Epidural vs. Natural Childbirth: Which is Right for You?

Family Matters on 11.04.11
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Photo: sean_mcgee/Creative Commons

Whether or not to have an epidural during childbirth has always been something of a no-brainer for me. A tiny paper cut gives me the heebie-jeebies, so suffering through an indeterminate amount of contractions and other childbirth-related pains seems like a really bad idea. I'm about to have another kid in a few short months, which got me thinking - why would anyone forego the beauty of the epidural? There must be good reasons since so many mothers choose to go au natural, so I decided to do a little bit of digging to find out the perks and drawbacks of both natural and drug-assisted childbirth.

Natural Childbirth

Pros:

A lack of drugs helps the mother feel exactly what's going on and when to push. Obviously, this is difficult to know if you're numb from the waist down.

Feeling satisfied for getting the job done without chemical assistance.

Avoiding drugs, which some people feel could be harmful to the baby or mother.

Reduced likelihood that you'll need oxytocin to facilitate labor, forceps delivery, vacuum extraction or bladder catheterization.

Most patients can eat, drink and walk around during natural labor, unlike women with epidurals.

Cons:

Pain. Probably lots of it, even if you use pain reduction techniques, like breathing exercises.

Epidural-assisted Childbirth

Pros:

Significant pain reduction. Some women still feel some labor pains, but they're generally drastically reduced. I wanted to name my baby after my anesthesiologist, I felt so much better.

The amount of medication can be adjusted throughout labor. So, if you're feeling more than you would like to, or not enough, tweaks can be made.

Lack of pain means that you can sleep, watch TV or chat on the phone as much as you want during the often lengthy labor process.

Many women have more energy come pushin' time because they haven't been dealing with off-the-charts contractions for 23 hours.

Women that end up requiring a C-section are already anesthetized for the procedure, saving time and possibly reducing complications.

Cons:

The procedure itself can be daunting, since the anesthesiologist has to insert a thin tube into the space outside your spine. Some women report pain and pressure, while others feel nary a thing (for the record, I felt very little both times. My husband, on the other hand, nearly passed out from watching).

Epidurals can slow down contractions, requiring oxytocin to speed things back up again.

Small amounts of the medication can reach your baby. Experts insist that it's not enough to even cause remote harm, but that tiny risk is too great for some mothers.

It's difficult to know when to push or whether you're even doing it right.

Women with epidurals have to be watched more closely. Fetal monitoring, blood pressure checks are a couple of the inconveniences.

Since you can't eat, you'll have to have an IV.

Epidurals sometimes lengthen the pushing portion of labor.

Some people claim that epidurals make it more difficult for newborns to breastfeed effectively.

Narcotics can cause nausea or itchiness.

Epidurals can cause the mother to have low blood pressure, which in turn lowers the baby's heart rate. This can be controlled, however.

Occasionally, epidurals don't work. That's right - I've known women that had the epidural put in unsuccessfully, with pain remaining on one or both sides of their bodies. Ouch!

 

These factoids are definitely food for thought, but having had two successful epidurals I think I'll stick with what I know best the third time around.

What do you think about natural versus drug-assisted birth? Would you ever consider going natural, or is the prospect too daunting?

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