When I was pregnant with my first, I planned on having a non medicated birth to see what it was like. Having an epidural was more of a last resort idea for me. My nurse was super nonjudgemental and reassured me it’s ok if I decided to change my mind.
But I’m terrified of needles and the thought of a big long one in my back really scared me! Not to mention I just *thought* I wanted the full natural labor and delivery experience.
After one of those long labors you hear about from most first time moms, I got an epidural and let me just say… what a welcomed relief from the excruciating pain I had been in for 12 or 13 hours of laboring after being induced with pitocin.
If you’re thinking about getting an epidural but afraid of the needle or not feeling your legs, I’ll tell you exactly how my 4 have felt from start to finish. And, how all 4 have been different when it comes to how much “feeling” I have had.
I’m not going to go into pros and cons or risks of an epidural. But I do want to show you what it actually feels like to get the epidural placed, what you can and can’t feel, and answer all your epidural fears here!
Take a childbirth education course (even if you want an epidural)
One of the things you will probably want to at least be aware of is what to expect during labor and delivery. Yes, the epidural relieves pain but there’s a lot that happens before that point!
It’s helpful (mentally) to come into labor a little prepared which is probably why you’re reading this post.
I took this prenatal video course for couples from Hilary at Pulling Curls. She’s a labor and delivery nurse since 2001, and she knows her stuff!
She prepares you for labor and delivery and postpartum. Everything was really accurate to what my hospital experience was like. You can read my full thoughts on her prenatal course here.
Ok, now on to the epidural.
How long does it take for an epidural to work?
Usually anywhere from 10-30 minutes after it’s inserted. But, mental note… you may have to wait 5-30 minutes for the anesthesiologist or nurse anesthetist to get there.
In my experience the pain decreases gradually till it is gone. The medicine will go through the catheter continually and if the dose is too low (aka you want more relief) you can tell your nurse or press the button they give you for a “boost”.
This time frame has been pretty much the same for all 3 epidurals I’ve had. I noticed my contractions were a little less painful until they were not painful at all.
Read this awesome post from UNC’s anesthesia department for a step by step medical explanation of everything that goes on during an epidural. Or, read on to see my personal experience after 4 of them.
How they prepare your lower back
I thought it would be like going in to get a flu shot where you sit down and it’s done. Nope.
They first read me a long scary list of all the worst case scenario things that COULD happen, but have a really really really tiny chance of occurring.
Then they put tape on my back and wiped the area clean.
Next they drew on my back with a marker, and had me lean forward over my pregnant belly.
They numbed the skin with a shot (feels like a small pinch) and once it was numb gave me the epidural.
Plus they waited for me every contraction when I was shaking badly. I’m actually SO amazed they could give me an epidural with how much my body was shaking.
You will not be able to walk for the rest of labor and delivery.
Your lower body will slowly go numb, and you will not be able to walk around any more. Plus, once you get an epidural they will keep a heart rate monitor on you to keep track of baby.
And, my nurse told me that the blood pressure cuff would automatically take my blood pressure every 15 minutes. So…you are hooked up to say the least.
For a visual: An IV for any needed fluids is attached to one hand, the epidural is inserted in your back which you can’t feel, there’s a heart rate monitor around your big belly, and a blood pressure cuff stays on your arm till delivery!
It’s a lot…and yet…I’ve never been bothered a bit by it! I’ve always just welcomed the pain relief.
When is the best time to get an epidural during labor?
I’m not a doctor or a nurse, and I believe this depends on your hospital’s policy.
With my 1st 3 kids (all delivered at the same hospital), they said I had to be dilated to 4 cm first. That took a LONG time with my 1st child and not long at all with the last 3 kids.
However, we delivered my 4th baby at a huge research hospital that said they administered epidurals at any time because they said research has shown it doesn’t slow down contractions. So I got one after being induced as soon as they became painful.
By asking for it much earlier I was able to avoid hours of painful contractions.
Does an epidural hurt when they inject the needle?
Ok, this is an irrational fear because you don’t ever see or feel it!
I was just shocked by how little I felt. I felt an initial poke when they numbed the area, and a slight sense of pressure during the actual epidural.
Do what I do and look away, which is easy to do since you’ll be leaning forward while they give it to you.
But people like to scare you and tell you how long the needle is. Or, if you are like me, you have a pretty long history of just passing out at the sight or thought of needles.
The nurse anesthetist numbs the skin on your back by first giving you a small shot with a small needle that’s over in two seconds. No biggy, and that’s coming from a total needle scaredy cat.
Since my skin was numb, I did not feel the epidural needle poke! Just pressure as they put in the catheter. Let me assure you it was no big deal compared to labor!
Does labor still hurt with an epidural?
It depends. I’m the type of person who is really afraid of pain and I do not mind the numb feeling.
I have had the spectrum from not feeling a thing where they’ve had to tell me when I’m having a contraction and when to push, to feeling pain that I have to breath through.
Either way, it’s less bad than natural labor I’m positive!
I felt numb from the belly down for my first 2, was less numb for my 3rd to the point that I felt pain pushing but not during contractions, (more than pressure…I should have pushed that button for a boost)!
And for my 4th, I felt initial relief no doubt…and then when my contractions got to be about a minute apart they became super PAINFUL.
I had to breathe through each one and was squeezing my husband’s hand and needing a wet towel on my face and such. Baby was born 15 minutes later.
However I had no pain at all when pushing #4 once the baby was in the birth canal. So there was something up with the placement maybe as I was more numb the lower it got.
Can you still feel contractions with an epidural?
Barely! They want you to ideally feel pressure, not pain.
Each of my epidurals has felt a little bit different (some more numb than others and therefor some contractions were more noticeable).
I would describe it as a gentle tightening feeling, but gentle enough you can rest fairly comfortably through it. (Except for my last labor, where each contraction HURT during what I believe was transition labor).
One thing that’s true is it’s a heck of a lot less painful with an epidural no matter what.
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Can you still feel the baby coming out with an epidural?
Again, this probably depends on your dosing and how well it was placed. I’ve personally never experienced the “ring of fire” like mamas who go natural. With babies #1,#2, and #4 I actually felt nothing down there while pushing at all.
With baby #3, I tried not to push the button for more medicine (who knows why I felt like I had to tough it out??) and regretted it during delivery.
Pushing became so painful to me that I told them I felt like I needed to puke and may pass out. Passing out is something I’ve done A LOT in my life and know the exact feeling before it happens. My body literally shuts down when in lots of pain. Thankfully instead I puked once which pushed out the baby.
So my advice is to be honest with yourself and your nurse if you are feeling intense pain (more than pressure). They can ask the anesthesiologist to come in and assess your levels to see if they should adjust anything.
How my epidurals were different with each baby
I think the overall “epidural experience” differed with each baby due to the amount of medicine I received as well as the timing. I’ll explain what was different each time.
Epidural with baby #1
I went from laboring HARD from about 3pm -5am when i finally got an epidural.
The relief I felt was so incredible that I did not care about the complete numbness in my belly, legs and toes. I don’t think I could even lift up my legs! I could not feel my contractions at all, and actually fell asleep from 5am-7am. Baby was born as soon as I woke up.
Epidural with baby#2
This time, I knew I wanted to have an epidural, ha! I had to be induced after my water broke and no contractions started up.
Once I was 4cm and having painful contractions I got an epidural. However, about 10 minutes after I got one I felt a TON of pressure and told them it felt like I had to poop. They checked me and saw the baby’s head!
Everyone scrambled to get gloves on and prepare. I really don’t know how I went from a 4 to a 10 that fast. My doctor said often times epidurals can help your body to relax enough it will kick into gear on it’s own.
Anyway, I could still feel my legs and move them. The epidural really kicked in JUST IN TIME to push because I don’t remember feeling much of anything when the baby came out (about 30 minutes after I got an epidural).
Epidural with baby #3
I was nervous I’d miss the epidural window with this one because of baby #2’s experience. I got one when I was 4 cm dilated and having painful contractions (same as before, the earliest they would administer them). But labor wasn’t nearly as short.
While I did feel relief even just 10 minutes after, this time I actually felt each contraction more. Not nearly the pain that I had, but enough to get my attention each time. I should have allowed myself to press the button for a boost in medicine but didn’t, even as things got more uncomfortable.
The biggest difference this time was with pushing. I didn’t really feel anything with my other two, but felt legit pain down there (I know I know, probably WAY less than if I’d had no epidural. Just trying to say it how it was).
My body handles pain in labor by puking, which is exactly what happened and how I ended up pushing out the baby. That was as close as I’ve ever come to “ring of fire”…which wasn’t even true fire I’m sure.
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How long does an epidural last?
My epidurals have all lasted quite a few hours after delivery. The nice part is that you will not feel anything if they need to stitch you up. You will not feel anything when they remove your pee catheter. And, you won’t even remember delivering your placenta.
I wish I wrote down how many hours it took for my legs to stop feeling wobbly and numb…but it’s a while. My kids have all been born in the morning and by night the numbness has worn off.
What to expect immediately after birth if you get an epidural
- You won’t experience the discomfort of delivering your placenta!
- They will remove the catheter, but I honestly can’t ever remember them taking it out even after 4 births!
- You will get wheeled to the mother baby side with your baby, because your legs are numb and incapable of holding your weight.
- A nurse or two will help you pee, because you will not be able to go alone for a few hours. You cannot feel the urge to pee as easily, so it’s important to go! Luckily, it won’t sting down there for your first pee, haha. The medicine is still working it’s magic.
- Your lower back will feel sore for a day. Kind of like how your arm feels after you get a shot.
So should you get an epidural?
There is no right or wrong answer! It doesn’t make you a better mom or worse mom. It’s more about the experience you want.
I think for me, getting an epidural made my births more of an enjoyable experience. It gave my body a break after laboring and puking all night long. It allowed me to rest.
With each baby I think it’s important to go into birth mentally prepared that it might only work on half my body (as some of my friends have experienced). Or I may progress too fast to get one. In these situations, I have to mentally prepare that my body can do it.
What makes you want one (or not)?
I’m sure I’m not the only one who was and still is scared of needles and pain in general. If you have had an epidural, I’d love for you to leave a comment with your experience so other moms can read it too! If you have never had one, what scares you about them? I’d love to know.
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