The trend towards the natural goes beyond our craze for organic food and yoga, the idea that too much technology and drugs is always bad and that the “natural” is “good” and “safe” has infiltrated the world of birth as well. For instance, the last fifteen years has seen a dramatic rise in the use of midwives. Midwife deliveries now make up around 10% of all births in the United States.
Yet, despite its seeming benefits, many women still resist trying for a natural and drug-free birth and epidurals are often vehemently defended as a safe method of pain relief during childbirth. What are the pros and cons of natural birth vs. epidurals?
Let’s Break it Down:
What is an Epidural?
An epidural is one of the most popular pain-relieving methods used in delivery. But what exactly is an epidural? The “epidural space” is a space through which nerves travel in order to convey pain signals to the brain. Anesthesia injected into this area blocks the pain signals. In order to carry out this piece of magic, a very small needle is used to numb the lower spinal area before a catheter is inserted that allows pain-numbing medication to be administered to the area.
Although it sounds scary, many women have in fact claimed that the process is actually less uncomfortable than the IV.
There are some risks to the epidural. Pain signals to the brain for instance is a body’s way of claiming a state of emergency, which can sometimes help to move birth along. It has been argued that the epidural actually slows down labor. But if this is so, it is more directly due to the IV fluids administered before the epidural, which may make the contraction-causing hormones less functional.
Moreover, there is a possibility of a spinal fluid leakage, which can cause a severe headache. Although the fix to this, a “blood patch,” is relatively simple (an injection of your blood into the epidural space), no one can like the sound of “spinal fluid leakage.”
There is also the danger of permanent nerve damage and of a sudden drop in blood pressure (this latter could interrupt an adequate blood flow to your baby). And besides other minor symptoms like nausea, difficulty urinating and backache, many proponents of natural birth just don’t think that it is a good idea to shoot a cocktail of drugs into your system when you’re delivering a baby.
Yet, as Jessi Klein so smartly comments in the New York Times, “no one ever asks a man if he’s having a ‘natural root canal’.” And even though an epidural can’t be guaranteed to be free of side effects, it does benefit women in one crucial way–it is another choice that we have in terms of how we choose to have our baby. In this case, a choice to choose less pain. Much less pain.
All it is Cracked Up to Be?
You would think that pain is one of the most straightforward signals ever that something is to be avoided. Yet, pain also produces endorphins.
Although much less pain is the biggest argument for getting an epidural, proponents of natural childbirth claim that one doesn’t need drugs because the endorphins produced during labor can have a stronger effect than morphine does. This logic is informed by the bigger, overarching idea that birth is something that women naturally know how to do.
Against directed pushing, proponents of natural birth would ask a woman to listen to her own body and follow its rhythm. Given the opportunity, should the mother be healthy and free of chronic health problems, and when a good support network is there to provide love and care, everything that is necessary for a safe birth is supposedly already built into the reactions of the birthing body during natural labor.
This is not to say that there are no risks in natural labor. The mother risks perineal tears, pelvic floor damage, vulvar pain, pelvic organ prolapse and umbilical cord prolapse. Moreover, if labor proves to be too difficult, this could also pose risks and cause significant distress for the baby.
Yet, more and more women are embracing natural childbirth. They want to get away from the idea that one of the most fundamental acts associated with being a woman now can’t be done without fear, drugs and an epidural.
If you’re healthy and if both birth plans are viable options for you, it is up to you to decide what’s right for you. As with all our advice on this site, we do hope that we spur you on to do more research. No matter how much you think you know about birth, there is always more to research. And getting the right facts is what truly empowers you in choosing a birth plan. Birth plans can be a controversial topic. Everyone has a belief as to what birth should be like. But remember that it’s not just about your ideals, it is also about the realities of your own body. You could be leaning more towards an epidural or you might believe in natural birth. Both have great advantages; but, the more you know about each, and about your own health, the more informed your decision will be. We hope we have gotten you started on the journey to collect some important facts for what is likely to be the most meaningful experience of your life.