Do Epidurals Slow Down Labor?

By: Jennifer Cole | Epidurals | October 18, 2021

Many of the parents who take our birth education classes are curious about epidurals. Even though our Hypnobirthing classes are preparing them for an unmedicated experience, they still have lots of questions related to epidurals. 

And it’s no wonder. Given how prevalent the use of epidurals has become to manage discomfort in labor and childbirth, it’s only natural that anyone preparing for giving birth would have a lot of questions about this procedure. 

The fact is that we can never predict the type of birth experience our baby will have before we embark upon labor. They may decide they want to be born quickly or slowly. They may have their reasons for wanting to come early or late. As we prepare ourselves for birth, it’s up to us to understand what all of our options are and be ready to make the choices that will support our baby’s birth experience.

A common question we’re asked about epidurals is whether the procedure slows down labor. As is the case with so many things related to birth, the answer is, “It depends.” Every birthing body is unique, as is every baby being born. So whether or not an epidural will slow down your labor will depend on your body and your baby.

Epidurals Can Slow Labor Down…

There are some instances when an epidural can slow down labor progress. The reason is that once you receive the numbing medication, you are confined to bed until after the baby is born and the anesthesia has worn off so you can walk again. The disadvantage to this confinement is the lack of movement and gravity to aid in labor. 

Typically, someone in labor will be moving their body into different positions and allowing gravity to help bring baby down into the pelvis. As baby moves down, their head applies pressure to the cervix. This pressure aids in dilation as well as keeping labor strong, as this cervical pressure helps produce more oxytocin, aka the labor hormone.

Removing gravity from the equation can be problematic for labor. Without gravity, your baby is less likely to apply pressure to the cervix which, in turn, produces less oxytocin. This can lead to contractions that aren’t as strong or close together. 

In order to compensate for this lack of gravity, your care team will offer up frequent position changes in bed as well as implement a peanut ball to keep your pelvis open. However, these methods aren’t always as effective as having free range of movement out of bed.

Another way an epidural can add time to labor relates to pushing. Because the urge to push sensation is usually blocked by the numbing medication, it can be more difficult to effectively push baby out with an epidural. If you have an epidural your care team will need to coach you on how to push so that you can figure out where to direct your energy. However, even with the use of directed pushing it’s common for the pushing stage to take longer with an epidural than without it.

But Sometimes An Epidural Can Help Keep Labor Progressing

Believe it or not, epidurals can sometimes have the opposite effect, and help labor progress vs. slow it down. Why? When your baby is in no hurry to be born it can become increasingly challenging to cope with labor. Experiencing strong and steady contractions for several hours can exhaust your body. If your labor starts at bedtime and you were unable to get any rest beforehand, you might be too weary to stay with it if you’re still not close to pushing 24+ hours later. 

A lack of sleep and good nutrition can wear you down, making it more difficult for you to cope with the sensations of labor unassisted. If your body starts to tense up during contractions, it can make it more uncomfortable for you and, as a result, your body stops producing as much oxytocin as before. 

Moreover, if you start to feel fearful about the pain you’re in, the fear-pain cycle can kick in. When this happens, your body is actually working against labor and making it harder to relax and let it happen. This is when an epidural can actually help get your labor back on track.

An epidural can provide you with two crucial things: rest and relaxation. When your body gets a break from feeling contractions, it allows you to rest. This absence of pain can also help your body relax so that labor can get going again.

Learning All the Facts About an Epidural Ahead of Time Can Help You Make The Best Decision for Your Birth

If you’re a parent-to-be, you won’t know what sort of labor you’re going to have until you’re experiencing it. Learning the ins and out of the procedures that have the potential to impact you and your baby in advance of labor is the best way to ensure you will make choices that will benefit you both.

About the author:
Jennifer Cole CD(DONA) DONA Certified Birth Doula and Hypnobabies Certified HypnoDoula supporting families throughout San Diego County.

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