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Is taking epidural during labour bad for the mother and child?

Published on:14 January 2021, 18:15pm IST
Epidurals have had a bad rap for a long time, but the question is: are they really bad for the baby? Or are the scales conventionally in favour of natural birth? Let’s find out.
Geetika Sachdev
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Every medical intervention has its pros and cons. Image courtesy: Shutterstock

Well ladies, let’s face it: childbirth is hard. And although the world has an opinion on everything you do, you must only do what you think is right! Oh no, we aren’t here to give you a sermon. Instead, we are going to speak about a very contentious subject today, and that is if you should go for epidural during delivery. 

Much has been said about this, but at the end of the day, what really matters is what the mother thinks. For those who are unaware, a spinal tap or epidural is used to block nerve signals from the lower part of your spine. It is administered through a catheter and a large needle is inserted into the epidural area that surrounds the spinal cord. What’s important to note is that the catheter stays there during labour and delivery. Before taking this step, it is important to discuss with your doctor, if this is right for you or not. 

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We spoke about the specifics of an epidural, but now it’s time to bring up the elephant in the room. Women have for generations glorified natural birth, and how it is the best thing to go for. Some even say that going for an epidural harms the baby, but is it really true? Or is it another lesson in morality? Let’s find out. 

Are natural births better?

As per research, more than 70% of women in labour go for an epidural, but that doesn’t mean it’s right or wrong. It’s a personal choice, and like any other medical procedures, it has its own advantages and disadvantages. To begin with, have an open mind and decide how you feel, close to the time of your delivery. It is you who has to make a call, and not your family members. Trust us, it’s easy to get bogged down by all the advice, but do what you think is right, in order to make it a positive experience.

epidural
Take care of your emotional health too. Image courtesy: Shutterstock

There are several things that can impact the level of pain during childbirth. These include your physical and emotional health, tolerance to pain, size of the pelvis, size of the baby, the position of the baby, as well as the intensity of contractions. That’s exactly why you must discuss the method you want to opt for with your doctor, so that he can guide you based on your needs. 

But remember, it is better to have a fallback plan, just in case one doesn’t work out. That way you will be better prepared, and won’t panic at the time of delivery. 

The positive effects of epidurals

As mentioned above, epidurals are effective when it comes to pain relief for mothers during delivery and childbirth. It works as quickly as 10-20 minutes. With the pain going down, mothers can take an active part in the birthing experience. 

There’s also research to show that it helps to reduce postpartum depression in women. However, more research needs to be done in this regard. In fact, some studies also go on to show that pain management is key to avoiding PSD, and that’s probably why epidurals help. 

Last but not the least, they work well for longer procedures such as a c-section delivery, because the body waist down is numbed, helping you deal with the pain in a better manner.

But there are certain side-effects to keep in mind…

Research suggests that epidurals do cause negative impact on hormones of labour and birth. As per the World Health Organisation, “epidural analgesia is one of the most striking examples of the medicalization of normal birth, transforming a physiological event into a medical procedure.”

Oxytocin is a hormone that helps a woman’s uterus to contract in labour, but when epidurals are administered, the levels of this hormone go down. Moreover, epidurals also inhibit the peak of maternal oxytocin that occurs at birth, and is the highest observed during a mother’s lifetime. Another important hormone, prostaglandin F2 alpha, is also reduced in women using an epidural

epidural
Strong pelvic muscles equal good reproductive health. Image courtesy: Shutterstock

Epidurals also paralyse a woman’s pelvic floors muscles, which are important during delivery. Research suggests that in case of an epidural, the baby is four times more likely to be persistently posterior or face up in the final stages of labour. 

What’s more, epidurals can cause a change in blood pressure and temperature of the mother, which can then affect the baby. In some cases, it can directly cause changes in the fetal heart rate that shows that the unborn baby is lacking in blood and oxygen. This generally happens 30 minutes after the epidural is administered.

Plus every drug that the mother is given will be passed on to the baby, who is then more exposed to its toxic effects. The maximum effects are likely to be at birth and a few hours post delivery. 

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There is also research to show that epidurals cause neurobehavioural effects in children. According to a study, epidural mothers found their babies “less adaptable, more intense, and more bothersome in their behaviour.”

Taking epidurals could also cause some problems in breastfeeding the child. As per a study, the baby’s breastfeeding abilities, as measured by the Infant Breastfeeding Assessment Tool (IBFAT), were highest among unmedicated babies, lower for babies exposed to epidurals or IV opiates, and lowest for babies exposed to both. 

The last word

Just like other medical interventions, epidurals have their pros and cons. It’s important to take your time and then make an educated decision. 

Geetika Sachdev Geetika Sachdev

An independent writer and journalist, Geetika loves sharp and fresh humour, just like her coffee! If not writing, you'll find her cafe-hopping and raiding the best book stores in town.