Today I finally feel ready to share my thoughts on an epidural versus natural birth. The decision of whether to opt in to an epidural or go au naturel seems to be one of the biggest initial decisions when thinking through a birth plan. (Of course there are a MILLION other factors in the birth experience, but I’m just talking about this one today!) My hope is that providing some side-by-side comparisons, this blog post about “epidural vs natural birth” will be helpful to some of you who are pregnant or thinking about becoming pregnant!
My Dayton boy is 9-months-old now, so I’ve had a bit of time and space to think about his birth. I’m really excited to share these thoughts with you! As with all things related to parenting, take what you want and leave the rest. I’m not trying to convince anyone to do anything here. I’m merely sharing my own experiences! Treat it like a buffet – take what’s helpful, and leave the rest.
Dayton’s labor progressed sooo quickly, and he was born about 30 minutes after I got to the hospital, with no time for an epidural. I had planned on an epidural and wanted one, but I didn’t get one.
With Milo’s birth back in 2019 (he’s my first born), I got an epidural.
I’m fortunate (and I can finally use that word now, ha!) to have experienced both a natural birth (usually referred to as an “unmedicated birth”) and an epidural. My sons were born 21 months apart, so I was able to have these oposing experiences fairly quickly back-to-back.
The epidural was a reeeaaally good epidural. Like, I took a nap and didn’t feel a dang thing!
^ the epidural had just kicked in! The nurse helped me roll to my side, and I took a nap.
The natural birth was TOTALLY unexpected. I never planned on that happening, and it rocked my world.
^ I have lots of pics from Dayton’s birth that I definitely can’t share with you, but this one is around 9.5/10 cm and it’s almost time to start pushing. This is about when I realized that I was going to have to release my plan to get an epidural, and I was not happy about it.
So anyway, today I thought I would share the pros and cons of an epidural versus an unmedicated birth.
A quick note: I’m sharing my thoughts about an epidural versus an unmedicated birth, because that is typically the biggest decision going through a pregnant woman’s mind when she plans for her first birth. But while I’m writing this out as if it’s “choice A or choice B,” in reality, there are infinity options. No two births are the same. It’s not as simple as saying “just pick A or B, and then you’re done!” This doesn’t factor in the myriad of possible interventions, planned and emergency c-sections, and the limitless ways that the mom or the baby will end up responding to the birth. It’s not as simple as picking one or the other, and I want to recognize that. My hope is that this blog post is helpful and entertaining, but it is definitely NOT meant to be medical advice, or to oversimplify the birth process by saying “just pick one or the other and you’re done!” Nope. It’s not that simple. I honor all of the women who bring babies into this world, and every birth story is beautiful and perfect.
I often get asked, “so if you decided to have a third child, what type of birth would you choose? Epidural or none?”
For starters, I’m not going to have a third child. My husband and I have decided that two is our number.
But truthfully, I don’t know! Having experienced both, I can see the pros and cons of each one.
A bit of history...
Let’s back up to 2019. My first son, Milo, was born in October.
In order to prepare for my first birthing experience, my husband and I went to a loooong birthing class. We watched the videos, did the exercises, and learned the terms.
I decided early on that I wanted an epidural. The decision was a bit of a mind game…after all, my mom did all of her births without an epidural, and she always made it seem like nbd! And I consider myself a pretty mentally tough person.
^ This is me at 40 weeks with Milo!
But I didn’t really feel the need to prove myself to anyone, and if there’s a pretty safe and accessible option to avoid a CRAP LOAD amount of pain, I’m going to take it. So I opted for the epidural.
Honestly, I kind of glazed over the part of the birthing class that was about going through birth without an epidural. The intense contractions, the “ring of fire,” the stitches…I figured those things didn’t apply to me. I would be happily medicated.
^ A few hours before I went into labor with Milo.
And I was! Milo’s birth was about as perfect as I could have imagined it! I got sooo lucky. You can read the whole story here, if you want a long account of a birth with an epidural.
21 months later, I birthed my second son, Dayton.
I had such a fabulous birth experience with Milo, and I just planned on replicating it as much as possible.
I knew it wouldn’t be the same birth story (no two are the same!), but I figured I would control as much as I could, and trust that everything would work out.
Long story short, my labor with Dayton ended up speeding up…SO fast! I went from being able to kinda sleep through contractions to THIS BABY IS COMING NOW! He ended up being born 30 minutes after we got to the hospital, so there was no time for an epidural. I was throwing up while we were trying to check in and my body was shaking soooo badly, and the nurse said, “it’s ok, this is normal when you’re going through transition and the baby is about to come out.” And I was like “AWW HELL NO, this baby can’t come out before I get my epidural” Ha. But he did. If you want to read the entire unmedicated birth story, I wrote it all out here.
I’m not a good example of “natural birthing 101” because I did literally nothing to prepare for it. I never consciously thought that I would birth a baby without an epidural.
I have lots of friends who have birthed without an epidural and had great experiences with it because they planned correctly!
Pain is relative, and the way that our body feels pain depends on a lot of things. Our thoughts and our breath change everything, and I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t help myself at all in this department.
There are soooo many tools available to women who want to birth without an epidural, but I didn’t utilize any of them because I wasn’t prepared.
The differences between an epidural and a natural birth
My experience with an epidural was AWESOME. Women have various experiences depending on how it’s administered and how their body responds to it. Some people say it only numbs part of their body, or it wears off before they get to 10 cm. For me, though, it worked GREAT. I truly didn’t feel a thing! I got the epidural when I was about about 7 cm dilated. Then I rolled to my side, and took a nap.
When I was near 10 cm and it was almost time to push, my doctor said, “ok, epidurals block pain but they don’t block pressure, so you’ll feel pressure when it’s time to push.” But I didn’t! Truly. I didn’t feel a thing. I pushed when they told me to push, but I didn’t feel any pressure at all.
Milo was born into this glorious, lovely cloud of the highest and most love-filled emotions I’ve ever felt. I don’t cry all that often, but typically it’s when I’m very sad. But when Milo was born, I was crying because of the intense love that I was feeling. I just couldn’t stop sobbing when he was born. It was one of the most amazing experiences of love I’ve ever felt in my life. I instantly felt this strong connection to my baby.
Also, I felt a connection to Nate, who was standing right next to me for the entire birth, like I never have. (Could this also be because Milo was our first birth to experience together? Maybe.)
For the following months, I only felt positive emotions when I looked back at his birth. Even when I was sore and healing from childbirth, I just felt so happy when I thought of the labor and delivery. It was a wonderful birth experience!
Again, another quick note: no two birth stories are the exact same! I got really lucky and had a nearly perfect epidural. Some of you have different stories with your epidurals. When I was pregnant and preparing for birth, I found it really helpful to read as many birth stories as possible. Google “blogger birth story” or go to youtube watch birth story vlogs. There are a trillion of them!
^ Laboring at home with Dayton.
Dayton, my second boy, was born in such a different experience. You can read his entire birth story here, but the short story is this: I labored at home, in the exact same way I did as Milo, and I expected things to move along about 2X as fast. (Typically a second labor moves way faster than a first, and I was prepared for that.) But then contractions suddenly got REALLY close together, and his labor progressed at lightning speed – about 4X faster than I had ever expected. We got to the hospital as quickly as we could, but I was at about 9.5 cm by the time we checked in and there was just enough time for me to take off my clothes, lay on the bed, and start pushing. The pain actually got to the point where my past self would have called it “unbearable…” I truly thought I couldn’t handle that much pain, and if there was more I might die. (Ha, sounds dramatic, I know.) But, of course, just like every other birthing woman throughout all time until very recent medical history, I actually did bear the pain without an epidural. So it actually wasn’t unbearable. That’s the weird thing!
Right when Dayton was born, he was placed in my arms and I felt…anger. And love. At the same time. I truly couldn’t quite comprehend what had just happened. I was panting and sweating and my brows were furrowed. Nurses were congratulating me and the doctor was numbing me for stitches and Nate was saying hi to his new son and I was just like, “wait, what?? It’s over?”
One of the weirdest things about birthing without an epidural was that despite the AMAZING level of pain, the pain went away so quickly! Within a few minutes of the most extreme pain I’ve ever felt, I was able to smile at Nate while he snapped a picture of me and Dayton to text to the family announcing, “he’s here!”
The other cool thing about doing an unmedicated birth was that I recovered so quickly! Within 30 minutes I was able to stand up and walk to the bathroom to pee. I only stayed at the hospital one night (instead of two) because I felt so awesome. When I had the epidural, I didn’t even want to stand up to shower while I was at the hospital (I waited until I got home to shower), but with the natural birth, I took a shower a few hours after giving birth.
Pros and cons of epidurals
PROS OF AN EPIDURAL:
– No pain. Duh.
– You can take a nap if it’s a good one, which is helpful for a long labor
– It was easier for me to experience pure joy and delight while meeting my son
– I look back at the birth experience with absolute positivity. There is nothing to process, nothing to unpack, nothing to talk about with a therapist. I just feel happy when I think of that day.
CONS OF AN EPIDURAL:
– It took a long time to recover from birthing with an epidural. I ended up asking for roxi (prescription-strength pain med) at the hospital, and I couldn’t sit down for a couple WEEKS! I kind of lounged on the side of my body when I ate. I depended on Tylenol for a couple weeks longer than I had expected I would need it.
– The car ride home was excruciating. Bring a donut pillow!
– One of the cons was that I was always thinking, “I wonder what an unmedicated birth actually feels like…” I figured I would never know, and that made me just the teeeeeeniest bit sad. Like 1% sad, haha. (Ha, quick side note: I wonder now if having this thought in my subconscious for 2 years is what caused me to manifest my unmedicated birth for my second born, even though I didn’t “want” an unmedicated birth…?)
Pros and cons of an unmedicated birth
PROS OF AN UNMEDICATED BIRTH:
– The recovery was so quick! I only took tylenol for pain meds, and I weaned off of it in a few days.
– I was able to stand up and walk right after giving birth because my legs weren’t numb.
– The biggest pro, but it took me several months to realize it: experience ALL of the feelings of childbirth, without numbing anything at all, truly changed me on a cellular level.
I’m a different human after that birth. It’s still hard for me to explain, after all of these months, but I’ll give it a shot:
On a practical level, it makes me think about what actually is possible. Before I experienced that pain, I would have thought that it would have killed me. Really. I didn’t actually know I could live through pain like that, ha! Now that I’ve lived through it (and realized how temporary it is), I know that I’m capable of a lot more than I thought I was.
Not that I should be living every day in extreme pain just because I can…
… but for little things, like when I’m doing cycling workouts and my lungs feel like they’re on fire, and I start to slow down because it hurts, I think “Kelsey, what if you just kept going? What if you had no choice?” And then I keep going. And I get stronger. Or in arm strength workouts when my shoulders are on fire, I remember that I’m actually capable of feeling that pain, and it won’t kill me. So I push through it for 2 more minutes, and then it’s over.
Again, I’m using this example with good and purpose-filled pain, which is what childbirth is. So with things like challenging workouts, or powering through 12 hours of watching my children when I’d rather be doing something else, or sitting down and working on a project when I would rather be doing literally anything else… My willpower and ability to do hard things has grown 10X since Dayton’s birth. I am certainly not talking about living every day in pain just for the sake of pain!
On a spiritual level, I often think now about how I might be short selling myself in life. Are there things I want to do that I’m not doing? A certain amount of money I want to make? Anything I want to manifest? Places I want to go? Ways that I want to love? Businesses I want to build? As cheesy as this might sound, it’s true: I can do anything, and I actually believe it now. It was the ultimate crash course in female empowerment. As badass as I felt when I birthed Milo with an epidural, it didn’t compare to how I felt after birthing Dayton and feeling all of those sensations.
Another pro of birthing without an epidural: I appreciate and regard all women even higher than I did before. I was a feminist long before I ever got pregnant, but now I have soooooo much more respect for women than ever before.
I recognize the primal strength inside every single woman on this planet. Because whether you choose to get an epidural or not, whether you want to do an unmedicated birth or not, whether you ever get pregnant or you don’t, you are capable of doing an unmedicated birth. You are! And even if you say you’re not capable (ha, I was literally saying I CAN’T DO THIS! I CAN’T DO THIS! During Dayton’s unmedicated birth), you literally can. You can! Female bodies are made to do that. It’s wild, because it hurts SOOO much but there are billions of women on this planet right now who can do it.
When it was time to start pushing, and I realized that I FOR SURE wasn’t going to get the epidural I wanted, I had this image flash across my mind: it was of a homeless woman tucked into a safe place under a bridge, preparing for childbirth somewhere out in nature. And I know that’s a weird thought to have right as I’m about to give birth in a cushy, air-conditioned, well-staffed medical hospital. (I had a LOT of thoughts flash through my head in the few minutes before I pushed Dayton out.) But I had that thought, and I felt mad for her and amazed by her.
I thought of how much pain I was about to experience, and how I really didn’t want to do it but I had no choice. And I thought of all of the women throughout history who have birthed in log cabins, out in nature, in bomb shelters with wars raging overhead, on boats, in deserts, in dirty urban settings. I thought of women who are being forced to birth even when they never wanted to become pregnant. I felt ANGER toward the patriarchy and toward any human who would ever tell a woman that she must go through all of this (40 weeks of pregnancy and a birth and a loooong recovery) against her will. And again, I know this is a LOT to be thinking about in a few moments before birthing my own child, but these thoughts really happened. I remember them being crystal clear.
Anyhow, what does that mean for me now? I’m not sure. I don’t know how this will play out in my next decades of life, but I know that supporting women’s rights to their own bodies matters to me a lot more than it ever did before this experience.
I’ll end with this: if there was a machine at voting booths that required every voter to experience 30 seconds of the “ring of fire” with no epidural before they were allowed to cast a vote, we would have no issues with women’s rights.
CONS OF AN UNMEDICATED BIRTRH:
– It hurt a FUCKING lot.
Those are the main pros and cons that come to my mind. I hope it’s helpful (or at least entertaining) to read about the difference.
I asked on instagram yesterday if any of you had specific questions, and there were a lot of them! I’ll answer a few of those:
FAQs about getting an epidural versus an unmedicated birth:
What are the differences in recovery?
I mentioned this before, but recovery was sooo much quicker WITHOUT the epidural. Typically, hospitals have a labor/delivery ward and a recovery room. So a couple hours after you birth your baby, they put you in a wheelchair and move you to the recovery room, which is where you stay for one or two nights.
Dayton’s recovery was soooo easy that we just stayed at the recovery room for one night. I was ready to get out of there and sleep on my own bed!
Rough $ of getting an epidural vs natural birth?
Ok, I actually totally forgot about this until one of you asked! It all depends on your insurance, but you typically have to pay a little bit out of pocket for an epidural. An anesthesiologist may or may not be covered by your insurance. It’s definitely not a reason to suffer through something that’s not your first choice, but it ended up being a small silver lining to the situation. So yes, I “accidentally” saved some money by not getting an epidural. That, plus only staying at the hospital one night versus two (again, this decision wasn’t fueled by finances but by a desire to sleep in my own amazing bed and get out of the hospital environment) ended up saving us some $. On the way home from the hospital I told Nate “I’m going to buy one of those $500 cordless breast pumps (I got the Elvie) with some of the money that we’re not spending on hospital bills. And I did.
Is one better than the other for a first birth?
Personal preference. Listen to what your intuition tells you. I had such a wonderful birth experience the first time around with an epidural, and I only have happy memories of that day. I’m really glad that I was able to have my ideal birth experience for the first birth.
Did you do anything to mentally prepare for natural birth?
I didn’t! Again, there are soooo many resources available for women who choose to birth without an epidural. There are classes and meditations and hypnosis and breath work and TONS of mind games you can use to reduce (or even eliminate, so I hear!) the pain. I am a big believer in the power of our minds, and I’m confident that my natural birth experience was so painful because I approached it with fear. I clenched up, shortened my breath, and my mind kept telling me “this is terrifying! I can’t do this!”
If I had been prepared, I know that I would have had a different experience.
Thoughts about hitting the ring of fire unmedicated?
See above: prepare! Don’t do what I did! Ha.
If you haven’t heard that term, the “ring of fire” is what people use to refer to the sensation of the baby’s head crowning when the mom is fully dilated to 10 cm. It’s riiiight as the baby is about to start making their grand entrance to the world! You are stretched to the MAX, the contractions are going full throttle, the skin is tearing, and energy is high! And I will be honest: it was intense. I truly thought I could not handle it. I wouldn’t wish that pain on anyone.
However, like I keep saying: the mind is STRONG! I think that proper preparation would have made a huge difference in the amount of pain I felt.
Did you tear differently with vs without an epidural?
Literally tore the exact same both times. Second degree for each birth.
How was the postpartum healing different?
I talked about the initial recovery in the hospital and first few weeks at home. But long term recovery? I think it was pretty much the same! It didn’t seem to affect my weight, my breast milk production, or my hormones. Stitches healed quickly and easily both times.
If you had a third baby, would you get an epidural or not?
Since my procreating days are over, I don’t have to answer this! Ha! I’m honestly pretty thankful that I don’t have to make a decision, because I don’t know!
However…Now that I know how absolutely amazing the recovery was the second time around, and I know that I literally can handle it, I’m tempted to say that I would go the natural route again.
I would prepare! I would practice hypnobirthing. I would visualize the crap out of that day for months in advance. I’d definitely take some natural birthing classes and show up with a whole bag of mental tricks.
But I don’t have to make a decision. 😉 Thank god.
Hope this was helpful for you! If you’re reading this in order to help you make a decision about which route you’d like to choose for your own birth, I’ll leave you with this: you have nothing to prove to anyone, including yourself. You are strong, brave, loved, and worthy, just for being here on this planet. Your intuition (Holy Spirit, inner guide, whatever word you choose!) is nudging you toward the ultimate birth story already, and it will be perfect for you.
Sending you love!! Glad I could share all of this with you today. XO.
PS: if you want to see all of my blog posts about pregnancy, I’ll link them all right here for you.