Pain relief debate – disagree with epidurals RD

Our expert and mums explain why they feel epidurals should be avoided in labour

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‘Epidurals can carry risks to both mother and baby,’ argues Sheila Kitzinger, a campaigner for women to have the information they need to make choices about labour and childbirth. She is the author of over 20 books, including The New Pregnancy and Childbirth, Rediscovering Birth and, most recently, Birth Crisis.

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“A positive birth experience is not about simply eradicating pain, but ensuring that a woman is supported, respected and empowered. With help to go with the pain in a positive way, a natural birth can be intense, passionate and ecstatic. As an anaesthetist, Dr Grant only sees women who are struggling with birth pain, not those who are swinging over the waves of contractions, exalting in their body’s power and vitality.

I’m delighted that Dr Grant can offer safe epidurals without any negative side effects, and look forward to seeing his statistics, but most anaesthetists cannot. Research reveals that epidurals carry risks for both mother and baby. They lead to the need for further drugs to stimulate contractions and a longer second stage of labour, and increase the likelihood of an instrumental delivery – ventouse or forceps – and an episiotomy [a surgical cut in the area between the vagina and the anus to help the baby out].

All strong drugs can adversely affect the progress of labour. An epidural can cause an alarming drop in blood pressure and fever during labour that entails investigation of mum and baby for sepsis [an infection of the blood] after the birth. What’s more, epidurals do not always work (they do not effectively block pain) or are one-sided, and when the needle goes into the spinal cavity by mistake a woman has a terrible headache afterwards.

Drugs for pain relief should never be used as a substitute for supportive care. A pain-free labour is not always a happy labour: for example, if a woman feels she has been sucked into the hospital machine, and that her labour is being processed as if she were a product on a factory assembly line, she is likely to suffer post-traumatic stress afterwards.

I believe that every woman should have the opportunity to be in an environment where she has the opportunity to handle the pain of normal birth – labour that starts spontaneously and is not revved up with drugs – as a side effect of a creative and exultant experience.”

Mums’ stories:

Emma Pickett, 35, lives with husband John and their two children, Sam, three, and Josie, four months:

“An epidural would have meant I wouldn’t have been able to have my dream birth last November. I had my first son in hospital and I felt like I’d compromised, but Josie was born at home after about an hour of active labour.

It was just perfect. The midwives arrived only 10 minutes before she was born – a testament to how comfortable I was. It may sound a bit too good to be true, but that’s exactly how it felt at the time! I had a huge grin on my face, sitting on my sofa a few minutes after the birth. An epidural would have meant hospital and a birth nothing remotely like that brilliant experience.”

Sophie Brown, 25, lives with partner Jonathan and is mum to Joshua, nine, and Emily Louise, two:

‘My first labour was long and difficult, so I had an epidural – a big mistake. It didn’t work properly and I could still feel everything. I was throwing up afterwards and, because I had so many drugs, I can barely remember the birth. I believe epidurals should only be used in an emergency. Women who call for an epidural as soon as they feel a twinge are mad. I don’t think that hospitals should allow them unless there is a very good reason. My second birth, with Emily Louise, was much more natural, and I coped with just gas and air for pain relief. I can remember it so well and it was a great experience – my body was doing what it was made for.

I think that women have lost faith in their own bodies, which is a very sad thing. If you go with the pain it’s a hell of a lot easier!”

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Now read the other side of the argument with anaesthesiologist Dr Gilbert Grant…

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