I thought I wouldn’t feel anything if I had an epidural

Photo of a couple with their newborn (PantherMedia / Robert Kneschke)

Claudia, 38 years old, 3-month-old son

"I consider giving birth to be a natural thing. That’s why I didn’t really want to give birth in hospital. I planned to have my son in a birth center, so from the start I had decided not to have an epidural."

One friend of mine thinks epidurals are a great medical advancement. She believes that every woman should have an epidural so that they don’t have to suffer anymore. But I know other women who say that you just need to get through the pain, and that it is an important human experience. I didn't really agree with either of these positions. I wanted to give birth in a birth center because I didn't want it to be treated as a medical process. Another important reason was that I could have the midwife I knew, who had been caring for me.

I think the way you approach pain has a big impact on how you experience pain. My opinion was that birth would no doubt be very painful, but that you can get through it. After all, many other women had gone through it before me.

People don’t really talk about labor pain

I spoke to some women who had already had children. I found it interesting when they said that it’s different to other pain because you know it has a purpose. In the end, something good comes of it. That made sense to me.

In my experience, people don't really talk about labor pain. It’s kept a bit secret. People would often say "It was pretty bad" or "I don't want to go into it." Beforehand I thought I’d get more anxious as the due date got closer. But that wasn't the case. Somehow I kept getting calmer. I just thought: "It will be okay."

Pre-labor pain three days before the due date

Three days before the due date I suddenly had pains. They were already pretty strong. I find it hard to describe. They started during the day, with big gaps inbetween them. They were cramp-like pains and I thought “oh, so this is what pre-labor feels like.” I had a bath and then started packing my suitcase, just in case. I hadn’t done that yet.

I had cramp-like pain, like a wave, not like a constant pain – more like a cramp. It hurt for a short time and then stopped. I got back into the bath. That helped, but the pain didn’t go away. Then it became clear that this was the real thing, and labor had started. At that point it felt a bit like period pain. But it wasn't terrible pain, not at all.

Then everything happened really fast

Then everything happened really fast. The contractions came every three or four minutes. That was like really bad period pain. It was already fairly painful. We drove to the birth center then. By the time we got there, I was having contractions every two minutes. That made it difficult to manage the pain. There was hardly any time between the contractions, and I couldn’t quite get on top of it.

My main problem was that I didn't know how I was meant to breathe. At the birth center I got back into the bath after a while. That helped. Then I had an idea. I can breathe out particularly well when I sing. So I started singing loudly. The midwife had said beforehand that I could go ahead and scream if I needed to, but I thought that would be a bit much. When the pain got really bad, my singing sounded a bit like screaming. That worked well.

I also used a few breathing techniques, and found that changing positions sometimes made things more comfortable. That gave me something I could actively do, which was good.

My contractions weren’t as effective as before

At some point the midwife said that we needed to go to hospital because the baby wasn’t down in the birth canal and his head was turned to the side. We tried several things to get the baby to turn, but nothing worked. I was in a lot of pain. It wasn't as though I couldn't stand it anymore, but somehow I felt that it wasn't quite right. The pain didn’t feel like it should. The contractions weren’t as effective as before. And in one position I reached the point where I just couldn't take it anymore. So I thought going to hospital was a good idea.

At the hospital I was given an epidural. Although I knew what epidurals were, I didn’t really know much about them. At first I was worried that they'd inject me in the wrong place. But I then remembered that it’s actually a standard procedure in hospitals, and trusted that everything would go well.

I still had contractions, but the breaks between them had got longer. I was really tired. After they put the epidural in, they said I could have a rest and maybe sleep. I did that. It was just short, but I recovered a bit. When I woke up I went to the toilet and I could turn from side to side again. That had been very hard for me to do before.

I thought I wouldn’t feel anything if I had an epidural

I had thought that epidurals stopped you from feeling anything. That was one of the reasons why I didn't really want an epidural. But it wasn't like that. You can still feel the contractions. They aren’t painful, though. It feels as though the muscles are tensing. It wasn't pain in the sense of pricking or stabbing. You could feel the contraction and work with it. The team in the delivery room kept me really well informed about everything. It wasn't at all unpleasant. They did it really well – they were very calm, and really nice. It was a really positive surprise.

The doctor came and said that we needed to make a decision. My cervix had been open a long time and we had to start thinking about a Cesarean section. I was really surprised, because I thought we could have tried a bit longer. I wasn’t prepared for that at all. But I had a good talk with the doctor. He answered all my questions and informed me really well. At that point I wasn't under a lot of pressure to decide. The baby and I were doing well. But I thought to myself that that could quickly change. It was just a feeling. And so I decided to have a Cesarean, partly because I had the feeling that the midwife wasn't really convinced that we were going to be able to get the baby's head to turn.

From the birth center to a Cesarean section in hospital

It was still quite upsetting for me, to go from a planned birth center birth to a Cesarean in hospital. But I really felt I was in very good hands. And it went very well. They only needed to add some more anesthetic, because I already had the epidural. That was good. As far as the pain went, it wasn't that bad at all. The Cesarean didn’t hurt, I remember that well. I was afraid of having the same experience as my sister, who experienced a lot of pain when her placenta was removed. And I was very happy when my son was born and that he was so healthy and so beautiful. Even though things went differently than I had imagined, it all worked out well in the end, and that was what mattered most. When we got home I was really happy.

If I had another baby I would go to the birth center again. That I would do again. But I would find a childbirth class where I could practice breathing techniques. That wasn't done in my course, or else I missed that class. I would pack my suitcase sooner (laughs) and not worry about it too much. Everything works out somehow, even if a lot of unexpected things happen along the way, as they did with me.

You need to find out what helps you

The pain is manageable. You just need to find out what helps you. You can get something useful out of every approach. Epidurals are one way to cope with the pain. Every woman needs to decide for herself. I think we all know that birth is painful. But it's different to suddenly having pain for another reason. You can find out about it and you can prepare yourself.


Acknowledgment

Our real-life stories summarize interviews with people who are affected by the medical condition. Our interview partners have given us permission to publish their stories. We would like to express our sincere thanks to them.

The real-life stories give an insight into how other people cope and live with a medical condition. Their opinions and comments are not recommendations by IQWiG.

Please note: The names of our interview partners have been changed to protect their identity. The photos are of models.