Epidurals: Numbing Us To More Than Just Pain

Our first son, Trigg, was born after a very long 33 hours of labor and when he was given to me, the first thing out of my mouth was, “If I had to do it all over again, I would do it the exact same way”. We were so blessed to have brought him into the world surrounded by support for a natural birth but there were women who told me that I was “crazy” for enduring the pain of labor and if given the option, they would have taken an epidural. When it comes to laboring our babies, are we ignorantly loosening ourselves to the concept of natural birth simply because we believe the pain is too great? What if I told you that the ripple effect of interventions like epidurals are more than just temporary and are numbing us to more than just the pain?

In a survey published in 2006, Listening to Mothers II reported that more than three-quarters of all women surveyed were administered an epidural. In 2008, the CDC reported that over 60 percent of women in the U.S. were administered an epidural, with states like South Carolina having rates as high as 75 percent. And, even though the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists say that no woman should be deprived of pain management during her labor, are doctors doing a poor job of informing women that epidurals have the potential to numb us to more than we think?

An epidural is an injection of an anesthetic into the epidural space around the spine. The drug, which by the way, is typically derived from cocaine, blocks pain signals from nerves and temporarily paralyze the mother from the waist down. Epidurals come with an increased risk of fever, postpartum hemorrhage, breathing difficulties, permanent nerve damage, transient headaches and vertigo and death (among many other side effects, both temporary and permanent). When an epidural is administered, the drug enters the mother’s AND baby’s blood stream within minutes. This synthetic chemical not only puts the mother and baby at greater and more numerous risks but also obliterates the cascade of natural and beneficial hormones the body produces naturally that help ensure a successful labor.

Epidurals significantly lower the mother’s production of oxytocin, which in turn inhibits the mother’s natural response to strongly bond with her infant, successfully breastfeed and be alert post-birth. This bodily chemical is often referred to as the “hormone of love” because of its well-documented ability to promote social and maternal bonding through awareness and attachment. It has a remarkable effect on memory and passage of information through the brain, showing researchers the validity of how this hormone plays a vital role in how women form a strong bond to their young. Furthermore, mothers who were intending to breastfeed pre-birth and were administered epidurals were two times less likely to breastfed and weaned their children far earlier than mothers who had their babies naturally. Researchers have also found that epidurals contribute to maternal-infant effects, including neurobehavioral effects, immunity, and drug toxicity. Studies has suggested that there may be a correlation between women who give birth under the stress and toxicity of interventions like epidurals and the long-term relationship they hold with their child and how that particular child develops socially.

Now, let’s get back to the “crazy” comment that gets torpedoed at the mother who has actively made the choice to not have a cocaine-derived synthetic chemical stabbed in her spine and trust that her body is going to do what is necessary. How is it that when she gets asked about her pregnancy and she shares her plans to have a natural labor she gets weird looks and people get quiet? What kind of message are we sending to mothers who are making natural health care decisions for themselves and their child – choices that are not only a strong personal preference (which a woman is entitled to) but are also backed up by evidence-based practices and research – and we disregard her as a lunatic because our medicalized society believes she should be at the mercy of drugs and surgery.

Modern obstetrics and society continues to undermine our bodies and under support the notion of wholeness out of complete ignorance and disrespect. Today women are being unknowingly cornered into pivotal decisions that are being made for them by medicine at rates so frequent that emergency procedures and interventions with incredible risks have now become the norm. Even more disturbing is the growing inclination that we are more safe and efficient because of modern medicine! WAKE-UP CALL, FOLKS: WE ARE SICKER, FATTER, MORE MEDICATED AND DYING AT RATES HIGER THAN NEARLY ANY INDUSTRIALIZED COUTRY IN THE WORLD. If that statement doesn’t get you thinking outside of your tiny box or get you to take the blinders off, than you better check your pulse.

Before I was even fully aware of the implications of epidurals, I knew I didn’t want one. I’m the type of person who’s been known to wipe off the antiseptic the nurse puts on right before she jabs you with the needle. I’ve learned that people in the hospital are downright terrified of two things: germs and malpractice lawsuits. Because I’m privy to this, I know that as long as I can be quick enough to wipe off the brown liquid, I’ve prolong my chances of getting the needle. With that being said, how in the hell do you think you are going to convince me to put a line in my epidural space. Yeah, no. So, here’s my encouragement to all you beautiful mommies and support teams: PAIN IS GAIN. Let me share with you why this is innately true and how epidurals are for the birds.

Labor is this amazing process of ebb and flow. Your contractions are 3 minutes apart, then they are 10 minutes. You progress from 1 to 7 centimeters in a short amount of time and then you’re stuck at 8. You want to be massaged through contractions, then you threaten someone’s life if they touch you the next time. If you’ve been there, you know what I’m talking about. Labor is meant to be this way because your body is designed to release hormones in increments to specifically combat things like anxiety and pain. Remember our friend oxytocin? This hormone is the superstar in your birth. Not only is it being released through your entire labor as a natural pain killer, but it is the lifeline that gives you the extra oomph you need to push your baby out, allows you optimal bonding time post-birth, is responsible for milk let down and helps the uterus contract back down to size after labor. In other words, the more “pain” the mother perceives and interprets through her labor, the more oxytocin gets released as an aid to her. And oxytocin isn’t the only hormone released during a birth (but we don’t have time or space to discuss in detail the specifics today). How amazing…but some of us are turning off the switch on purpose because of the fear of pain but wait, there‘s more!

It has become increasingly routine that hospitals are administering pitocin to women who aren’t progressing to their standards. Pitocin is another synthetic chemical that tries to take the place of naturally occurring hormones in a laboring woman’s body. However, pitocin makes the contractions of labor not only more frequent, but more intense. Typically, pitocin is administered before an epidural, but by the time pitocin kicks in, mom is climbing the walls asking for relief. Here’s the kicker, ladies. Although our very intelligent doctor is “speeding up” the process by giving you pitocin, the administration of an epidural has been conclusively found to SLOW DOWN LABOR! What the what?!

Seriously. Let’s all take a quick minute and process this scenerio: A mother goes into labor, she is administered pitocin because the natural and healthy ebb and flow of her labor isn’t good enough for Dr. Smith. She is completely beside herself because her contractions are on top of one another, an epidural is administered, which ultimately counterproductive to the first drug that was intravenously injected, her baby is born with the help of her nurse telling her when to push. Then, when it comes time to nurse her child, the hormone that’s responsible for her milk let down has been obliterated and the baby is taken to the nursery to be feed synthetic milk, robbing both the mother and child of vital bonding time and reaping the incredible benefits of being breast fed (you better believe I will be blogging on breast feeding). The next day when she’s discharged, she’s got vertigo and a massive headache which again disrupts her ability to comfortably bond with her infant and … all because we were too ignorant and oblivious to support her desire to have a natural birth. What a crock.

If you are pregnant, let me say to you this: You are in control of the outcome and satisfaction of your birth. If ANYONE is telling you otherwise, you need to switch doctors, midwives, etc (and if I were you, give them a piece of your mind). Statistically speaking, pathological issues that prevent women from having a natural birth happen in less than 10 percent of pregnancies. If we continue to be fed the lie that our bodies aren’t smart enough, strong enough or simply not drugged-up enough to deliver a baby, we are apart of the problem. Be your own advocate, find resources and measure your willingness to obey the process. The greatest source of encouragement in your 28 hour of labor will be YOURSELF, not an epidural – take my word for it. So, make sure you’re prepared, supported and well cared for. Labor is a natural process, let’s learn to trust it, not be numb to it.