Q: What types of pain medications can I have during labor?
A: Let's face it, labor hurts -- a lot. So it's not surprising that you want to know about your options for relief. The two main groups of drugs for labor are epidurals and IV narcotics, and there are pros and cons to using each. While it's good to talk to your doctor about the type of medication you'd prefer before going into labor, once you get to the hospital and your doctor sees how labor's progressing, she'll be better able to advise the best pain management options for you.
Epidurals are the most popular form of pain management (about 60 percent of women opt to get them) and involve receiving a local anesthetic through a catheter in your spine. When placed properly, epidurals eliminate most of the acute pain of childbirth (though you'll still feel pressure from contractions). Because epidurals can slow down your labor (especially the pushing stage, when the numbness can make it harder to feel how to best push your baby out), the best time to get an epidural is when you're between 4 and 6 centimeters dilated and in active labor. As labor progresses, the amount of anesthesia you're receiving may be scaled back so you can push more effectively.
Intravenous (IV) narcotics are administered through an IV in your arm. The most commonly used drugs are Demerol and Stadol, which work in two ways: They take the edge off your contractions and they make you sleepy enough that you're not as aware of your pain. The downside to using IV narcotics is that your baby can feel their effects too, and in some cases, his heart rate may drop in response to these medications. You won't be offered IV narcotics when it's getting close to delivery, since high levels of these drugs in your baby's system at the time of his birth can make it harder for him to breathe on his own.