How pain relief affects your baby

Can drug and drug-free pain relief affect your baby in labour? Find out if epidurals, pethidine, gas and air, TENS machines and more can impact your baby during the birth...

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Generally, the pain relief options you’ll be offered in labour (like an epidural, spinal block, gas and air or pethidine) are considered safe to use.

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We should stress here that if there was a big risk to any of these things, obviously your midwife and medical team wouldn’t let you have them.

That said, some of them (especially the drug-based options) do have some potential side effects, and these can affect your newborn at birth.

No need to panic – it’s just good to stay informed. So, here’s what you need to know while you’re weighing up pain relief options.

How different kinds of labour pain relief affects your baby…

TENS machine

Loads of women find TENS machines useful to help control contraction pain.

So, you’ll be pleased to know that using one during the last few weeks of your pregnancy (for practice) and during labour doesn’t have any effect on your baby.

TENS machines – everything you need to know

Gas and air (aka Entonox)

Gas and air’s often a popular choice – and can be really effective in relieving pain.

It’s safe for your baby, although the Entonox may leave you feeling a little light-headed and sick. Not ideal!

Gas and air – everything you need to know

Epidural

Epidurals numb your nerves so you can’t feel the pain of your contractions, so in many cases you can’t move around once you’ve had one (unless it’s mobile, naturally). 

That does increase the chances your blood pressure could drop, so just to be on the safe side, you and your baby will be monitored during your birth if you have an epidural. 

Epidurals – everything you need to know

Pethidine

The drug pethidine takes about 20 minutes to have an effect and lasts around 3 – 4 hours. It’s typically given in the early stages of labour, so it has time to wear off before the birth.

That’s because when it’s administered too close to delivery, it can slow your baby’s breathing, making your little one drowsy on arrival. It can take several days to fully clear out of his and your system.

It can also affect your baby’s ability to breastfeed over the first couple of days, too. 

Pethidine – everything you need to know

Meptid

Meptid is similar to pethidine in the way it eases the pain of labour. Like pethidine, it can make you feel sick and dizzy.

Unlike pethidine, it’s not readily available and won’t be on offer at loads of hospitals.

However, as it doesn’t affect your baby’s breathing to the same degree, it can be given closer to delivery. 

Diamorphine

Again, diamorphine is a similar type of drug to pethidine. Therefore, the side effects are potentially similar if it’s given too close to delivery. 

Everything you need to know about diamorphine

Spinal block

Spinal blocks are generally considered safe for your baby, and it’s thought that they don’t ‘cross the placenta’ like some of the other drug pain relief options.

Keep in mind that spinals are most often used in emergency situations, like an emergency C-section delivery. 

Spinal blocks – everything you need to know

Remifentanil

Opioid drug remifentanil’s not a very common form of pain relief – but it is generally considered safe for babies.

It does pass the placenta like diamorphine, meptid and pethidine, but it’s considered safe because it’s much more fast-acting than any of its counterparts.

However, mums who have remifentanil will be monitored closely, as the drug is also a sedative.

What is remifentanil and how does it work?

Water birth

Giving birth in a birthing pool (that’s the correct temp and being monitored by your midwife) is totally safe for your baby.

It’s totally understandable that you might worry about your baby’s breathing in the birth pool, but rest assured: your baby won’t need to breathe underwater, so there’s nothing to worry about.

“What triggers a newly born baby to breathe is stimulation.” says midwife Anne Richley. That’s why it’s so important that the water in your birthing pool is monitored by your midwife and kept at 37°C.

“It’s the stimulation of the air and the change in temperature and of the hands on the baby that make him breathe.

“Once your baby has emerged, you or your midwife can gently guide him to the surface, where he’ll take his first breath.”

Water births – here’s what you should know

Hypnobirthing

Birth hypnotherapy hasn’t much to do with the baby – it’s all to do with the mum, practising relaxation techniques and calmness throughout the birth. 

Birth hypnotherapy – everything you should know

Massage

Massage won’t have any impact on your baby. However, you should make sure whoever’s massaging you knows what they’re doing.

That said, some essential oils used in massage like clary sage are thought to speed up labour, so they should be avoided during pregnancy and during birth, to be on the safe side.

Massages during labour – what you need to know

Reflexology

Reflexology can be an enjoyable treatment before or even during labour, and it won’t affect your baby at all.

However, it’s not for every mum – you should avoid it if you have a history of miscarriage, pre-eclampsia, DVT or any other blood-clotting issue.

Reflexology – can it actually help labour pains?

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