Not long before I gave birth to my first child, my sister-in-law pointedly told me I should have an epidural during labor. No “see how you feel,” “gauge your pain” or “consider it”—hers was a more piercing comment, implying that I was crazy if I chose to birth my baby any other way.
Truthfully, I shouldn’t have been surprised, or even irritated, as I was at the time, by her unsolicited advice. The National Center for Health Statistics reported a study that showed 61 percent of women opting for epidural or spinal anesthesia during labor. Caucasian women, like my sister-in-law and me, were more likely than any other group to choose an epidural.
No doubt labor is painful. There’s no way around that—at least not entirely. Even women who choose to have an epidural experience pain at some point during their labor. But many women opt for epidural anesthesia because they think it’s what they are expected to do nowadays. Some of my prenatal yoga students have said they’d choose an epidural because it makes labor easier.
Some of these comments clearly stem from fear—of pain, of the birth process, of motherhood in general. I worry, though, that many pregnant mothers are under-informed and opt for epidural anesthesia without fully understanding the potential disadvantages of their choice.
So what are the pros and cons of epidural anesthesia during labor?
Undeniably, an epidural relieves a lot of the pain that comes with childbirth. For many women, especially those who are fearful of the birthing process, this is appealing. Epidural anesthesia also allows the mother to rest for a while during labor so that she can be awake and active during the birth.
Not feeling the pain of each contraction can cause a mother to dissociate herself from the labor, focusing less on what is happening inside her body. For some women, this is a relief; for others, it’s a disappointment.
Many physical risks are associated with the use of epidural anesthesia, and it is important to consider these before making a final decision.