The majority of American women choose to have an epidural during labor and birth. Like most interventions, an epidural can be an important tool when used judiciously. Occasionally, it can help prevent other complications. However, an epidural has its own risks, and women should be aware of these risks to themselves and their babies well before labor begins. These risks include:
- Alteration of labor hormones and the entire course of a natural labor, often necessitating other interventions, like Pitocin to speed labor up, which have their own risks
- Sudden drop in blood pressure
- A need for catheterization
- Nausea and vomiting
- Breathing difficulties
- Increased risk of postpartum hemorrhage
- Severe headache
- Rare, life-threatening complications for the mother
- Changes in the baby’s heart rate, sometimes making a c-section necessary
- Maternal fever, which can cause low Apgar scores in the baby, poor muscle tone, and in increased need for resuscitation, as well as prolonged hospital stays.
There are no long-term studies of the neurological effects of epidurals on infants. Links have been found between epidurals and neurological issues and breastfeeding problems. This article by Sarah J. Buckley has a thorough discussion of the risks of epidurals, complete with citations.
Some women choose to get an epidural because of fear of labor pain. This is a normal response in our culture, which does not place value on experiencing labor. Hospitals are often set up in a way that makes labor uncomfortable for women who are not medicated. But there are many things you can do to have a comfortable, safe birth without medication:
- Take a comprehensive childbirth class
- Hire a doula! Doulas have proven statistical benefits.
- Choose your birth attendant very carefully. Your birth attendant should be comfortable attending natural births, and 100% supportive of natural birth.
- Avoid induction without medical cause, which makes labor more painful and increases the risk to your baby.
- Consider having a homebirth, which has been proven to be just as safe as hospital birth, with lower intervention rates and higher maternal satisfaction.