The CDC reports that around 61% of women opt for epidural or spinal anesthesia during vaginal birth, and it’s not a surprise why. Labor can be painful! As the American Society of Anesthesiologists and American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists have said, “There is no other circumstance where it is considered acceptable for an individual to experience untreated severe pain, amenable to safe intervention, while under a physician’s care.” While some mothers may opt for drug-free births using lamaze, acupuncture, or massage, many mothers chose epidurals — pain medication delivered through a catheter inserted near your spine — to manage their labor pains.
Dr. Edna Ma, an anesthesiologist and mother of two who also had two labor epidurals as a patient, explains that epidurals usually happen when a patient is about 4 cm dilated during labor. “From the patient perspective, the numbing medicine feels like a bee-sting,” she explains. Once you’ve been numbed, you won’t feel the epidural needle inserted into your back. You may feel pressure as the epidural needle is inserted into the right spot, but you shouldn’t feel the actual needle. Once the needle is in place, the anesthesiologist will insert a catheter and remove the needle. Dr. Ma says that the whole process shouldn’t take more than ten minutes.
Here, eight women who went through labor epidurals describe their experiences.
1. “I had an epidural after 15 hours of labor. I knew it was something that I wanted the second I found out I was pregnant. Who wants to go through the worst pain of your life? I have scoliosis so the administrator had to put the needle in both my left and right sides of my spine. It was awful. I had to hold still for 15 minutes with contractions happening every two minutes. They say you forget everything about labor after you have a baby, but that is not true. I remember every single detail. I loved my epidural and would pre-order it for my next baby if I could.“— Rosalin, 37
2. “I got my first epidural in 2016 and it was not as scary or painful as most women make it seem. Yes, you are getting a getting a small tube inserted near your spine via a not-so-tiny needle, but that is not the worst part. Getting an epidural feels like being a sock puppet, and the anesthesiologist is the puppeteer. You feel the poking and prodding, and the tube threading down your back initially, but once the medicine begins to work, it feels like the puppet strings have been cut, and you’re dancing away like Pinocchio… figuratively, not literally. You can’t move once the epidural is administered. “— Brittany, 24
3. “With my first, I wanted to try to have a drug-free birth if possible. But, real talk, I just couldn’t do it! After being awake [during labor] for more than 30 hours, I needed a break. The worst part of an epidural is the numbing before the epidural is administered — though the needle injection in your back is no joke either. The numbing was awful because it felt like a terrible burning sensation down my back. It was also nerve-wracking because while you’re getting the epidural you’re also going through contractions, but you need to stay perfectly still while it happens. It took a few minutes for the epidural to work but, to me, it was totally worth it. I had relief very quickly and didn’t feel pain again until after it wore off post-birth. With the epidural, I was able to finally sleep before a long night of pushing. With my second child, as soon as I was admitted, I asked for the epidural right away because I knew what to expect. I knew I needed my ‘nap’ before my life was going to change all over again.”— Stephanie, 34
4. “I’m a fairly “crunchy” gal, gravitating to holistic wellness. As such, I was prepared for an unmedicated pregnancy. I exercised throughout my pregnancy, ate well (mostly), and engaged in hypnobirthing with my husband who, bless him, didn’t pass out during one special day of class when at least six voluminous vaginas were featured in a water-birthing video. I’m a brain tumor survivor and have an incredibly high pain threshold. At just shy of 42 weeks, I hit about 22 hours of laboring when I was told our daughter was in the occiput posterior position [Editor’s note: this means the baby is head down, with their head facing their mother’s belly button, as opposed to the “more favorable” position of head down, facing mom’s butt.], which makes for a painful labor and delivery and often leads to c-section. At that point, I was exhausted and my doula even recommended an epidural. I consented and this crunchy mama’s perception of “medicated pregnancy” vastly changed. As soon as I was given the epidural, I slept until I was told it was time to push. After about an hour of pushing mightily — like I wasn’t given an epidural, my beautiful baby was born, looking straight up! And I had a little extra energy to enjoy our early time together. All that matters is that these precious little beings are born healthy. My daughter Madeleine is my favorite human and, by far, one of the highlights of my life. I will never naysay any woman who elects to use an epidural.”—Brook, 37
5. “The anesthesiologist came in and asked me to lay with my legs across the side of the bed and hold the pillow on my stomach so I would be in a hunched over position and lay very still. He put numbing cream on my back before he inserted the needle, and I barely felt it going in. I was so scared of the needle, but was even more scared of the pain of childbirth, so I just went with it! I intentionally did not want to see the needle before it went into my back so I asked them not to show it to me. It took about 20 minutes, from start to finish. It felt like a small shot going into my back — similar to getting blood drawn. I couldn’t feel anything below my waist after it kicked in, so the nurses had to empty my bladder using a tube in my urethra since I couldn’t feel below my waist. Overall it was a great experience. Why feel that torturous pain if you don’t have to? I truly believe the epidural aided in making my birthing experience a joyous one.”—Demia, 31
6. “I was very nervous about getting a needle in my back but I was scared of the pain [of unmedicated birth] even more. They put something on my spine to numb the area before the epidural went in. You feel a pinch when they insert it and it felt very warm going in, but I didn’t feel anything after that. It wasn’t painful but it did take the entire day to wear off, which was very uncomfortable. Once the epidural kicked in I was completely numb from the waist down and I couldn’t feel anything. At one point, one side of the epidural had worn off but my other side was still completely numb. The nurse tried to get me up to walk around but I ended up passing out because I couldn’t feel my legs, and they put one of those smelling salts under my nose. During my second pregnancy I was very nervous to get the epidural because of what happened during the first pregnancy. After my first experience, I was careful not to get up until I was sure the epidural wore off.”—Yolanda, 35
7. “I remember it was frightening. The anesthesiologist walked in to explain the legal jargon, the side effects, and the description of the length of the needle. He walked behind me and counted down. My thoughts raced, and then I felt the needle pierce my skin and go deeper. The injection felt like a splash of ice cubes gently melting inside my lower back after feeling the injection sting for five seconds. I kept trying to breathe and sit still because I did not want the needle wiggling around out of place. Afterwards, I had an epidural button to administer more of it, but did not use it. My legs were already completely numb. The epidural was so strong that pushing with my legs numb felt confusing and was difficult for me. Physiologically, it just seemed like my legs did not exist. I did not know if I was even pushing or making progress. I had to tell by the way the nurses and my sister answered. I asked for a mirror or a video so I could see my own progress.”—Adriana, 27
8. “With my first child, I was in so much pain from contractions that I barely noticed the pain from the injection. I was, however, very scared to move. We’ve all been warned about potential risks from an epidural and although that was very unlikely, trying not to move while having contraction makes the whole thing very scary. First, they numbed the area of my back and then injected the epidural. I felt the stinging when the drugs went in but shortly after felt nothing below my boobs. I could feel the liquid entering my back and I felt a stream of coolness enter my back with the stinging and then a sense of warmth as the lower half of my body went fairly numb. It did take some time to find the exact spot for the epidural — I gave birth at a teaching hospital so there were a few people looking at the spot and going over how to do it. I would guess 20-30 minutes. The epidural made it possible to get some rest before my daughter arrived. I slept for a little before pushing began. When I woke up, I was only numb on one side, so I let the doctors know that and they pumped more in. It almost worked too well and I was completely numb, so when the doctor told me to ‘push right here’ I had to ask him to describe exactly where, because I couldn’t feel his finger!”—Stephanie, 36
Answers have been lightly edited for clarity.