My grandmothers had done it. So had my mum and aunts. If they could go through labour without epidural, why couldn’t I do it, too?
Boy, was I wrong.
Armed with nothing but my guts and extensive textbook knowledge on drug-free births, I psyched myself up for my child’s arrival.
Alas, from the time my water bag burst and the doctor put me on a drip to speed up labour, things didn’t go as planned.
A gruelling 12 hours later, without any medication to cope with the awful artificially induced contractions, my doctor told me: “Oh my, you’ve only dilated another half centimetre.”
All that agony for nothing. Then came the worst news for a first-time mum: I needed an emergency C-section. Too many hours had passed since my water bag burst, and this was dangerous for Baby.
Apparently, I’m typical of the 80 per cent of women who attempt labour without using drugs, according to Dr Paul Tseng, an obstetrician gynaecologist at TLC Gynaecology Practice at Thomson Medical Centre (TMC).
I also belong to the majority who fail the mission – only 25 per cent succeed in doing so.
(Also read: 10 things you should know about epidural)
Still, it seems that mums-to-be are not discouraged by the statistics. The National University Hospital (NUH) now sees about 10 bookings every month for water birth, a natural birth method.
This is a sevenfold increase compared to its early days, shares Deborah Jane Fox, a midwife at its Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology. Since its launch in 2006, more than 100 women have gone through it.
“Women are starting to realise that childbirth is really not as scary as it appears to be,” says Ginny Phang, owner of Four Trimesters, which offers doula (childbirth support) services and antenatal classes.
“When you’re not drugged out during labour, the experience can be empowering.”
Ginny and her team assist six to 10 women in labour each month. About eight in 10 clients will have already decided that they didn’t want pain relief before they approach her.
OMG! These mums did it
Bettina Ng thinks of her drug-free birth as a personal challenge.
“My mum and aunts did it, so I told myself that I could do it, too,” says the 35-year-old civil servant, who hired a doula to help deliver her first child last year.
However, unlike me, she succeeded.
While she jokes that the intensity of the contractions was probably four to five times worse than the pain from food poisoning, Bettina adds she will do it all over again when she has her second child.
“It’s bearable. I don’t think I would have given birth in any other way because I loved how alert my baby and I were after that,” she says.
First-time mum Nicole Tan, who went through a drug-free water birth at NUH last year, believe that labour can even be “enjoyable” when women learn to trust their bodies.
Far from the stereotypical childbirth hysterics, the life coach and a hypno-birthing educator likens her eight-hour labour process to a relaxing soak in a tub. Even the lights in the room were dimmed to create a peaceful environment, she quips.
“My husband and I were so relaxed that we even fell asleep at one point,” says Nicole, who had prepared herself by attending birthing courses and watching videos of water births.
“I believe that fear plus tension equals pain. I was very relaxed the whole time. I refuse to believe that childbirth has to be frightening, traumatising and painful.”
Incidentally, Nicole’s 4.4kg newborn is NUH’s largest naturally born Asian baby.
Labouring in water – set at body temperature – helps mums relax and cope with the discomfort of labour, explains Associate Professor Chong Yap Seng, an obstetrician gynaecologist at NUH.
The warm water also relaxes the pelvic muscles, so as to speed up labour.
In fact, midwife Deborah cites a study in 2000 by London’s Homerton Hospital, which shows water birth may shorten labour by up to 90 minutes for first-time mums.
Besides this type of birthing, other ways to manage labour pain at TMC include the use of birthing chairs, which can help mums get into a comfortable position while in labour.
And then there are also massages, breathing and relaxation techniques, music, heat packs and even aromatherapy, adds Deborah.
Above all, you need the emotional support from your husband or doula.
Not for everyone
But experts point out that not everyone is a suitable candidate for drug-free labour.
This includes women with complicated pregnancies, as well as those with ailments like high blood pressure, hepatitis B and other viral infections, says Assoc Prof Chong.
Expectant mums carrying multiple babies – like twins and triplets – should not try it either.
When labour has gone on for too long, pain relief can help exhausted mums, says Dr Tseng.
“It will be able to eliminate bad contractions and offer the mum some well-deserved rest. Very often, after administering pain-relief medicine, we notice that the mum’s cervix dilates very quickly and speeds up labour,” he explains.
If you’re considering a go without drugs such as epidural, it is important to plan for it.
“Treat it like you’re running a marathon,” Ginny advises. “Sure, you can simply go without preparation and run it, but if you go into it well-prepared, your chances of success will be higher.”
I wish I had known this earlier. Being more prepared, like Bettina and Nicole, would have saved me the trauma of going through an emergency C-section, and spared my husband a $7,000 hospital bill.
Even so, Dr Tseng adds that there’s “no shame” in getting pain relief during labour: “At least these mums know they’ve tried.”
Would I attempt a drug-free birth again? Well, maybe. But only if I can get past my first horrifying experience to consider having a second child.
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