What Does It Really Feel Like to Give Birth Without an Epidural?
Always consult with a medical professional when making medical decisions.
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.
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
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.
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.
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!
Have a Question About Going Sans Epidural?
Ask away in the comments below!
© 2016 Kierstin Gunsberg