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Holding Off On the Epidural? Read This First.



“My husband wants me to try to deliver the baby without an epidural,” my pregnant friend tells me over tea one afternoon.

She’s six months along with her first child. Her husband works in healthcare and, like many of us, has heard tales of epidurals causing long, snail-paced labours.

“Well then you tell him to push it out then,” I reply, laughing. My own first child was born six months prior. I brought her into the world quickly and easily, fully anesthetized.

But, we like to please our husbands, and this particular husband has my friend thinking.

“I think I can do it,” she says. “I want to. I’m competitive,” she tells me. “If other women can do it, why can’t I?’”

My father was an anesthetist.

I can’t relate to the desire of wanting to feel your labour. I also do not equate feeling labour pain with experiencing the birth of your child. The daughter of an anesthetist, I probably heard the word “epidural” earlier in life than most, around the same time I learned how babies arrive.

My dad left the house more times than I remember  — in the middle of the night, or the middle of dinner — “because a lady in labour needs an epidural.” I never heard about natural births, because my father never worked on them.

It was not until I emerged into adulthood and started talking to grown women about labour that I discovered epidurals are fraught with mystery, myth, shame and fear.

“Of course you can do a natural birth,” I say to my friend. “You’re built for it. You could also break your arm, have it set, and completely heal without pain medication.”

But why would you?

Top myths and lies about epidural labours

I admire my friend’s ambition and desire to challenge herself, and 100% respect her decision. But whenever I get into this topic with my girlfriends, more frequently now that I’ve realized how misinformed we are about epidurals, I make a point of supporting the concept.

“We’d never shame someone for anesthetizing a broken bone or an operation,” I say. “So why do we put pressure on ourselves to experience a pain during birth?”

Science has shown it to be a virtually risk-free option as far as your and your baby’s health are concerned. (But talk to your own doctor about that).

Yet, natural birth is still revered as a rite of passage into motherhood. I’ve had friends tell me they carried secret shame for delivering by C-section or induced labour, which seems so uselessly negative to me. Can’t we celebrate the miracle of modern obstetrics — of the mother and baby lives it has saved — rather than worry about shame?

A final, more compelling reason I’ve heard to avoid epidural is speed.

“Epidurals slow down your labour,” they say. I’ve heard that so many times. I asked Dr. Dad during my pregnancy what he thought about this one.

It’s a common misconception based on outdated research, he said.

“From what I’ve seen,” he said “a woman might start off thinking that she doesn’t want an epidural. She plans to deliver naturally. Then, as labour progresses she reaches a point where she thinks the pain is too much, that she can’t handle it, and she changes her mind.

“In some of those cases the body has reached a sort of panic state,” he said. “The woman is very afraid of the pain, conflicted about her choice and maybe getting overwhelmed. If it’s not too late to administer the epidural at that point, and you do, sometimes what you see is the whole body sort of shut down for a while. Everything stops and then yes, the labour really drags on.”

The panic and the doubt interfere, he suggested. Not the drugs.

“If you get the epidural at the start of labour,” he advised me, “I really don’t think you’ll have any trouble.”

I took my dad’s advice.

My contractions had started around 7 p.m. on a Sunday night. The hospital admitted me at 3:30 a.m. Monday.

My cervix had dilated to 7 cm at that point, and my body felt like it was being ripped in half by contractions. I focused on breathing, following instructions, and trying to stay polite.

I had my epidural within roughly an hour of arriving, and then lay back and let the reality of the event wash over me.

All I felt was excitement at the pending arrival of my daughter. At 5:30 a.m.my nurse advised me to sleep for two hours before I could start pushing. It honestly felt like waiting for Christmas morning.

Do the work, don’t feel the pain.

At 7:15 I was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, practically hurrying my nurse back into the room. Morning sun crept in through a high window. My mom (my birth partner) nurse Jan set up camp beside me, and saw me through the incredible final stretch of labour.

Jan coached me through the awkwardness of trying to “push” when you cant feel your lower half.

A monitor hooked up to my belly indicated when a contraction began.

“Put your chin to your chest,” Jan told me when the monitor beeped. “Lean forward, push down on the hand rails, and think about pushing.”

“Am I doing it?” I had to ask so many times at first. I felt so uncertain. She guided me with a “Yes,” or “Push down with your hands,” “Now you’ve got it.” After a few goes, I had it down. Jan responded with an affirmative “Yes, good girl,” every time.

About 10 minutes in to active labour my body, though numb from the waist down, completely took over. I didn’t need the monitor to tell me when a contraction was coming. My shoulders and back would start to shake and quiver. Sweat pricked my forehead and my heart was pumping.

While I couldn’t feel it, my body was working hard. Each push took focus and mental effort, engagement with Jan’s coaching.

In between contractions, the mood was happy and calm.

I was in active labour (ie the pushing part after your cervix fully dialates to 10 cm) for about 40 minutes. My daughter was born at 8 a.m, healthy happy and beautiful.

The important part of this story that I try to convey to my girlfriends is that a numb labour doesn’t mean a passive labour. Getting an epidural doesn’t mean you’re going to sit like a lump until a baby trickles out. You don’t miss a minute of the action — rather, you get to enjoy it.

Knowing both sides of the story

When my second child arrived, there was no time for an epidural. Against my dearest wishes I did get to experience the intensity of birth without pain management. Due to the general haste and confusion of the delivery, there was a lot more fear and panic coursing through my veins and I don’t think I can offer a truly objective retelling of the experience.

I do recall the feeling of my water breaking the moments before she arrived, and if I force myself I remember what it felt like to push through the contractions. I remember the relief I felt to smell my husband’s shirt as I pressed my face into his chest and wailed. I remember the amazing feeling of my baby moving out of me, the tedium and discomfort of the sticthes and the afterbirth.

But the moment they put her on my chest was exactly the same, for the first baby and the second. Pure bliss, and pride.

Each woman will make her own decision for her own reasons, and whatever she chooses is right. (Even if she changes her mind part way through!)

My hope for you, if you’ve read this whole note, is that more light has been shed on the labour experience and options that you have. Most importantly, whatever your choice, I hope that you bring home your healthy little baby. That’s the most important part of the ‘birth plan.’

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