What it Really Feels Like to Give Birth with an Epidural
Always consult a medical professional when making medical decisions.
In the early winter of 2013, I awoke in the middle of the night to searing pain. After an evening of Googling, "How to tell if you're in labor," I had my answer: Your entire body feels like it's on fire with the heat of a thousand swords. That's how you tell that you're in labor.
I glared at my husband sleeping sprawled across our brand new bed and contemplated what to tell him. I decided not to. The thing about being in labor is that oftentimes it leads to delivery, which leads to a baby, which can almost always lead to parenthood, and eff that. I had spent the entire hour before falling asleep trying to beat my own records on Candy Crush. I had probably downed an entire jar of pickles (the stereotypes are true), followed by more than the doctor's recommended dose of antacids, and lazily lounged with my Calico on our chintzy Urban Outfitters futon watching The Devil Wears Prada twice because I didn't feel like getting up to change the channel.
Does that sound like a mother to you? Does that sound like someone who can keep another human alive?
It turns out I have kind of a low threshold for pain though because an hour after waking up in labor I shook my husband, declared our life as we knew it was over, and dragged myself up the stairs, out to the blizzard that began while we slept, and braced myself the entire eight minute car ride to the hospital daring my husband or his mother to speak.
"You're like, maybe at a four," a the triage nurse mumbled.
"WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?!" I urged her.
"You're technically in labor, I'll see if they'll admit you this early,"
"SEE?! SEE?!! I AM DYING. THIS IS NOT NORMAL."
In all of my Googling about labor and delivery I never once came across the statement, "Labor feels distinctly like the apocalypse is taking place from within your fragile body."
They did admit me and I don't know how much time passed before someone came in and gently asked me if I'd like an epidural. The thought had actually not crossed my mind because no thoughts were crossing my mind. In hindsight I think I stared at a blank wall for about four hours after arriving in my room. I nodded. Yes, that would be amazing, I said.
And it was.
What Is an Epidural, and Where Do They Put It?
I'm a college student and a writer, definitely not a doctor so this is a good question to ask your OB at your next visit, but I can give you a quick rundown of what I've been able to figure out in my own Google research.
An epidural is placed into the epidural region of your back with a needle. Instead of making your entire body numb like traditional anesthesia, the medication used in your epidural placement is considered a local pain management option. It makes the place where your pain is centered (your abdomen) numb to the pain. It does this by telling your brain and nerves to basically just ignore that area.
So, How Did I Decide to Get the Epidural?
Like I said before, I didn't choose to get an epidural. I actually was blanking out as I reached transition (pretty normal, I know now, since I've had another child since then) when a nurse conveniently popped in to tell me the anesthesiologist was making his rounds and I could get one if I wanted. Considering I was in transition there was no question whether I wanted relief so that's how I ended up with the epidural (ugh, don't get an epi during transition - more on that soon).
Why Should You Choose to Get an Epidural?
There's a lot of legit reasons to choose to have an epidural. Here's a handful:
- You want to sleep before pushing. I don't know about all moms but that thing made me super sleepy and I wanted to fall asleep but because I received it so late in the labor-game I was pushing just 45 minutes later and falling asleep between contractions which was spectacularly confusing. If you choose to have one early on in your labor you'll likely get a couple of hours of solid rest before you're ready to push.
- You're afraid of the pain of labor and delivery. Totally valid fear. Labor and delivery without medication does hurt really bad, I won't sugar coat that.
- You can do what you want. You're a grown ass woman giving birth to another human life. If you want the epidural you don't need to come up with a reason why.
When Can or Should You Get an Epidural?
So, it turns out that I actually have a high threshold for pain too. Because I found out after my delivery that the nurses had failed to check my dilation directly before I received the epidural. I was at an 8. For reference, 10 is pushing, so I was likely in transition when they placed the epidural. Not a great time to get an epidural and if I could do it over again I would have taken the epidural as soon as I had arrived, at a 4. This is because the epidural was super strong while I was trying to push and I couldn't feel anything. Had I received it earlier on in labor my body would have adjusted and the meds would have worn off enough to aid me in pushing instead of hindering me.
So, if I were you and you want an epidural, have them be diligent about checking your dilation and place it as early as you feel ready. The old standards for waiting to get an epidural were thrown out the window in 2014 and the new standard is that women should get one whenever they're comfortable, even if it's early on in the labor.
How Bad Does It Hurt When the Epidural Is Placed?
Everyone has different experiences when it comes to labor and child birth but the epidural didn't hurt for me at all. First off, they give you a local anesthetic via a shot. This doesn't hurt either. After that, you're numb in the place where they put the epidural. So, this was a totally uneventful event for me. I vaguely remember the rush of medication coming through the epidural and a slight, tingling/burning sensation which was nothing in comparison to the contractions, so whatevsies.
Likewise, it didn't hurt to have it removed and it didn't hurt for me in that place later on save for maybe a mild bruised feeling which wore off after a few days and didn't affect me beyond the occasional twinge when lying back in bed.
So, all in all, the actual epidural placement was no big thang.
Can the Epidural Be Turned Up, Down, or Off?
Good question. I think it really depends on your hospital, your nurses, your doctor, and protocol. I asked many times for them to turn my epidural down once I'd had it because I felt so floaty and detached from what was happening but they kept telling me that they "try not to do that." I don't know what that meant and I do trust that their reasons were much more informed than mine. I do know that many hospitals turn the epidural down or completely off while you're pushing. This probably sounds scary but being able to feel your contractions and feel your baby moving through the birth canal is so helpful for productive pushing.
How Does an Epidural Feel? Does it Make You Feel High?
The effects of an epidural are admittedly strange! And that's not bad. But they're weird and I'll say with certainty that it's different for each woman.
For me, personally, I felt rather fuzzy and cloudy and even a little giddy, maybe jumpy. I've also never been great with anesthetic drugs in that a little go a loooooooong way for me and I always say something humiliating and totally unfiltered before the experience is over.
So yes, for me, the epidural made me feel dull, loopy and high especially in comparison to my unmedicated birth in which I felt and experienced everything in stereo.
Does It Still Hurt to Give Birth Even When You Have an Epidural?
In my experience, not really. But it was frustrating. I pushed for three hours before receiving intervention in the form of an episiotomy.
This is the thing though, I don't know if that happened because it was my first birth or because of the epidural. I have friends who pushed a very long time in their first birth without an epidural. Each woman and each experience is just so individual that there's no way to answer these questions for absolute certain. I have heard from other friends who've had epidural births vs. non-epidural births that indeed, pushing with an epidural can be much more difficult.
In my case I went on to have another baby a year later, without an epidural, and I pushed for about ten minutes before her gooey blond head was glinting in the early morning sunshine.
What do Contractions Feel Like With an Epidural?
Like sudden pressure, maybe like your belly is filling up with air. They're not painful.
Can You Walk or Move Around With an Epidural?
I don't have any experience with a "walking epidural" or know much about other women's experiences when it comes to this but I definitely couldn't even sit up on my own with the epidural yet alone walk. I was numb from the bottom of my rib cage straight down to my toes. This sounds scarier than it is, but if you're hoping to labor in a variety of positions or to walk through the contractions, you likely won't be able to with an epidural.
What Does Pushing Feel Like With an Epidural?
This is different for everyone. If your epidural is turned off prior to pushing, you'll probably feel your contractions and the pressure/urge to push. Most women find this to be a relief and some find it painful. Either way, pushing is just a LOT of work. It's like the same feeling as lifting really, really heavy weights. It takes focus and determination and is empowering once it's all over with.
If your epidural is still going strong or hasn't worn off much, you may find pushing more difficult due to the lack of feeling in your lower half.
Is There any Way to Avoid Getting an IV With an Epidural?
No way, and you don't want to. Epidurals mess with your blood pressure and it's a good idea to have a heplock in place (a mechanism that makes it quick and easy to hook you up to an IV) and fluids going before you even receive the epidural. Epidural = IV, plain and simple. You can be in charge of where they put it though. I had a specific place that I wanted my IV and even though it frustrated my IV therapist I reminded her that I was the one in labor and though she rolled her eyes at least twelve times in the course of our conversation she respected my wishes.
Bless maternity nurses and doctors, it's not an easy job.
When Does the Epidural Wear Off?
I know I keep saying it, but it's true that labor and delivery are different for each person and I just don't want for you to base your whole experience off of mine and be thrown off if you have a different experience. But for me, the epidural numbness and floaty sensation didn't wear off fully for about five hours after delivering my daughter. That's okay because after you give birth, your baby will be busy with nurses and doctors getting measured, weighed, bathed, etc. and this is a good time for you to close your eyes in between questions about the birth certificate and vaccines.
What is Recovery Like After Having an Epidural?
Common knowledge says that recovery without an epidural is easier than recovery after an epidural and in my experience this is true. It took longer for me to feel like myself after receiving the epidural and I became light headed quickly in the weeks following birth. Maybe this had to do with the act of birth itself, but in my recovery in my non-epidural birth I didn't experience the light headedness and the postpartum bleeding ended sooner.
In the end though, epidural or not, you heal.
What Is the Best Part About Getting an Epidural?
The ability to relax before pushing was the best part about getting an epidural for me. Once I'd gotten it I was able to invite family members who had been anxiously waiting in the waiting room down to see me before I started pushing. That was such a special time!
What Is the Worst Part About Getting an Epidural?
The worst parts about getting an epidural, in my one experience getting one, is that I felt numb both physically and mentally and it made me so dizzy and sleepy post-labor that I believe this is why I passed out in my post-labor shower. The best place to pass out is in the arms of nurses, in your hospital room, so all-in-all this wasn't the worst thing ever, and after a few hours of sleep, a foot-long sub, and a good cuddle with my new baby, I was feeling much better. By that night I was up walking around my room, using the bathroom without assistance, and changing my precious new daughter's diaper. So even though there's some negatives along with the positives of having an epidural, the effects aren't necessarily long-lasting. Like any medical procedure, there's some yucky parts.
Would I Give Birth With an Epidural Again?
Never say never but probably not, no. I don't think I would give birth and choose an epidural again. And it's not because I think it's weak. I actually think it takes more guts to get an epidural because there's so much unknown involved. I don't believe it's inherently risky, I don't think it's irresponsible, and I certainly don't think it does any harm to the baby. I have no lasting effects, and it wasn't really any more traumatizing than just the reality of becoming a parent for the first time.
But I didn't like the way I felt and because in a subsequent birth I didn't receive an epidural, I have that to compare it to.
That being said, I know so many women who have had multiple epidurals and they have positive and empowering experiences to share. That just wasn't my situation.
If I chose an epidural again I would do three things differently:
- Eat. I would eat periodically through my labor. I think that this would have helped me combat the tiredness the epi brought on. In the years since I had my kids, most hospitals have changed their protocol on this and now allow mothers to eat during their labor. Woot woot!
- Earlier Placement. I would not have had that epidural at an 8. I'd have had it as soon as I was admitted at a 4. This would have given me several hours to sleep and the benefit of the epidural is that it really does take the pain of active labor away, so sleeping would have been easy. By the time I was ready to push, I believe the epidural would have leveled out and I would have had more wherewithall when I was pushing.
- No Shower. That damn shower. Whether you've had an epidural or not I don't recommend getting out of your bed within the first few hours of birth. Sit up, wiggle your body, drink some water, eat, snack, hold your baby, let yourself bleed, and give your body and mind time to adjust to all that just happened.
Whether you choose to have an epidural, end up going a different pain-management route, or decide to forego pain medication completely, trust yourself and don't let others cause you to feel insecure or second-guess yourself. This is motherhood, after all, and the one thing you absolutely have to do is own it, unapologetically.
Have a question about what it's like to get an epidural that I didn't answer here? What was your experience with an epidural? I'd love to hear from you in the comments below!
© 2017 Kierstin Gunsberg