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What Does It Really Feel Like to Give Birth Without an Epidural?

Updated on June 27, 2017
Kierstin Gunsberg profile image

Kierstin is a mom to two little girls, not a fan of Popples, and is really, really good at removing crayon from practically any surface.

Always consult with a medical professional when making medical decisions.

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Last year, I gave birth to my second daughter -a beautiful sunshiney chunk of blonde love wrapped up in the sweetest little disposition I've ever encountered - sans pain medication. I'm pretty vocal about my difficulties with hyperemesis during both pregnancies, so why not be vocal about my two very different birth experiences, especially if it helps unveil some of the confusion so many moms feel leading up to delivery day.

Before both girls I Googled nine-months worth of questions like "Why can't I stop throwing up?" "Has anyone ever died from morning sickness?" and finally, "Does birth hurt?" which was followed by an obsessive trail of "How bad?" and many, many inquiries about the different ways in which women choose to give birth in hopes of solving the magical mystery that is childbearing.

Some of it helped, some of it didn't. Most of my questions went unanswered in the form of vague responses meant to soothe the panicked/curious. I personally don't find that helpful. So, here's a list of the questions I most often asked Google regarding labor and delivery without an epidural, along with my personal experience - and the detail I was looking for.

So, How Exactly Did I Decide to Give Birth "Naturally"?

Long story short, I didn't decide to give birth naturally (it's all natural, by the way). I was staying open to the idea when I missed my big chance, headed straight into transition and had that little baby without any medication.

In What Situation Would You Not Be Given an Epidural?

The main reason most women don't get an epidural is because they miss their moment, just like I did.

Other reasons for not receiving an epidural would be...

  • You heroically chose from start to finish not to have one. And you stuck to your word even through the most physically painful moments of your life because you're a saint, wow. Good job, gold medal. You probably didn't scream at your nurse for tricking you. You probably also didn't shove another nurse away from you as she tried to monitor your precious baby's life and wish the firey-pits-of-hell on her. Good for you for being that kind of person. I'm not.
  • Low platelets which could complicate the effects of having an epidural. The main risk is spinal epidural hematoma.
  • Medications that would disagree with the epidural
  • An abnormality in your spine that makes placing one dangerous.

Does it Really Hurt to Give Birth Without an Epidural?

Yeah, it does. It hurts really bad.

But not the whole thing. Before I had kids I kind of thought of birth as one long linear experience, but it's not. It happens in the following stages:

The Stages of Labor and Delivery Without an Epidural

  • Early Labor happens up to 3 CM and it's like when you get those cramps and think, "okay either I'm about to poop or I'm having braxton hicks." But then they keep coming and maybe you do poop but it doesn't stop them. They're uncomfortable when they're happening and then they're over and you're super relieved. Some women don't even realize they're in labor at this point.
  • Active Labor happens from 3-7 CM. Whoa boy, things are intensifying. This is when most women realize they need to get to the hospital. At this point it's hard to deny you're in labor, even if you are a champ. Contractions are consistent. It feels as if you're getting a stomach cramp that takes your breath away. Holding onto something, whether it's your partner's hand, an armrest or in my case, the roof handle of our car en route to the hospital.
  • Transition is from 7- 10 (fully dilated) CM. This is the scary part. The peak of the roller coaster. The whole time you were just chugging up that steep incline and now here you are staring the endless reality that is motherhood right in the eyes. This is undeniably the most painful stage of labor, but it also goes by pretty fast - between a half an hour to two hours for most women, and at this point your contractions are overlapping. This is the part to mentally prepare yourself for if you forego an epi.


Giving birth med-free makes you feel like a warrior. And just a *little* frustrated with your partner.
Giving birth med-free makes you feel like a warrior. And just a *little* frustrated with your partner. | Source

What Do Contractions Feel Like Without an Epidural?

Contractions without an epidural are annoying and painful. They're not a big deal. I'd compare them to the worst period cramps you've ever felt or the pain you experience during a stomach bug. They're fleeting, they come, they leave, you breathe and so on. Walking, bouncing on an exercise ball and stretching helped relieve them for me.

What Does Pushing Without an Epidural Feel Like?

Pretty awesome and I don't mean that sarcastically. Pushing med-free is a great because it alleviates the pain and pressure of labor. You feel every muscle and contraction needed for productive pushing. It's physically on par with taking a really tough poop at this point. In fact, if you want an idea of what pushing without an epidural feels like, pooping is the closest you're going to get. Discomfort and relief at the same time.

What is The Worst Part About Not Getting an Epidural?

The worst part about not getting an epidural is the transition stage of labor. The is the darkest part of labor and delivery, at least it was for me. It's also the shortest stage of labor prior to pushing.

Tips for Handling Transition Med Free

Here are things that helped me to navigate the murky waters of an epidural-free transition:

  • Find a focus point. Whether it's a neutral object, like the telephone on your bedside table, or even something more motivating, like the outfit you've brought to bring baby home in, to remind you that all of this work culminates in something worthwhile. Just don't stare at the clock, like I did. It will just frustrate you!
  • Get off your back. Have the bed adjusted so that half of it is at a 90 degree angle. Position yourself on your knees and brace your arms and body against the angled part of the bed.
  • Use your voice. Make noise. It's embarrassing but you're bringing a new life into this world, you're entitled to humiliating yourself a bit.
  • Practice aromatherapy. Maybe a few drops of lavender oil on a cotton ball so you can inhale it when and if it seems soothing, or diffuse a couple of calming scents using a portable essential oil diffuser.
  • Darken the room. Get the room as dark as you can, shut lights off, close blinds. Too much light can be overwhelming at this point.
  • Ask your partner not to touch you. Just trust me. S/he is safer that way.
  • Get naked. At this point, clothes are probably just going to literally rub you the wrong way. Get them off. You're a wild woman! You're about to bring forth another life! Dress the part!
  • Grab a rubber band. If you have long hair, whip that mess up into a bun. The less distractions for your body, the better.


Roll With It

Milliard Anti-Burst Peanut Ball Variety Pack - Approximate Sizes: Green 39x20" (100x50cm) & Blue 31x15" (80x40cm) Physio Roll
Milliard Anti-Burst Peanut Ball Variety Pack - Approximate Sizes: Green 39x20" (100x50cm) & Blue 31x15" (80x40cm) Physio Roll

One of the things my maternity nurse had me do to alleviate pain and focus on my contractions in the early stages of my epi-free labor was to bounce and roll on a giant inflatable exercise ball. The cool thing about these peanut shaped exercise balls is that you'll be able to really press your back into the curves for a deeper, more relieving stretch. Plus, give 'em a good wipe down when you get home from the hospital and you can use them for some gentle post-partum exercise while baby naps.

 
Giving birth without an epidural is easier when you focus on tranquil and peaceful thoughts or imagery,
Giving birth without an epidural is easier when you focus on tranquil and peaceful thoughts or imagery, | Source

What About "The Ring of Fire"? Does That Hurt Without an Epidural?

No. In my experience it's some weird myth. The pain of labor cancels out all lesser pains, ring of fire included. It's nothing more than a sensation, even without an epidural.

Do You Still Get an IV Even if You Don't Get an Epidural?

In some situations, yes. Some hospitals require something called a hep-lock - this is a mechanism that is put in place intravenously in case you must be quickly hooked up to IVs. I did have a hep-lock in my non-epidural birth as protocol because I passed out after my first delivery (thanks to my epidural!) They used it to fill me full of fluids and hey, it was actually great - I stayed very hydrated and I believe this helped me to have the energy I needed to push and recover. You could ask for fluids too, even if you don't want medication!

What is Recovery Like After Not Receiving an Epidural?

It's like listening to the opening of Florence + The Machine's "Dog Days Are Over." Thanks to all of that oxytocin your body releases during delivery, the first moments after giving birth unmedicated are nothing short of euphoric since there's nothing there to dull it. I, like many women who give birth without an epidural, physically and emotionally recovered quickly and I was sent home feeling fairly strong and healthy just 24 hours after delivering my daughter, with no side effects or lasting issues.

In contrast, my recovery with my medicated birth was sluggish and hazy. And while I did recover fully, it took much longer. That's okay, but it wasn't as enjoyable as my experience unmedicated.

What is The Best Part About Not Getting an Epidural?

Pushing and the recovery. As I said before, pushing was so easy and unexpectedly joyous. Where my first experience had been traumatic in that I couldn't feel the lower half of my body post-epidural, my second birth was amazing. I loved feeling what my body was telling me to do and I was empowered by how easily it happened when my body was left to it's own instincts

Would I Give Birth Again Without an Epidural?

Yes. I would. Transition was awful. But it was like one hour out of many and all of those other hours were much better because I was unmedicated.

Plus I have THIS amazing person to show for it.

Source

So What About You?

Have you had at least one medicated and one unmedicated birth? What overall experience did you prefer? If you had a medicated birth by means other than an epidural leave a comment below!

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Have a Question About Going Sans Epidural?

Ask away in the comments below!

© 2016 Kierstin Gunsberg

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    • Kierstin Gunsberg profile image
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      Kierstin Gunsberg 6 weeks ago from Traverse City, Michigan

      Alex, it's so interesting to me how different each labor is for each woman. I don't remember being very nauseated which is HILARIOUS because I am a hyperemesis gravidarum sufferer. They did break my water with my second. They wanted to break it as soon as I got there but I knew from the first time around that once that happened the baby would come fast so I kept telling them no because I just honestly didn't feel like pushing yet, like I somehow wanted to postpone all of the drama. They finally got sick of me putting it off, came in and broke it and I had her about two hours later.

      It's okay, I don't really regret it, but it was a different experience than the first time around when it broke on it's own.

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      Alex 6 weeks ago

      I had both mine without because I was more afraid of the epidural. I would say it mostly just feels like bad cramps until the very end. It was no worse than my period except I was much more nauseated.

      For my second birth, the doctor broke my water on purpose and the baby came shooting out, so that was pretty awful, so make sure to scream at them not to break your water on purpose. There is no reason for it.

    • Kierstin Gunsberg profile image
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      Kierstin Gunsberg 2 months ago from Traverse City, Michigan

      Holy cow, Karen, thanks for sharing that. I hope it's okay if I ask, but did you tear? Also, after having both kinds of births, why do you think that you're choosing to shoot for another epi-free birth? I'm curious because if I had another baby I would also try to have an epidural-free labor because I felt so much better afterward and I'm wondering if it's the same for you.

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      Karen 2 months ago

      When I had my third baby I did it without an epidural. I'm about to have my fourth and am planning to go epi free again. But when I was pushing my son out without an epidural, it felt like two people were ripping my vagina apart and setting it on fire at the same time. That's all.

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      Esther 3 months ago

      I gave birth to a healthy baby girl about seven weeks ago without an epidural because I chose not to have it before going into labor. I gave birth in a hospital with the assistance of a doula which I think made all of the difference in my ability to deal with the pain and not succumb to the medical staff pushing meds on me. In my experience my recovery was horrible notwithstanding the fact that I had no epidural. It took me several weeks before I was able to walk normally. Also, for me the most painful part was the transition as I felt like I was ripping in two. However, it was the shortest part and before I knew it I was ready to push. The pushing part felt like I was committing out of my vagina. I never expected that and I am surprised that no one was honest with me about the pain and feelings I could expect. I am like the author that I wanted as much information as possible to prepare myself but I find that people's responses were sorely lacking. I'm glad that the author was honest in this article about her experience. Would I do it again? Yes.

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      Kelsie 3 months ago

      This is a great post, as my hubby and I are TTC and I am terrified for the birthing process! I am curious though, and I hope this isn't too personal/rude, but one reason I'm not entirely sure about the epidural is the effect I've heard it can have on the baby. Since you've done both (epidural and natural), did you notice a difference in your babies after birth?

    • Kierstin Gunsberg profile image
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      Kierstin Gunsberg 7 months ago from Traverse City, Michigan

      Alex, thanks for commenting!

      There were definitely many huge positives to having an epi-free birth for me! I try to be careful about saying that any one way is the right way to have a baby because I don't agree with that. We all do things in different ways and as long as we're doing our research, staying true to ourselves, and celebrating the pregnancy and birthing journey as much as possible, then I think there's no right or wrong way to do it :)

      Personally, I chose a hospital birth for financial reasons and because I had some health problems throughout both pregnancies. I don't regret it at all! I have friends and family who have had home births and even a free birth thrown in there.

      There are just so many ways to bring those sweet babies into the world.

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      Alex 7 months ago

      First, women do not chose natural birth because it is some heroic feat. They choose it because they are well educated and know it is best for a healthy mother and baby. If they are really well educated they will typically choose a home birth so that it is also most likely to be unhindered...Families who want a truly unhindered birth choose free birth.

      The entire process can be pleasurable, ecstatic, and at times orgasmic if you prepare your body and mind well before birth. It may be intense but not painful. This is a truth that women need to start hearing. When all we hear is how scary and painful it is that is the mindset you go in with and fear gets you pain.

      Knowing the chemical/physiologic process well will help more women and families have pleasurable experiences from start to finish.

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      Lily Martinson 7 months ago

      I just gave birth to my 2nd child about 2 weeks ago. I walked into the hospital when I was already in active labor. If you know you want to at least try going med-free, try to labor at home for as long as you feel comfortable.

      When I got into my room, I told the nurse that I wished to try laboring without an epi for as long as I could stand it, but it wasn't completely off the table. I signed a consent form for one, but after hearing that it would take 20 mins to put it in, it didn't sound as good. I didn't want people talking to me or touching me during the contractions that came every other minute. I just focused on something and breathed through it.

      I'll admit I had a very small dose of Stadol. Which makes you sleepy, but does not take away the pain at all. That lasted all of 15 mins. I believe the brief period of a little relief is what did me in. My water broke and it happened quickly after that. I even asked for an epi, too late! It was time to push. The meds completely wore off and my body was pumped with adrenaline. 10 mins later of natural pushing and she was out!

      I gave birth both times at a military hospital where they don't have things like birthing tubs. I would have been in there if they did!

      I had fentanyl with my 1st baby. The experience was night and day. I was more alert and awake for the 2nd. Recovery was quicker and I felt more present instead of loopy from drugs. I've never had an epidural, and I'm happy to say that I can get through birth without it.

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      Kalasini 7 months ago

      Thanks for this post! I am preparing for my first birth drug free!

    • Kierstin Gunsberg profile image
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      Kierstin Gunsberg 8 months ago from Traverse City, Michigan

      Cristin, I'm so glad you commented with your experience! I wonder if the reason pushing felt like a relief to me is because the transition was so awful so, in comparison pushing was nothing. You were smart to be in the water, I bet it really alleviated things for you and if I could do it all over again I would totally request a tub! The problem is that at my hospital, unless you flat out tell them ahead of time "I refuse an epidural" they won't book you the deluxe water-birth room (lol, I don't think that's the name, but it does sound luxurious) so by the time I missed my epi I didn't have a chance to request getting in the water. Boo!

      I couldn't agree more on the episiotomy! I had one with my first and though it was necessary in my situation, it just made the recovery so long and painful.

    • ChristinS profile image

      Christin Sander 8 months ago from Midwest

      My experience differs from yours somewhat. I hated pushing... that was the worst part for me with an unmedicated (by choice) birth. The recovery though is the best ever! My first child they missed with the epidural, his birth was much harder and topped off with spinal headaches. After that fiasco, I determined I would go natural "on purpose" with my second, and it was indeed very empowering and of course much easier to gauge when I needed to push etc. I also had a tub in my room - if you can do a natural water labor/birth that is highly recommended. MUCH easier transition that way. Although, by the time I felt the need to push the water was annoying me and I wanted out of the tub and gave birth sitting upright on the bed. :). I guess every woman is different in which parts she feels are the most painful, but for me pushing with both babies was the horrendous part, no relief, felt like I was being split in two and set on fire at the same time lol but once the baby was out - much better! I made the nurses mad because I was getting out of bed less than an hour after giving birth to the second baby. I had to pee and I wasn't waiting around... lol.

      Also, I highly recommend NOT getting an episiotomy. The midwife who did my second delivery did not do it and my recovery was SO much better. I had the episiotomy with my first, and wow, it was so painful to go to the bathroom after that I thought I was giving birth again. When I had the second baby with no episiotomy it never hurt to go the to bathroom after. I also healed up much nicer and faster.

    • kiddiecreations profile image

      Nicole Kiddie Granath 12 months ago

      Thank you for describing in-depth how an unmediated birth feels. I got the epidural with my three-year-old and my one-month-old, so I have not yet experienced a med-free birth. I am curious about what it would be like, and getting the epidural does give me anxiety in the moment. I have two sons and someday we'll probably try for a girl, so maybe I'll do it sans medication like you did... If I can work up the courage! Haha

    • DzyMsLizzy profile image

      Liz Elias 13 months ago from Oakley, CA

      Well, my first child was born sans medication, but not by choice. Everything just happened so fast after a very weird beginning, that the only medication I got was a sniff of nitrous oxide, and a local for the episiotomy.

      In fact, she was delivered by staff doctors, because my OB thought "First baby, I've got plenty of time to get to the hospital." He got there in time for the stitching-up!

      With the second child, I did have an epidural, but I was on the verge of saying I didn't want it after all, because I seemed to be handling the contractions well, having read a lot about natural birth in the couple of years between kids. However, they had already shot me with a sedative, and my mind wasn't thinking fast enough.

      The very down side to that experience, was that they placed the injection too high in the spine; I couldn't even feel myself breathing, and felt nauseated; I panicked. They gave me oxygen for the nausea, and I was instantly "out." I woke up in recovery not knowing what gender my child was. (A girl.) This was before ultrasounds were done. It was always a surprise.

      In retrospect, though, I never had a labor pain as bad as the horrible cramps I used to get every month; cramps that would have me curled up in bed with a hot water bottle and crying; missing school for a day or day and a half.

      Very interesting article, and very brave to put yourself out there like that! And congrats on making it to the Hub Pages page on Facebook, where I found your article!

    • Sherry Hewins profile image

      Sherry Hewins 14 months ago from Sierra Foothills, CA

      I gave birth to three children without any medication. Women have been coping with it for hundreds of thousands of years. It seems odd to me that an epidural seems to be the default during childbirth. At our local hospital, it is not even offered. They do offer medication, but it is much milder.

    • bravewarrior profile image

      Shauna L Bowling 14 months ago from Central Florida

      Kierstin, I had my son naturally, in a birthing center, not a hospital. A mid-wife delivered him. There were no drugs whatsoever and the pain was tremendous. I remember thanking my midwife for never telling me NOT to push when I had to push. It's an involuntary reaction that I wouldn't have been able to stop if my life depended on it. And I pooped while I pushed. It was embarrassing, but my midwife said it happens all the time.

      Because my midwife believed in letting the birthing area tear naturally, I wasn't given an episiotomy. It wasn't until she was stitching me up that I was allowed a shot of something to alleviate the pain.

      There we no gadgets hooked up to me or my son when he was born. I was shown how to breastfeed him and had to remain in the birthing center for at least four hours to let the pain med I was given while she sewed up my torn skin, then we were released. Because my son was born in a birthing center, the state of Florida requires his live birth be certified by a licensed OB/GYN/Pediatrician. We accomplished that, Christopher had his birth certified and we were home when he was just 10 hours old.

      I've only had one child, but if I were to do it again, I wouldn't have done anything differently.

      Oh yeah - I never had an ultrasound done either. His gender was a complete surprise. That's exactly how his dad and I wanted it.