The following is presented for informational purposes only and should not be taken as medical advice. Always consult with your own doctor for your pregnancy health and care.
From the moment you learn that you’re pregnant, you’ll find that there’s a flurry of decisions to be made, like who to tell about your pregnancy, what your baby’s name will be, if you will be breastfeeding or bottle-feeding, and of course, deciding between a medicated or epidural birth.
While this decision might be overwhelming for some pregnant people, it helps to have all the facts before you decide. So, let’s take a closer look at epidural births vs. medicated birth and what you can expect if an epidural is in your future.
Epidural Birth: What You Need to Know
Epidurals are the most commonly used and widely accepted form of pain relief used during labor and delivery. As a matter of fact, a Stanford study showed that approximately 71% of women opt for epidurals as they labor. An epidural is a relatively quick procedure that provides immense relief through what can otherwise be a painful process for many women. If you choose an epidural, here’s what you need to know.
How do epidurals work?
Epidurals provide pain relief by blocking nerve impulses from the lower spinal region to your brain. While most patients begin to feel relief in about 10 – 20 minutes, it usually takes about 20 – 30 minutes to feel the full effect. With epidural anesthesia, you’ll experience a loss of feeling from the waist down or numbness in your chest, belly, and legs.
How is an epidural administered?
With an epidural birth, doctors inject a local anesthetic into the space around your spine, also known as the epidural space. This procedure involves inserting a needle and a catheter (or a tiny tube) into the lower part of the back. Subsequently, the needle is removed, but the catheter is left in for further delivery of the medication.
When should you get an epidural?
An epidural can be administered at any point during labor; there is no wrong time to receive it. In fact, a 2014 study showed no significant difference in receiving an epidural earlier or later in the delivery process. Moreover, the same study concluded that the best time to administer the epidural is when the laboring mother requests it. You can speak to your doctor or pregnancy care provider about when the ideal time for you might be based on how your labor is progressing.
However, when in doubt, it may be more helpful to request the epidural earlier rather than later, as the procedure does require you to sit still—no small feat when you’re in the middle of contractions! Additionally, an epidural might take some time to set-up, because the nurse has to call the anesthesiologist, who has to come to you, screen you for the procedure, set up their equipment, etc. The ideal timing of your epidural may also depend on if this is your first labor or not, but again, everyone is different and you can’t ever predict exactly how your labor and birth will go, so it’s best to keep an open mind and communicate openly with your doctor about your wishes to get an epidural.
“The only “right” way to give birth is the way that’s right for you, and if that means choosing an epidural to manage your pain, then it’s the best choice for you.”
Epidural vs. Natural Birth
While the debate is often centered around an epidural vs. natural birth, the term “natural birth” may be a misnomer of sorts. Technically speaking, there’s no such thing as a “natural birth,” after all, all births are natural.
Considering that an epidural is simply a tool for pain management, a more apt description for the birthing process that doesn’t use an epidural may be “an unmedicated birth” or even a “drug-free birth.” It’s important to remember that giving birth—no matter what that looks like for you—is an incredible accomplishment and should be celebrated as such. The only “right” way to give birth is the way that’s right for you, and if that means choosing an epidural to manage your pain, then it’s the best choice for you.
Epidural birth risks
There are plenty of benefits to using an epidural. First of all, it’s a safe and effective form of pain relief that can be felt in as little as 15 minutes. As a result, epidurals also tend to reduce the stress laboring mothers feel during the delivery process, and it allows them to enjoy the process and be more present and in the moment. Some pregnant people may even benefit from an epidural that allows them to relax enough to let their baby descend down the birth canal.
But with all that epidurals can do, it’s still a medical procedure, so it is important to note some of the possible risks, which include:
- Low blood pressure for the mother which in turn, can also lower the baby’s heart rate
- Side effects of the medication itself (fever, soreness at the injection site, headaches, nausea, or dizziness)
- Hematoma (bruising), infection, or abscess around the injection site
- The possibility it may not work—placement, skill of the provider, and your own body all play a role into how the epidural will affect you
It’s worth noting here that research into how epidurals affect labor and delivery continues. Some studies have indicated the epidurals are associated with an increased risk of C-sections if the epidural is given before active labor has kicked in while others have indicated there’s no definitive proof that the two are linked. As always, you should talk to your own doctor and be sure you get all the information you need before electing to choose an epidural.
Is an epidural right for you?
The only person that can answer that question is you. Some people are curious about an unmedicated birth and may feel strongly that skipping the epidural is right for them—an unmedicated birth can feel empowering for some people, and may also have some additional benefits, such as giving you the ability to get up and walk around immediately after birth and no medication side effects.
However, an unmedicated birth is not right for everyone. Some pregnant people may decide a more controlled pain management tool is best for them. Additionally, mothers may feel more stress during the birthing process, and that stress (often coupled with fatigue) could prolong the process.
“Epidurals also tend to reduce the stress laboring mothers feel during the delivery process, and it allows them to enjoy the process and be more present and in the moment."
Making the Decision that’s Right for You
Be aware that anyone and everyone will offer their opinion as to whether you should opt for an epidural or “go natural.” No doubt your partner, your mom, your sister, and perhaps even a stranger or two will be more than happy or share their two cents. But as your due date approaches, remember that there is no one size fits all approach to labor and delivery; the birthing plan that worked for your best friend may not necessarily work for you. When you have to choose between an epidural or unmedicated birth, the best (and only) decision is the one that’s right for you.
Be sure to speak with your health care provider well in advance of your due date. Doing so will ensure that you have all of your questions answered, it may also allay your fears, and when the big day arrives, everyone will be clear on your wishes and know what to expect.
As a gentle reminder, it’s important to understand that even the best-laid plans may fail to materialize during the labor and delivery process for any number of reasons. So while you may have a solid birthing plan in place, keep an open mind as you move through labor and remember that you’re allowed to change your mind at any point along the way.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is it bad to get an epidural?
Epidurals are not bad. In fact, they are generally accepted as a safe and effective form of pain management for labor and delivery. Every woman is different, and the choice between an epidural or natural birth is a personal one.
Is an epidural safe for giving birth?
Epidurals are quite safe for giving birth, and complications are pretty rare. The most common side effects are headache, fever, and dizziness. In some cases, epidurals may cause a drop in blood pressure and slow the baby’s heart rate.
How long does an epidural last?
As long as the catheter remains in place and you’re receiving the medication, an epidural will “last” as long as you need it. Anesthesiologists generally stop the medication once the delivery is over, and it can take up to four hours for the numbness to wear off.
Here’s Why Experts Don’t Recommend Cosleeping
Reviewed by Chaunie Brusie, RN, BSN…