Pain-Free Labour: Yay or Nay?

Does pain-free labour come with a price? Leanna Tan wants to push for epidural-free births, but can she deliver? You decide – ultimately.

Blame the movies. Every time we see a mother screaming in agony, red in the face and/or cursing and swearing as a terrified hubby faints at the sight of mere blood, yet another generation of gullible young girls are scared into choosing to stay childless, much to the frustration of their future husbands and mother-in-laws. If only they know how painless – even nearly bloodless - childbirth is today.

Take away the pain

Yes, delivery pain is no longer a given in this day and age. New mother Lydia told us frankly, “If there’s a way for me to be pain-free, why not take it? Medical science advances occur for good reasons.” She’s talking, of course, about the epidural. Why not indeed? Apparently an epidural has several unintended consequences.

Good for You

On the bright side:
• Hey, no pain.
• And it’s a reasonable, rational compromise between
the non-involvement of a C-section and the all-senses experience of an actual sweaty delivery. Mostly, that’s about it.

Bad for You

On the not so bright side:
• An epidural can interfere with the release of oxytocin hormones. As oxytocin helps your uterus contract effectively, women on an epidural might also require additional synthetic oxytocin.
• Oxytocin also affects social bonding, which is why it’s sometimes called the ‘love hormone.’ It is important in helping a mother bond with her newborn. Thus, some researchers believe human mothers who deliver using an epidural are at a disadvantage when it comes to bonding with their newborn.
• Catecholamines hormones help provide energy to give the final push to deliver a baby. An epidural reduces the release of these important hormones. Thus, a mom who has received an epidural may have more difficulty pushing out her baby – increasing the risk of requiring assisted delivery via drugs, vacuum, forceps or Caesarean.
• Epidurals may cause your blood pressure to suddenly drop. This hypotension occurs in about 30 to over 50% of epidural deliveries, and is the most common side effect.
• You may experience shivering, itching, ringing of the ears, backache, soreness where the needle is inserted, nausea, or difficulty urinating afterwards.
• A spinal headache occurs up to 10% of the time and can be mild or debilitating. It might last days and even weeks.
• Thanks to the numbing effect of the epidural, the inability to feel pain may hinder the progress of your labour and may also increase the likelihood of other interventions leading to an emergency c-section.
• Your nipples are a muscle and the drugs from the epidural may affect their ability to become erect and thus your baby’s ability to latch on for suckling – which may account for breastfeeding problems – something you will want to avoid.
• A British study found that women were twice as likely to experience postpartum hemorrhaging when they used an epidural in labor.
• Very rare but serious complications can include convulsions, respiratory paralysis, cardiac arrest, allergic shock to the epidural medications and permanent nerve damage in the area where the catheter was inserted.
• Epidurals don’t always work - uneven, incomplete or even nonexistent pain relief can occur 10% of the time

Bad for Baby

• Foetal distress and abnormal foetal heart rate is a secondary side effect of the epidural and it is most likely due to a drop in your blood pressure, being on your back or both. Foetal distress also increases the likelihood that your baby may require an assisted delivery.
• An epidural may result in your baby feeling drowsy at birth. This obviously interferes with your ability to bond immediately following birth.
• A drugged baby may also have a poor sucking reflex, which may interfere with breastfeeding – you really really want to avoid this.
• Short-term newborn effects can include subtle neurobehavioral effects, such as irritability, inconsolability and a decreased ability to track an object visually or to shut out noise and bright light.

We don’t know what their doctors told them, but it might be in light of the above that epidural-free births are becoming increasingly popular in countries like USA and Australia. For example, many Hollywood celebrities have said no to an epidural. These include Kate Winslet, Jessica Alba and Angelina Jolie. Even local actress Evelyn Tan chose not to have an epidural in all three of her deliveries. But no matter what your choice - we won’t judge you. You and all mothers have our respect instead. Epidural or not, though, remember to push. Push! Push! Push! That’s the spirit!