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

Updated on January 30, 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.
  • 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.


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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    • bravewarrior profile image

      Shauna L Bowling 6 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.

    • Sherry Hewins profile image

      Sherry Hewins 6 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.

    • DzyMsLizzy profile image

      Liz Elias 6 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!

    • kiddiecreations profile image

      N Kiddie 4 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

    • ChristinS profile image

      Christin Sander 12 days 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.

    • Kierstin Gunsberg profile image
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      Kierstin Gunsberg 2 days 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.

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