Drugs in Labor: 5 Good Reasons Not to Use Them

Why would anyone not want to use drugs for labor? Today in the United States, 90% of laboring mothers use drugs. Drugs are used primarily for 3 reasons: for induction, C-Sections, and comfort. Compared to the 1970’s there is a 25 % increase in inductions, 25% increase in C-Sections, and an 50% overall increase in the use of drugs for labor. The national U.S. cesarean section rate was 4.5% and near this optimal range in 1965 when it was first measured (Taffel et al. 1987).
There is no question that drugs are overused in today’s birth setting. There are times when drugs are necessary and beneficial but let’s take a closer look at the benefits of not using drugs for labor.
1. Side-effects and Risks: Every drug has risks and side-effects. Both mother and baby are at risk when drugs are administered for labor. Some side effects include; fetal distress, depression of the infant respiratory system, grogginess in mother and baby, unresponsive baby, colicky baby, spinal headaches, lack of feeling in mother, postpartum back pain, decreased bonding and in extreme cases death, to name a few. There are also many longer term effects of drugs on babies which have been identified and are still being studied. Some babies fare well even when their mom’s take drugs in labor. But some babies do not and no one knows which babies will react negatively to the drugs so why take a risk of your baby being one that does not do well? Most people reason that pregnant women should not take drugs while pregnant because the drugs can get to the baby and have negative effects. When a woman is in labor there is no difference in how the drugs get to the baby and the risks involved. So shouldn’t the same logic apply?
2. Interference with the Natural Process: Our bodies are designed to give birth without the use of drugs and interventions. When a woman is in labor her body produces natural hormones like oxytocin and relaxin which help reduce pain and increase tolerance. When a woman is scared, anxious or upset the fight or flight response kicks in and blocks the release of the natural hormones that are helpful thereby increasing pain and discomfort. When drugs are given to a laboring woman, this also interferes with the body’s natural ability to produce the helpful hormones. As a result drugs can slow labor and cause the use of additional medications and interventions as well as lengthen the time of labor.
3. Pain has a Purpose: Many women who have natural births without the use of drugs don’t do it to be a martyr as some may think. They usually do it because they want to engage in the birth experience and they want what’s safest for them and their babies. When no drugs are used a woman is most likely to be fully aware, alert and engaged in the process. She can feel her body and what it is telling her. Our bodies are very intelligent and know what to do in labor. When we are in touch with our bodies we intuitively know what positions to be in, when to change positions, what we need for comfort or to keep labor moving, and most importantly we know when something is wrong. Abnormal pain can signal a laboring woman that something is not right. When she has taken drugs, she no longer has the ability to be in touch with her body’s signals. Our bodies only give us what we can handle so even though labor can be painful or uncomfortable, we are made to handle it. Women have been doing it for many decades.
4. Engage in the Process: The use of drugs and interventions takes us away from our birth experience. When we can’t feel our bodies because of anesthesia we can’t fully engage in the process. We don’t know when or how to push when it’s time. We aren’t able to walk around and help the labor progress naturally. We can’t feel the baby progressing through the birth canal and making an entrance into the world. All of this helps with bonding once the baby is born. Drugs also interfere with mental clarity. It is more difficult to make critical decisions when there is lack of mental clarity, which can affect the baby and the woman negatively. Women who use drugs in labor typically remember less about their birth experience than women who don’t use drugs in labor. When drugs are not used, a woman is able to fully engage in the physical, mental and emotional process of giving birth.
5. Become Empowered: You’ve heard the saying “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger” right? Even though it’s unlikely that we’re going to die in childbirth, sometimes we feel like we might. It is the really tough and challenging times in life that make us stronger as humans. Once a woman has given birth naturally, she usually comes to understand there isn’t anything she can’t do. That is empowering! The use of drugs can take away the empowering experience of giving birth.
While there are circumstances where drugs for labor can be beneficial, there are many more reasons not to use drugs in labor. In most cases, the benefits of not using drugs outweigh the risks. To have the most empowering, engaging, natural and least risky birth experience leave the drugs for when they are truly necessary. You and your baby will be glad you did.

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