If you’re anything like me, film and TV images were your main education in terms of what childbirth looked like. That’s why I swore off having children for the first 30-odd years of my life. Films like Look Who’s Talking, where Kirstie Alley channels the girl from The Exorcist and screams “Give me the f****ng drugs!!!!” told me childbirth was a horrific experience. I was convince I would need to be drugged-up to the eyeballs to endure it. Fast forward a few decades, I had a wonderful natural childbirth at home. I had no epidural and no pain killers apart from a bit of gas and air. I chose a home birth partly because I wanted to completely avoid any epidural risks and do things naturally.
That’s not to say I coped amazingly well with the pain of childbirth, though! Had I been in a hospital I think I probably would have been begging for drugs just like Kirstie’s character. That’s why I’m so glad I stayed at home where they simply weren’t available.
In this article I’m going to talk about the risks that come with having an epidural. I also explore what you can do instead to have an easier and more positive birth.
Now I’m 27 weeks pregnant with baby number two, I’ll talk about what I’m doing to prepare myself for a 100% natural birth this time.
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What is an epidural?
An epidural is a powerful anaesthetic delivered into the spine, which stops you from feeling pain in a particular part of the body. In the case of childbirth, the epidural stops you from feeling anything in the lower half of your body.
What percentage of births use an epidural?
Based on UK statistics, approximately one-third of births use an epidural.
The likelihood of using an epidural increases when the labour process has been medically induced, with 47% of induced labours resulting in an epidural. This is no doubt because a medical induction forces an unready body into labour. In addition, childbirth pains are significantly increased following an induction.
If you are 37 weeks pregnant or more and want some tips on how to increase your chances of going into labour naturally, check out my blog post on natural induction methods.
Are there risks to an epidural?
Yes, there are a number of epidural risks that you can avoid if you are well-prepared for having a natural childbirth instead. The main risks of having an epidural are:
- A drop in blood pressure – this can lead to a drop in your baby’s heartbeat and increase their levels of distress
- An increased likelihood of intervention via forceps or ventouse – this is because you can’t feel your contractions or the instinctive urge to push, often resulting in a more traumatic entry into the world for your baby
- An increased likelihood of severe tearing – again, because you cannot feel your contractions or the lower half of your body, you’re less able to work with your body to relax enough to avoid major tearing
- Heavy-motor blockade – this is where the legs and lower part of the body in general become so heavy and numb they are almost impossible to move
- Less bodily autonomy during birth – with half of your body numb and vulnerable, women often find they have to have a catheter in order to wee (and epidurals increase urination too!) and will generally have less control over their body. This often (not always) results in more traumatic birth experiences for both mother and baby
- Increased likelihood of breastfeeding complications – if breastfeeding is important to you, check out Evidence Based Birth’s video below on why epidurals have a deeply negative impact
- Longer first and second stages of labour and an increased likelihood of having synthetic oxytocin interventions to speed things up
- Seizures – these are rare but can and do occur both during labour and postpartum
The possible side effects associated with epidurals are:
- Itchy skin
- Loss of bladder control (incontinence)
- Breathing difficulties
- Nerve damage, either temporary or permanent
- Nausea and vomiting
Whether or not you’ll experience any of these side effects I can’t say, since everyone responds to them differently. If you do, however, you will be experiencing them with limited movement due to the numbness of your legs.
Can epidurals cause long term problems?
It’s very rare that epidurals cause long term problems, but it does happen. Due to the location of the needle and catheter (i.e. your spine and the nerves there), long term epidural risks include:
- Permanent brain damage as a result of the injection causing damage to the spinal cord or nerve root
- Chronic pain resulting from damage to spinal cord or nerve root
- Permanent paralysis from a hematoma that occurs when there’s a buildup of blood between the dura mater and the spinal cord.
These outcomes are incredibly rare though, with 1 in 20,000 epidurals (or 0.005%) resulting in permanent damage.
How long does epidural stay in your system?
The effects of an epidural wear off within a couple of hours. After that time you’re likely to feel post-childbirth pain such as any stitches. As I mentioned, women who give birth with an epidural feel very little of what is happening in their body at the time. However you will still feel the consequences of any (more likely) interventions afterwards.
Epidural medication can sometimes cross the placenta and be found in breastmilk, suggesting that the effects on both mother and baby’s systems can last longer than the tangible effect of pain relief.
Is natural birth better than one with an epidural?
Ultimately there is no “best way” to give birth. Apart from a positive and empowered birth experience where you feel fully autonomous and where your human rights. Women can and do have positive birth experiences that include an epidural.
That said, giving birth as nature intended has a number of benefits. These include:
- Faster labour – without the interference of IVs and additional monitoring, your body can do its job and release hormones for a straightforward labour
- Less likelihood of tearing – we all think of pain as a bad thing, but it’s serving a very important purpose. It’s your body’s way of communicating with you. If you can’t feel the pain of labour, you can’t do anything to relax your body enough not to tear
- Shorter pushing time – when connected to your body free from intervention, you can expect a shorter pushing time overall
- Decreased risk of interventions and subsequent birth trauma – the more outsiders interfere with your body, the more the body struggles to do what it is perfectly capable of doing anyway
- Avoiding epidural risks and the side effects of anti-pain medication
- Improved bonding between mother and baby – with no interventions to clear up after, Mama and baby can start getting to know each other straight away
- Increased chance of breastfeeding success – again, with skin-to-skin and mother-baby bonding starting straight away after a natural childbirth, you’ll have a great chance of successfully breastfeeding in the longer term
Can I handle a natural birth?
So maybe you’re looking at all these epidural risks and thinking you’d like to try and opt for a natural birth instead. The question is, can you handle the pain of childbirth and what else can you do to manage it?
Well, first of all I firmly believe that every birthing woman can handle the pain of childbirth. You are stronger than you know and your body is biologically wired to be able to birth.
When I gave birth myself, however, the intensity of it was SO much stronger than I expected. Back in 2018 when I gave birth to my daughter, I fully admit I was underprepared for a natural childbirth. I thought I had a pretty good pain threshold, but this was something else!
I’m proud to have managed to give birth naturally at home ( read about my experience of a home birth HERE). But I did eventually turn to Entonox (gas and air) because I had no other pain management strategy.
Now I am pregnant again with baby number two), I am making sure I’m far more prepared! I’ll be using hypnobirthing techniques this time and highly recommend you consider this too and avoid epidural risks.
You can learn more about what hypnobirthing is in my article here. Or if you’re already keen to get learning, KG Hypnobirthing have a very reasonably priced online course. It has everything you need to learn these powerful relaxation and natural pain management techniques at home.
I hope you found this blog on epidural risks helpful and are now feeling more informed. If you decide on a natural childbirth approach instead, please do get in touch. I’d love to hear all about how you bring your little bundle of joy into the world.