Does an Epidural Harm Your Baby? Doctors Bust 5 Common Myths About Epidural & Labour Pain
9 mins read
Labour and Delivery for Pregnancy
Pregnancy, with all its nausea, cramping and mood swings, is quite a monumental challenge for every woman. While some of us are luckier and don’t experience morning sickness or weird food aversions/cravings, many others live a very turbulent life during those nine months! However, what comes at the end of pregnancy is a time that both thrills and scares us: labour and childbirth.
Labour pain can be excruciating for some women, which is why doctors sometimes recommend an epidural – or pain relief from labour. But how safe is an epidural during labour? Can it adversely affect the mom or her baby? There are several notions about an epidural circulating in our society – let’s find out what’s true and what’s just a myth!
Labour pain is mainly caused by the contractions of the uterine muscles and the pressure on the cervix (opening to the uterus). Your little one is preparing to come out into the world and he/she journeys through your birth canal to arrive. This can cause pain in the abdomen, groin, thighs, back, and even in the sides of the body.
Labour pain varies in intensity across women. While some moms-to-be have a relatively smoother labour where they experience cramping or tightening, many have a very difficult labour that generates painful sensations of pounding, stabbing or burning! The duration of this pain also varies across women. Some women have a shorter labour that lasts a few hours; others can experience pain for even a few days.
Sometimes, this pain is so intense that doctors recommend a pain-relief medicine – which is called an epidural. Many mothers-to-be also ask their doctor/nurse for childbirth with epidural.
What is an Epidural Injection for Pregnancy?
An epidural injection is administered through a catheter and given to your back (outside the spinal cord). It aims to reduce your labour pain and does this by simply numbing your abdomen, pelvis, back and legs, thus reducing your sensation of pain. An epidural does not make the woman go to sleep; it simply reduces her pain. She will be able to push normally when the time arrives, though some experts believe an epidural can make the pushing stage of labour a bit longer.
Doctors usually recommend this when the woman is in active labour, i.e. the cervix has dilated to about 4-5 cms. Administering an epidural at the right time is important. If you are experiencing severe pain and would like an epidural for relief, it is best to discuss this with your doctor as soon as possible. The doctor will judge and assess the right time. If you pass the active labour stage, or are too far into it, it might be too late to give you an epidural.
As we just discussed, an epidural is simply a procedure to provide pain relief from labour. It is given by the doctor and is thoroughly tested to be safe. Why then is it seen so negatively? Here are some of the main reasons why an epidural has developed such a bad reputation:
Seen as a sign of weakness in the mother-to-be – the common notion is that a woman should be able to endure the pain of childbirth. If she cannot, she is somehow inadequate as a mother
Not seen as ‘natural childbirth’ or ‘normal delivery’ – an epidural is often confused with a C-section or seen as leading to a C-section. The pain relief medicine is somehow seen to interfere with the ‘naturalness’ of delivery. Many also believe that there are dire epidural risks for baby including health problems in the future
Inadequate knowledge about the delivery process/ fear of side effects – there are certain situations when an epidural may not be an option but be essential for the mother and/or the baby's safety. However, some of us even go against medical advice in fear that epidural after effects on the baby and mom might be severe
Effects of Epidural on Baby & Mom – Doctor-Validated Facts
So, what is the reality? Are there really any adverse epidural effects on baby or the mother? Does it deserve the negative publicity it has garnered over time or is it a safe option that pregnant women can opt for to deal with labour pain?
We have consolidated for you five very important facts about an epidural that every woman, whether pregnant or not, must know. As women who mother or plan to mother children, we must understand all our options and do whatever it takes to safely bring our baby into the world.
Myth #1: An Epidural Harms Your Baby
This is perhaps the most commonly held belief about an epidural and also why many women hesitate/fear getting one. So, can epidural affect baby? The answer is NO!
While it is true that an epidural is a ‘medicine’, and any medicine taken by a pregnant mother will also reach the baby. However, the amount of this medicine administered is too little to cause any damage to the baby. This has been extensively studied by experts and they have established that an epidural does not affect the baby’s health at all. The only thing that matters is that the epidural must be administered at the right time – something your doctor will ensure.
In fact, a number of studies have also proven that women who received an epidural for pain relief had lesser stress hormones in their body as compared to women who delivered without any pain relief. This means the delivery will be a less stressful experience. Low stress levels for the mother are beneficial for the baby too as he/she gets ready to be born. Watch: Dr Monica Agarwal, Paras Bliss Panchkula, talks about epidural and guides pregnant women on whether or not to opt for it
Myth #2: If You Get an Epidural You’ll Need a C-Section
This is perhaps the myth that contributes the most to the negative reputation of an epidural. A lot of us believe that getting an epidural injection means you will not be able to have a normal delivery and will need to deliver via a caesarean. However, as per a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, women who are given an epidural are NOT at an increased risk for C-section. ||
Please note that there have been some reported cases when an epidural seemingly caused a delay in labour/contractions, leading the doctors to opt for a C-section. This subject is still being tested. But presently, there is no direct or conclusive evidence that a C-section is one of the epidural risks. Ultimately, it becomes important to trust your doctor on this and take his advice on whether or not an epidural is an option you can consider, given your present bodily condition.
“My gynae also suggested if you feel you still cannot deal with it there is a way out. You can opt for an epidural and give birth naturally. Such positivity and full support placed me at ease.”
Myth #3: An Epidural Has Serious Side Effects
Several women tend to believe that since an epidural is a medical procedure, it is bound to have side effects. During pregnancy and pre-delivery, a woman’s body is very sensitive and can react adversely to certain medication. It is true that after you get an epidural, you may experience some numbness in your legs, and be confined to the bed. However, there are NO epidural long term side effects for a majority of women. In a small number of women, an epidural can have some short-term side effects such as nausea, itching, headache and fever. These epidural side effects are not very common and happen only in a small percentage of women undergoing the process.
However, you should stay away from this pain relief method if you have low blood pressure problems or any other bleeding disorders. Also, if you have a skin infection on the lower back or a history of allergy to local anesthetics, an epidural will not be safe for you.
Did You Know: An Epidural is NOT Why You Get Back Pain After Pregnancy
It is commonly believed that one of the main problems after epidural is chronic back pain after delivery. However, some studies have now proved that back pain is essentially due to the weight exerted by the baby on your spinal muscles. Your risk of back pain is not higher if you have had an epidural. Women who have not had an epidural are also susceptible to back pain after delivery.
Myth #4: An Epidural Is Really Painful
An epidural procedure uses a needle (inserted in the back) and this is what scares many of us. However, just like in the case of any other injection, an epidural is performed after numbing the area with local anaesthesia. The mother-to-be is likely to feel pressure and not the pain. Also, the needle is removed and only the cannula remains, so that the woman can keep getting the dosage. The belief that the needle remains inserted throughout and causes constant pain is just a myth!
Myth #5: An Epidural Interferes With Breastfeeding
Finally, doctors disagree that an epidural affects your ability to breastfeed. It is believed by some women that problems in nursing are one of the epidural complications. However, experts disagree and state that getting an epidural is not going to affect whether you can breastfeed your little one.
Dr Uma Vaidyanathan, Senior Consultant Gynaecologist and Obstetrician, Max Hospital, New Delhi, says: “An epidural has absolutely no effect on breastfeeding, and it does not interfere with breastfeeding at all. The whole point of the procedure is to anaesthetise pain during labour, so it has nothing to do with the patient’s breasts.”
Now that the myths about an epidural and labour pain have been debunked, please make an informed decision during your delivery experience, and also encourage your fellow moms to do so. As moms-to-be, we are the most attuned to the needs of our baby. It is important for us to do what we must and know our options when it comes to labour and delivery. When the time arrives, let’s make sure we explore our choices and choose based on knowledge, not out of coercion by family members, societal pressures or widely-held misconceptions.