A generation ago, there wouldn’t even have been discussion about epidurals vs natural birth. Your mother probably didn’t have a lot of choice when it came to labor and delivery. Most likely, you were born in a hospital with your mother heavily drugged and your father out in the waiting room.
Thankfully, times have changed. As long as your pregnancy is not high risk, you have a lot more choices about, and control over, your birth experience. One of the biggest questions about birth you might have is whether you want an epidural or a natural birth. There are definite pros and cons to both. Before we get there, let’s look more closely at them.
What is an Epidural?
An epidural is a blend of medications (usually an anesthesia, for numbing, and a narcotic, for dulling pain) that is administered to laboring women through the spine. An anesthesiologist will insert a catheter (open tube) into your spine and it stays in place through labor so you get a constant drip of the pain-relieving medication.
An epidural doesn’t “knock you out.” You’re conscious and may even still have sensations in your body of labor and birth. If you want an epidural—or even want the option of having an epidural—you’ll have to give birth in a hospital.
A hospital birth is ideal if you know that you want an epidural to manage your contractions and if you are not opposed to interventions. A hospital birth may also be a good option if you are anxious about childbirth and want to be sure that you have access to all that modern technology has to offer.
If you choose a hospital birth, you’ll want to familiarize yourself with all the possible interventions and write a birth plan so your healthcare providers will know which interventions are acceptable and which are not.
If you choose a hospital birth, it doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t have a natural birth. Many women have natural births in hospitals. Some hospitals even work with midwives. However, a natural birth in a hospital setting may be more challenging as you may be encouraged, perhaps even pressured into interventions you may not want.
A natural birth is done without medical interventions or medications for pain. Many women find birthing naturally to be a rewarding and empowering experience. Although you can have a natural birth in a hospital, a birth center or your own home may be more comfortable. You will most likely be attended by a midwife. Certified midwives work with hospitals and OB/GYNs so that if complications arise, the mother can be transported to a hospital.
If you are planning to have your child naturally, you’ll want to learn different ways to manage the pain without medications. In addition to breathing techniques, you may want to consider hypnosis, aromatherapy, and use of a birthing tub.
How Do You Decide?
If you’re not sure what kind of birth you’d like to have, it will help to read about different birth options and to listen to other women’s birth stories.
You may also get some clarity by answering the following questions about the kind of birth experience you would like to have:
- Do you want to have your baby in a hospital, a birth center, or at home?
- Do you want a midwife or an OB/GYN?
- Who (if anyone) besides your healthcare provider and your partner do you want at the birth?
- How do you feel about interventions such as internal fetal monitoring and Pitocin?
- Do you want to move around during labor?
- Do you want to be in a hot tub or jacuzzi tub during labor?
- How do you feel about forceps or a vacuum extractor to pull baby out?
Pros of an Epidural
The benefits of having an epidural during birth are:
- pain relief
- allows you rest, sleep and talk
Cons of an Epidural
The down sides to having an epidural are:
- requires wearing external fetal monitor constantly
- requires that you have an IV and fairly constant blood pressure monitoring
- limits your movement during labor
- may require you to have a catheter to empty your bladder
- may interfere with your ability to push, requiring forceps or vacuum extractor to pull out baby
- pain and soreness in your back after birth
- shaking and chills as drugs wears off
- swelling in your extremities after drug wears off
- potential side effects of the epidural may bother you during labor, including itching, headache and nausea
Pros of Natural Birth
The benefits of having a natural birth are:
- birth usually progresses faster than birth with epidural
- lower risk of forceps or vacuum extractor
- able to move and change positions during labor
- no drug side effects
- the pain is probably not as bad as you imagine
- most women report feeling wonderful after giving birth naturally
Cons of Natural Birth
On the other hand, the disadvantages to a natural birth are:
- scary to imagine the pain you’ll feel
- worry and anxiety about pain
- not able to talk or chat—you’ll be concentrating on pain management
- the pain might be worse than you imagined
Whichever kind of birth you choose, make sure it’s the right one for you! Don’t let other people pressure you into a birth that you don’t want or are scared of.
Once you’ve decided whether an epidural vs natural birth is right for you, it’s important to learn all you can about the pros and cons of your choice and what you can expect during labor and birth. Ask your healthcare provider lots of questions and be sure to take a birth class.