Medicated vs. Unmedicated Births: What You Need to Know

Medicated vs. Unmedicated Births: What You Need to Know

PC: Stacey Peterson

Before we begin, I'd like to get some things out of the way.
  1.  There is no single birth plan the works for everyone. Birth is a very personal and taxing process, so we should avoid trying to tell someone else how they should do it.
  2. My first labor did not go as planned, but it was still meaningful. Things often don't go as planned. I planned for a natural birth but ended up being induced, going through a medicated labor, and having a C-section at the last minute. But that's okay. I'm still as much of a mom! Weird, right?
  3. I believe childbirth can be and is wonderful. No matter how your baby comes into this world, it's special because--hello--they are being born! Medicated or unmedicated, you are finally meeting that little person you've been nurturing for 9 months, and that's pretty darn special.
I'll now step down from my soapbox.

Medicated Births

If you plan on giving birth in a hospital, you should learn about the available medications--even if you are planning an unmedicated birth. Medicated birth simply means that you'll be using pain medications to dull or eliminate the pain of childbirth. It can also refer to any medications administered to induce labor.

Pain-related medications used in childbirth include:

  • analgesics (drugs that reduce pain)
  • tranquilizers
  • anesthetics (drugs that produce a loss of sensation).
The most popular form of pain medication during childbirth (at least in the US) is an epidural, a form of anesthetic nerve block. Epidurals block sensory nerves below the waist, meaning you can still voluntarily move your muscles, but you can't necessarily feel them. Usually taking about 30 minutes to kick in, this specific nerve block covers a wide area and is administered by a long, fine needle in a space near the spinal cord. While some mothers prefer to avoid the after effects of the epidural (drowsiness, lethargy, possible nausea), the same may opt for a less-effecting pain medication such as Tylenol or other analgesics. These medications will not eliminate the pain, but rather "take the edge off." The advantage with analgesics is that you still have complete movement and sensation in your body, but are able to bear the pain better. Other types of nerve blocks are available, including a pudendal block, which numbs the vaginal area, but does not eliminate pain from uterine contractions. Pudendal blocks are most often used when forceps or a vacuum is used in the delivery stage. In some cases, mothers receive general anesthesia (where you aren't awake) for their labors, but this is usually used for certain medical reasons, and as a last resort. If you end up having a Cesarean birth (also called a C-section), you'll likely receive an epidural along with a local anesthetic. Ideally, C-sections are also a last resort, and should only happen when it's the safest way to deliver the baby. Look for a new blog post next week all about C-sections, so you can prepare for whatever comes your way.

Unmedicated Births

Sometimes referred to as "natural" birth, unmedicated birth is just what it sounds like: without medication. This means that the birthing mother does not use analgesics, tranquilizers, or anesthesia during the course of her labor and delivery. For some, this choice may be a matter of proving personal strength. For others, it's the preferred method to ensure that their baby is not exposed to any drugs (whether through the placenta or via breastfeeding) during the birthing process. There is some dissent as to whether or not inductions (or medically started births) count as "unmedicated." In my humble opinion, the nomenclature or terms shouldn't matter. What matters is your preference and feeling good about your birth plan. In reality, a lot of it has to do with choice. You can choose whether or not to get pain medication, but you can't decide when your baby comes. If your baby just isn't coming on its own, an induction might be something that's necessary, but not your preference.

Women who prefer to have an unmedicated and/or natural birthing process may use non-pharmacological forms of pain management including:

  • counter-pressure
  • touch and massage
  • patterned breathing
  • birthing balls
  • hypnosis or mental focus
  • aromatherapy
Countless methods, classes, and philosophies exist about the best way to have an unmedicated birth. Hypnobirthing, Lamaze, and The Bradley Method are just a few of the most common.

The decision to have a medicated or unmedicated birth shouldn't be taken lightly, but you should also make it knowing that things don't always go as planned. My suggestion is to learn all you can about both sides of the coin, and choose the one that you are most comfortable with. As they say, "it's your baby!"

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