Ask the Doula - epidurals

I am always getting letters, phone calls, or face-to-face questions about birth, doulas, and such.

Every week, I am going to  try to answer and explore a different question that is presented to me, and, in doing so, perhaps answer some of your questions, and perhaps learn a thing or two myself.

Please send me your questions as comments, and I will select one question each week to answer.

Question Number One

"I was at a birth the other day, and the doctor said to my client that there was a recent study done that proves that an early epidural [that is, administered before 4cm] does not lead to a rise in c-sections. What is your opinion on this?"

I think more doulas and women will start to hear about this study, and I think it reflects a dangerous trend. The doctor who quotes recent research seems very with-it and up-to-date - she's done her homework. But let's have a little look at the research in questions:

The study is a systematic review of six studies that included over 15,000 women. Please click here to retrieve it. As you can see, it is a nice little study, I suppose, with one serious flaw that jumps out on first reading.
It states that the ..."review showed no increased risk of caesarean delivery or instrumental vaginal delivery for women receiving early epidural analgesia at cervical dilatation of 3 [c]m or less in comparison with late epidural analgesia." Early epidural analgesia was defined as that administered at 3 cm or less. Late epidural analgesia was not defined, so it could have been administered anywhere from 4 cm well into the pushing phase. Well, when was it? Was it at 4.5? Or was it after an hour and a half of pushing?

The danger is that, the media being the creature it is, someone could simply snip this conclusion, as I have done, and weave a generalization from it. An unsuspecting woman reads the two-sentence generalization and thinks "ahhh, well, that's a relief, I don't have to wait to take my epidural."

Let's look at the reality:
What do we see, as doulas? As I suggest in my book, IF a baby is not optimally positioned (and, by the way, this is also something that we have studied and studied, and we still can't ever really tell when and if a baby is well-positioned, except by watching her  weave successfully down the birth tunnel), and IF a woman takes an epidural early in her labor, and IF the baby's descent could have been helped by a resistant pelvic floor, then this mother and baby could end up with a surgical delivery.

So, in fact, when I see a nice easy birth and:
a mother who has always taken an epidural (and this is her sixth baby and hey! who am I to argue?)
or a mother who always maintained she would ask for pain meds
or a mother who needs meds for another, outstanding reason (sexual abuse being one - we'll get to that another week)
then I have a better feeling about outcome when she decides to take an epidural (even if I know she doesn't really need it).

But when I see a labor that is not going well, for whatever reason: for example, if a woman is having the particular kind of pain that may indicate a poor position, or a woman is undergoing an induction (more about induction coming up too) that looks like it may fail, then I worry about an early epidural, and its effects on labor.

So what can we do about it? "No, little missy, you cannot take the drugs. I as your doula know best"?
Of course not. Maybe there is not really much we can do in the moment. Maybe prenatal education is absolutely paramount. We need to sit with our clients and talk with them about what they are reading, what they understand, what they believe. We need to work with them and open up to them about our own experiences as doulas, and let them know that although a natural birth is definitely simple, it is not usually easy, and that even during labor they will probably have to make choices. And that her choices WILL affect the way her birth unfolds. If she wants a natural birth in a hospital, she will have to work for it. Part of that work will be not accepting pain medication too early in labor.
I know it goes against the review.
But I have evidence that early epidural administration DOES interfere with the normal progress of labor. That evidence comes from my own observation. No studies, no funding, no university degrees. Just women birthing.


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