Agony, ecstasy of birth choices

Strong drugs are the most effective form of pain relief in childbirth, according to international research. But some argue the female body is capable of providing the best relief on its own. Michelle Robinson speaks to some new mothers and finds that what works for some, doesn't work for everyone.

NOT FOR EVERYONE: Melanie Phillipson of Wanaka, wished she hadn't had an epidural.

Water births, hypnosis and even muffin baking are just some of the ways Kiwi women cope with the pain of childbirth but nothing is more effective than an epidural, a new international study confirms.

The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews found epidurals, the spinal anaesthesia injection used in 30 per cent of deliveries in New Zealand, to be the most potent form of relief, with water immersion, acupuncture, massage, local anaesthetics and non-opioid drugs also considered effective. However, the review found the same couldn't be said for more obscure therapies such as hypnosis, aromatherapy and intravenous opioids.

Water immersion before or during the birth and nitrous oxide or laughing gas are the most popular treatments in New Zealand, with about 40 per cent of mothers opting for the gas in 2010, according to the New Zealand College of Midwives' data.

Midwifery adviser Alison Eady believes more women would opt for water immersion if birthing pools were more readily available.

Taranaki woman Jennifer Fisher gave birth to her son Aiden eight weeks ago, using a birthing pool and nitrous oxide during labour.

"[The nitrous oxide] was fantastic. You feel like you're drunk," she says.

Fisher hadn't planned a water birth but used a birthing pool to help her relax.

"At that point, once I was in, I wasn't going anywhere."

Meanwhile first-time mum Holly Allen of Taranaki had no pain relief but wishes she had for her "atypical birth".

Allen was induced and spent more than a week in hospital waiting to give birth after her placenta calcified, endangering baby Savannah.

"I was in agony for 10-and-a-half hours with no pain relief."

Allen was allowed pethidine, an opioid drug, but could only have one dose because her baby was so small. She chose not to take it for fear of harming her baby.

"It was not a nice experience," she said of being induced. "They don't tell you it hurts that much."

Wanaka mother of four, Melanie Phillipson, found an epidural more trouble than it was worth when having her oldest child, now 20.

"I didn't go with the intention of having an epidural but I was young at the time. The nurses in the room were talking about pain relief while I was in pain so I said I'll have an epidural, it was just like that."

She wished she hadn't.

"I had a bad back for 12 months at least. I couldn't ride a bike. I vomited a lot while trying to give birth to my baby and I had severe pins and needles."

She decided to go natural for her subsequent births. The most recent, Daisy, eight weeks ago, was at home and was "extraordinary", she said. "There was no stress, I was really relaxed, there was a lot of joking between contractions."

While she still felt pain it was a "good pain".

"It's a pain you need to have to deliver a baby."

Eady said labour pain is difficult to research because it is so subjective. "It's influenced by whether the woman feels safe, if she's asked and if her friends and whanau are with her."

Where there are no complications, a woman's body can produce its own natural relief and the ability for a shorter labour if it's left alone to do the job. The trick is to keep calm, stay in a safe and warm place and keep lighting dim, Eady said.

Distraction is also key. "Going for walks or baking some muffins so things can progress normally, it's making sure you're relaxed and confident."


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