If you’re reading this post, you’re probably pregnant. Congratulations! I know you’re excited to meet your little one. But maybe you’re a little scared too. The arrival of your baby is always a big event, whether you choose to have an epidural or a natural birth.
Maybe you’re interested in an unmedicated birth because you’ve heard it’s better for your baby or that you’re less likely to end up with a c-section, but you’re scared to pull the trigger. Or perhaps you’re just like, “Nope! Pain hurts. Give me the drugs.”
Either way, I’d love to help you make your decision! I’ve had three children myself, and while all three were born vaginally, they were all very different experiences. I can tell you the pros and cons of an epidural vs a “natural” birth from the perspective of a mom who has been through both.
Side note: All births are natural. However, most people who say “natural” child birth are referring to unmedicated, vaginal birth, so that’s how I’m using the term here. No matter what your birth story(ies), you are a freaking valiant warrior princess.
My birth stories
Before I get into all the positives and negatives of a drug-free birth, I’d like to share my own birthing experiences. Each story can help you figure out what to expect.
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Baby number one: Traditional epidural birth
Before I had my daughter, I was terrified of birth. It was literally one of my biggest fears, short of maybe death itself. In fact, that was probably a large reason why I didn’t really want to have kids!
My husband and I went to a birthing class at the local hospital. I’ll be honest, I’m not sure it was helpful. The information was really more scary than empowering. My husband said that as he looked around, he saw some women who were white as a sheet, others who were grey, and then there was me, with tears silently streaming down my cheeks (BTW, I’m sure there are several excellent birthing classes held at hospitals. This was just not one of them).
I have always been someone who has lots of Braxton-Hicks contractions, so when I woke up at 2AM, three days before my due date, with contractions, I wasn’t really alarmed yet. I remembered hearing that you couldn’t eat once you got to the hospital, so I had a big bowl of soup just in case (because I knew hospitals don’t let you eat during labor) before waking up my husband.
We had read that taking a hot shower or bath could stop contractions if it was false labor. I took a shower, but they still kept coming. By about 5:45 AM, we were convinced that it was go time, so we went to the hospital.
When I got to the hospital, I hung out in a chair for a while in a hospital room. I think the nurses forgot about me. By the time they came back, it had been about an hour and a half and I had decided I definitely wanted an epidural. I was fighting contractions (they hurt!), and they were getting more intense.
I was given the epidural, and immediately felt more relaxed. Interestingly, I had one place at my left groin crease where I could still feel contractions, but it was more of a slight twinge than pain. The anesthesiologist offered to deliver more drugs to numb that spot too, but I told him I actually preferred it because it let me sense what was going on still.
A few hours later, a nurse came in and said that the midwife wanted to put me on Pitocin (the drug used to induce labor). I was confused, because I really hadn’t been in labor very long, especially for a first birth, and nothing was wrong. But she checked, and it turned out that I was already fully dilated. No Pitocin for me!
Pushing was a little difficult because I couldn’t sense when I was “supposed” to push. But still, it worked out, and General Leia was born around an hour later!
Baby number two: Really fast unmedicated birth!
For baby number two, I liked the idea of having a drug-free birth (especially after the recovery complications I had after giving birth to General Leia – more on that later). But at the same time, I was too scared to commit. I read a few natural birth stories, but I didn’t do any “prep” for labor.
Despite being pregnant, I was still nursing Leia. I had heard that breastfeeding near your due date could kick-start labor, so I had been nursing her as long as I could stand it in the morning (before Braxton-Hicks contractions got too intense).
But three days before my due date, I was nursing Leia, and the contractions were way more intense. I realized I was in labor for real! We had just enough time to get my daughter dropped off to daycare and travel to the hospital (My vivid memory of getting preparing her for school? Cutting up strawberries for her breakfast between contractions).
When we got there, labor was already really intense. At that point, all the desire for an unmedicated birth went out the window. I wanted an epidural like yesterday!
The problem was, it was too late! My water broke, and suddenly I was pretty much in one big constant contraction, with almost no time in-between. The anesthesiologist was trying to get an epidural needle in me, but I was in transition and was too busy writhing and screaming to stay still.
The nurse had to get my attention to get me to calm down. She told me I had to do this. I don’t know her name, but I’m still grateful to the nurse who made me get my stuff together so I could birth my baby.
Soon thereafter, Bella Bean came (in front of a crowd of medical students whom I have no recollection of). It was 45 minutes from when I hit the hospital door until when she was born in dramatic but safe fashion.
Baby number three: Natural birth that I prepared for
After Bella Bean came, I knew I was able to “survive” a natural birth. After all, the part that I was yelling and screaming and freaking out about really was the hardest part – it didn’t get worse than that! I knew that a lot of the pain simply came from fear.
I knew that if I wanted to have a better birth experience, I needed to plan for it from the beginning. I joined a yoga class with an instructor certified to work with pregnant women soon after my first trimester.
In addition, I bought this book about a technique called Hypnobirthing towards the end of my second trimester. Hypnobirthing sounds a little crazy, I know, but the premise is that the pain you experience during birth comes from fear, and that if you can allow yourself to drift into a state of deep relaxation, birth will be a calm, peaceful experience.
I read the Hypnobirthing book probably four or five times. There weren’t any courses in hypnobirthing offered in our area, so I relied on the book heavily.
One version of the Hypnobirthing book comes with two guided relaxation tracks. I fell asleep to these tracks every night before my birth, and they made a huge difference. (BTW: Some people report not enjoying the author’s voice. I didn’t have a problem with it, but if it doesn’t work for you, here’s a different collection of guided mediation for labor and birth).
Suffice it to say, my birth experience was completely different the third time around! I was able to go through a twenty hour labor drug free, and with little pain until literally the last few minutes. In fact, I was even able to move around to get Budrow in position (his head was stuck behind my left hip), something I couldn’t have possibly done with an epidural.
Natural birth vs epidural pros and cons
If I had a fourth baby (no plans there!) I would hands-down choose to go drug free again.
UPDATE: I found out I was pregnant about two weeks after writing the sentence above. Yep, I was pregnant when I wrote about how I had no plans for another baby. (Wo)man plans, God laughs. I stand by my plans to do a natural birth again.
UPDATE TO THE UPDATE: Baby number 4 arrived early January 2020! And yes, that birth ended up natural as well. And once again, that labor was a whole ‘nother experience, with a stalled-out labor. Here’s my advice about stalled labor – what it means, and how to start it back up.
I can tell you that this tool was a game-changer for the experience.
Does that sound crazy? I don’t blame you for thinking so. But let me share why I think unmedicated birth is the way to go:
1. Natural birth makes it easier for you to move and adjust
As I mentioned before, Budrow was not positioned correctly for his birth. He wasn’t quite transverse (side-lying), but he was diagonal in my womb with his head tucked behind my hip. Needless to say, he wasn’t going anywhere in that position.
Once we realized the problem, I asked the nurse what I could do. She suggested I get up on my knees, leaned against the head of the hospital bed. I swear to you, I felt that child turn into the correct position within minutes of me getting upright. I immediately went into transition, and he was out like nine minutes later.
Could I have made this adjustment with an epidural? Maybe, but it would have required other people to hold me up, and it would have been difficult. Depending on the doctor (and my commitment), I could imagine the health care team calling it right there and making me have a c-section.
I’m so grateful I could move around during those last, crucial moments of my son’s delivery.
2. Natural birth makes for easier recovery for baby
Despite what you may have heard, some of the epidural drug gets to the baby during birth. Babies whose mother have an epidural during birth are more likely to undergo respiratory distress.
In addition, newborns born under an epidural tend to be sleepier and have a harder time latching and establishing breastfeeding. This definitely happened for General Leia, as I couldn’t get her to nurse for most of her second day.
RELATED: Newborn breastfeeding – 12 tips
Bella Bean, on the other hand, latched within ten minutes of birth! The doctor had come in to sing Happy Birthday to her, and she latched as he was singing. Such a sweet moment.
Even Budrow, who chose to come almost three weeks early, had zero problems latching within an hour of his natural birth! I appreciated how easy things started with these two.
3. Easier recovery for you after unmedicated birth
After my first baby was born, I was ravenously hungry. The hospital offered me a turkey sandwich, and you better believe I ate it!
A few hours later, once I started getting feeling back into my legs, I decided I needed to go to the bathroom. This was my first time getting up since the birth. When I got up, my blood pressure bottomed out.
I immediately was super nauseated. And I’ll be honest, it made me so mad! I had dealt with nausea for the last nine months; I was ready for it to be over! (On a related note, I held onto that turkey sandwich because I was determined not to lose it, but it was hard.)
I continued to feel awful for twenty minutes, and all I could do was lie there. I didn’t care that I had a new baby; I was just miserable.
On top of that, I had a much more difficult postpartum recovery weeks and even months after getting home from the hospital. I had a harder time walking or doing other physical activity.
3. Drug-free labor is empowering
This is the best reasons to have a natural birth, in my opinion. My third labor, where I was prepared and in charge of what happened, was an incredible experience.
As I like to say, my first two births happened to me, but I accomplished my third birth. It was the most empowering experience I have ever had.
Natural birth pros and cons
|Much better ability to move||You feel everything|
|Faster recovery after birth||Labor might be lengthened if mom is stressed|
|Less risk of tearing||Might not be an option for high-risk pregnancies|
|Decreased risk of induction or C-section||Often requires more preparation before birth|
|Baby is more alert and ready to bond and breastfeed||You might want to change your mind but it’s too late|
|For many women, greater sense of control and empowerment|
Pros and cons of epidural
|Pain is significantly or completely decreased||Occasionally doesn’t work|
|If emergency C-section is required, you’re already numbed||Greater risk of interventions, including forcep extraction|
|Allows mom to rest during extended labor||Pushing is more difficult|
|Allows mom to be awake and aware during labor||Greater risk of tearing|
|Usually still available if you changed your mind during labor||Drop in blood pressure can cause severe headaches or nausea|
|Makes induction much more manageable||Time is needed to complete an IV before epidural is placed|
|Baby often comes out sleepier and may have more difficult time breastfeeding|
What should you not do for your labor?
Whatever you do, please don’t go into birth thinking, “I’ll try to have a natural labor…” but not do anything to prepare. If you do that, you’re putting yourself in a bad situation.
Learn pain management strategies (like in this book) and make sure you’re ready. Otherwise, the experience can be really overwhelming (like with my second child).
If you have the opportunity, a doula can be a great investment to help you with your natural birth. There wasn’t one in my area, so I’ve never tried one, but my friend Emily has written a great article about the benefits of a doula.
With that said, you can do it! Don’t be afraid to go natural, just make sure you get ready for it.
And if you prepare for a natural labor but things don’t work out? That’s okay too. You didn’t fail; there was no test! You still brought your baby into the world, and that’s amazing, regardless of how it happens.
Which type of birth will you choose?
If this post has convinced you to go natural with your birth, I invite you to get access to our FREE Perfect Natural Birth toolkit. You’ll get a birth plan template, tips I’ve never seen anywhere else to keep you calm and relaxed, birthing mantras, and more!
Whichever way you go, or even if things don’t go as planned in your birthing experience, you still get to see your new baby at the end. That’s the most important thing!
I’d love to hear more from you! Let me know what you think is the best choice for your birth experience in the comments below!