation is just so different, and I believe that most moms try to be well-informed and have good instincts about which choices are right for their babies and themselves. With that being said, I wholeheartedly recommend that women check out the options for birthing tubs, as I think this relaxing environment for laboring eliminated any need for me to have an epidural. Doctors in hospitals often will only let you labor in a whirlpool tub until your water breaks, which doesn’t do you much good if your water breaks early in the process. Midwives attending home births and labors at birthing centers tend to allow women to labor there for more extended periods, so if you’re interested in this option it’s worth doing your homework. I’m all for a relaxed, pain-free birth, but based on my experience, epidurals don’t seem to be the only way to achieve this. When I got out of my tub to finish laboring, the pain shot up three-fold, where before that I experienced contractions as intense but not very painful. Epidurals also can cause babies to be born a bit drugged, and this can cause problems with starting breastfeeding or bonding with mom, so like I said, every mom who really does her homework probably knows best what choice to make. But based on my experience, I would plan to make the birthing tub the center of my birth plan next time around, and everything else can be in flux. They’re that great.


CHARLEY

Having experienced a completely natural delivery for the birth of my first child, I wouldn’t plan on having an epidural for my second; however, there are a lot of things I would change about the experience. At no point in my pregnancy did I have a precise birth plan, rather in an exercise of either pragmatism of naivety, I simply maintained a vague notion that I wanted as little by way of medical intervention as possible.

I did have some grounds for this: for completely non-pregnancy related issues, I’ve experienced spinal anesthesia multiple times in my life—and I’m terrified of it. This is not to say that epidurals are a bad thing, but I personally find the administration of them deeply unsettling. Additionally, I was fairly clear that I didn’t want to be incapacitated in that way during, or after childbirth.

I grew up in the UK had always assumed gas and air (this is a UK only thing, US folks) would be the method of pain management I would use while in labor. My mum likes to describe it as similar to having a martini next to the bed that one can simply sip from, which sounds delightfully (and perhaps unrealistically) classy, but does emphasize the notion that one can have control over ones pain management. And unlike a martini, it has little to no unpleasant after-effects.

But that option was unavailable to me in the hospital I was to deliver at and as such opted to have a natural birth. An exceptionally sassy on-call doctor whose technique was one of goading me through delivery and around four residents, plus nursing staff all trying to coach me made the whole process incredibly disorienting. There was one nurse who was a complete saving grace through the whole dizzying experience, who took me seriously when I told (yelled at) everyone, in very clear terms, to shut up, and who helped me to focus and, as far as possible, relax.

What I came away from childbirth realizing was that the physical process is one that my body is perfectly well-equipped to handle—but emotionally it can be extraordinarily unsettling. For my next childbirth my plan is to, well, have a plan; to find a midwife, and perhaps a doula, with whom I can develop a good rapport, and to find a more calming, controlled environment in which—as far as I can have any expectation to—to know what is going to happen and who will be there.

WHAT DO YOU THINK READERS?

Please weigh in in the comments with your opinions, experiences and stories!

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9 Responses to “Should I Get An Epidural During My Labor?”

  1. diane pham says:

    wow, great post. i’d be lying if i were to say that this article didn’t make my jaw drop a bit. i’m already reaching for an epidural!

  2. Yuka says:

    I’m sorry but as a non-mama, this article freaked me out of my wits. Hopefully when the time comes, I will be able to read it in a more relaxed manner. I commend all of you who have done this though!

  3. Jennifer says:

    Wow. It was really interesting reading everyone’s different stories. If I had a second baby, I’d aim (again) for no epidural – but I’d also need to be aiming for zero pit drip because I doubt I could handle another day long pit labor. But obviously best laid plans are just that.

    I think a second time around I would know the signs of actually needing an epidural vs. holding out for an entire day in pain. I think I’d be chill going either way a second time, but would aim for a drug-free birth. Mostly because I did not like how Cedar (my son) – and me were so out of it at the end of the birth and some of that was due to the epidural.

    Great post.

  4. designbymargaret says:

    I’ve had all 3 of my children all natural. The first one I had to push out and it was the longest. The last two I never pushed, they just came out, you can fell them coming out too, your body automatically pushes the baby out. No way in hell I would do drugs of any sort to have a child. I am pregnant again and plan on having it natural again but am looking into a midwife birthing center. I can’t stand U.S. hospitals, all they care about is money, not you. Of course they are going to push the epidural, it’s drug money for them. We are meant to give birth naturally, God designed us this way. With my 3 births, my last one was the most painful, but that’s because my whole placenta/womb came out with the baby inside and my water never broke and the nurse adjusted my bed to where I was flat on my back and she stayed there so that I wouldn’t adjust my bed so I could change positions. They did this because the “God” doctor wasn’t there yet. So yeah, I am not a big hospital, conventional medical person. It is dangerous to use drugs, you can’t feel anything and when you do it all natural you know what’s going on and you can tell when the baby is coming out and the benefit is that, once the baby is out, the pain is instantly gone and it FEELS SO GOOD.

  5. Beth Shea says:

    Very informative and interesting post. I had two wildly different birth experiences – one with an epidural and one without. If I had to do a third- which I don’t plan on! — I would definitely go the route of not having an epidural. It gives you so much more freedom, in my experience.

  6. beckaanne says:

    I had my first baby with 0 medication. I labored at home for 10 hours using an exercise ball and hubby’s hands as counter-pressure. I sat in the shower for awhile, too. When we went to the hospital, there was unexpected construction and traffic and it took over an hour to get to the hospital. When I arrived, I was already 7 cm dilated. The next 20 minutes, when they forced me to lay in bed hooked up to monitors were the most painful. As soon as the time was up, the midwife had me standing and I was ready to push within 10 minutes. After pushing for an hour or so, I ended up needing an episiotomy (I can hear the snip of the scissors still *shudder*) but baby was out with 1 more push. They put him on my chest right away and it’s true what they say – you immediately forget all of the pain and just marvel at the new life in your arms! I definitely plan to have any future children the same way! (Though maybe we will leave for the hospital a touch sooner!)

  7. charley says:

    Fantastic to hear the other perspectives on it — and especially to hear the experiences from those who’ve had epidurals. Certainly underscores just how different everyone’s experiences and expectations of childbirth are.

  8. jill says:

    So, here’s my update, after the birth of my second child: I ended up going the au natural route again with number two, sans epidural, and it was generally a great experience. Of course, just like in labor #1 I screamed and begged and pleaded with my midwive for an epidural, so I definitely thought I wanted one by the time transition hit. However, I went from 4cm dilated to pushing the baby out in a period of about 20 minutes, so just the fact that it was over so fast meant that it was bearable (excruciating, but bearable). I know it would not have been so quick had I got an epidural. Also, by the time I wanted an epidural (transition), there was probably no way I could have gotten one – not only were there no anesthesiologists around, but there were no available rooms in Labor & Delivery at my hospital, I absolutely could not sit still, and the epidural probably would have taken longer than it took me to push the baby out. I credit the intense pain to my desire to just “get this thing out of me” as quickly as possible, hence the speedy birth. And I had no complications and the pain was over as soon as baby popped out in 2 pushes, so it was worth it. Still sort of curious to try this “no pain” thing some day, however. :)

  9. moniqah says:

    Interesting, I had 2 natural births, no epidural, both a different experience, first one took 23 hours with Oxytocin (Pitocin) and artificialy broken waters (shame I agreed because as it was mentioned above, the Pitocin makes the contractions harder and more painful and I just hated the IV pump making a little click noise every time it was injecting a dose of the oxytocin in me as just a few sec afterwards a contraction followed). I always thought to scream would be a case of some “hysteric mums-to-be” but it actually comes out on its own with growling and all sorts of other unidentificated noises that help to support the pain and after all the pushing too. 20 hours after my laber had started I begged for the epidural but they refused being it too late and after I was glad and happy I went drug free (the amount of happines, awakeness and other positive feelings was like a tsunami). My second birth I refused the epidural again and the baby was born in just 4 hours with an intense and almost unbearable pain (he weighted 4.5 kg!) but again I was so happy I managed the second time to go through that without any drugs and touching my spin, having the option to give birth in a position I wanted that if I /by a mistake :) / got pregnant again, I would certainly go without…..

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