Epidural or Drug-Free Birth?

Should you get an epidural or go drug free? To help you decide, read the story of two very different deliveries.

Going Au Naturel

pregnant woman in hospital gown

Blend Images/Veer

Story of Jennifer L.W. Fink

Early in their pregnancy, my brother and sister-in-law announced their birth plan. My sister-in-law summed it up for me with one word: "Drugs!" My brother shrugged. "She has a low pain tolerance," he said.

Before she experienced a single contraction, my brother's wife decided to use pain medication during labor, a choice made by thousands of American couples each day. And why not? With childbirth widely acknowledged as one of the most intensely painful experiences known to humankind, why would someone choose to give birth without drugs? How about because it's more comfortable! As counterintuitive as it sounds, my drug-free third labor was far more comfortable -- and empowering -- than my epidural-assisted first labor, or my narcotics-assisted second birth.

Natural childbirth is definitely not common in our society. C-sections, inductions, and epidurals are closer to the norm today, and many women consider any labor that ends in a vaginal delivery "natural childbirth." The idea of a woman laboring undisturbed, without drugs, seems almost quaint -- if not downright backward -- to a lot of women.

My first birth was fairly typical. I spent most of my labor just wanting it to be over. It hurt. I wanted the pain to stop. I certainly didn't want it to get worse. When my doctor suggested breaking my water 12 hours into my labor to "get things going," I agreed. Anything to speed it up!

Learning a Lesson

Although I'm a registered nurse, I didn't realize then how much one intervention would affect the course of my entire labor. But I knew that breaking my water would make my contractions more intense, so I insisted on an epidural. The cascade of interventions had begun. Soon I had an external fetal monitor around my middle, an epidural in my back, an IV in my left arm, and a blood pressure cuff around my right arm. When the doctor determined that a full bladder was blocking the baby's descent, they inserted a catheter. And when my baby's heart rate dropped while I was pushing, they strapped an oxygen mask to my face and used forceps to pull my son into the world. My back ached for days at the epidural insertion site, my hand was sore from the IV, and I couldn't sit normally for weeks. I didn't feel like myself for almost a month.

Later, I couldn't help but wonder, What if I'd never let the doctor break my water or had the epidural? I started to read books such as The Birth Book by Dr. Sears, and Natural Childbirth the Bradley Way. What I learned made sense to me: When you work with your body instead of fighting it, labor is marvelously efficient. I learned that each intervention has side effects, often leading to more interventions, a fact supported by my own experience.

Labor & Delivery: Epidurals
Labor & Delivery: Epidurals

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