Many pregnant couples wonder about the top natural childbirth benefits for babies and parents. While the perk of an epidural is obvious — pain relief — it’s often harder to quantify the value of going natural. Let’s highlight a few of the exciting, evidence-based benefits of natural birth.
Natural Childbirth Benefits #1: More Satisfying Births
Most people imagine that a pain-free birth equates to a positive birth. But believe it or not, women who choose natural childbirth tend to rate their birth as more satisfying than women who choose epidurals.
Studies conclude that a woman’s feelings of a positive birth experience do not correlate with the amount of pain felt during the process. Rather, variables such as involvement in decision-making are much more likely to influence the experience (1). Women who choose natural birth tend be much more active in their decision-making about childbirth (8). With this in mind, it’s not surprising that although patients who chose natural birth had more pain, they also reported higher satisfaction scores both immediately after labor and 1 year later (7).
Natural Childbirth Benefits #2: Less Potential for Interventions
Natural childbirth techniques (breathing, relaxation, massage, etc.) are not invasive. The techniques pose little potential for harm or side effects to mom or baby. This approach to birth minimizes the need for interventions.
In contrast, epidurals are accompanied by the following standard interventions (9):
- IV placement and intravenous fluids
- Bed rest during labor
- Restrictions on eating and drinking
- Continuous electronic fetal monitoring
- Urinary catheter
Each labor intervention listed above poses some measure of risk to mom and baby. In minimizing the need for routine interventions, natural childbirth is often a safer approach to a low-risk birth.
Natural Childbirth Benefits #3: Shorter Pushing Phase
Women who opt for natural childbirth tend to have a shorter pushing phase of labor.* According to a study involving over 42,000 women, it was found that pushing can take up to 2 hours longer when an epidural is on board (2).
Why might this be so? In an unmedicated birth, mom is typically free to move around and push in a wide variety of positions that can help promote labor progress. Additionally, the urge to push is unhindered by a numbing medication. This enables mom to feel when she is having a contraction and gives her the chance to push only when she feels the urge. (With an epidural, women may be encouraged to push as soon as the cervix is 10 cm dilated, which can lengthen the process.)
Not surprisingly, a shorter pushing phase is associated with lots of benefits for mom and baby, including (3,4,5):
- Less stress on the baby (decreased risk of fetal acidosis and heart decelerations)
- Lower risk of injury to mom’s perineal muscles
- Less fatigue for mom
- Lower risk of postpartum hemorrhage
Natural Childbirth Benefits #4: Easier recovery
If you want to set yourself up for the best chance for a smooth recovery, natural childbirth is the way to go. Of course, an easier recover isn’t a given. Perineal tears, bruising, and other complications can certainly occur in a natural birth. However, an unmedicated birth can aid mom’s postpartum recovery in the following ways:
- Mom is usually able to walk and move around directly after the birth of the baby
- No swelling in the urethra from a catheter, which makes it easier to pee right away
- Less constipation (epidural and narcotic pain medication slow the bowels and increase the severity of constipation)
- Less risk of severe trauma to the perineum from forceps and vacuum extraction
- No side effects from the epidural or narcotic medications to deal with (ie. spinal head aches, itching, nausea, low blood pressure, etc.)
- No fluid retention from epidural-related IV fluids
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*Note: In regard to the point that natural childbirth benefits include a shorter pushing phase, a Chinese study was released in October 2017, “Epidural Analgesia During the Second Stage of Labor.” The study suggests that an epidural may not, in fact, prolong the second stage of labor. Despite the results, it’s important to consider the following limitations of the study:
- The study examines the use of ropivacaine. (The epidural consisted of .08% ropivacaine with .4 micrograms/mL sufentanil.) Ropivacaine seems to cause less motor block, making it easier for mom to move her legs than with other drugs like bupivacaine. However, ropivacaine is very expensive while bupivacaine is inexpensive. Due to cost, epidurals in the United States rarely contain ropivacaine and typically use bupivacine. Thus, the findings of this study can not be widely applied.
- Every woman in this study requested and received epidural pain medication during labor. At 10cm dilation, half of the women received a placebo infusion of saline. The other half continued to receive the true epidural. To suddenly stop receiving pain relief during the pushing phase would most certainly increase fear and tension for women who were anticipating pain relief. Extreme tension in the pelvic floor can deter the baby’s descent while prolonging the pushing phase (10). It’s highly plausible that the women who suddenly stopped receiving pain relief may have had a longer pushing phase than a typical natural childbirth due to fear and tension.
- The study includes just 400 women. It is not nearly as large as the previous studies that have concluded that natural childbirth does, in fact, lead to a shorter pushing phase.
(1) Salmon, P., Miller, R., & Drew, N.C. (1990) Women’s anticipation and experience of childbirth: The independence of fulfillment, unpleasantness and pain. British Journal of Medical Psychology 63(Part 3), 255-259.
(2) Cheng, Y.W., Shaffer, B.L., Nicholson, J.M., Caughey, A.B. (2014). Second stage of labor and epidural use: a larger effect than previously suggested. Obstet Gynecol. Mar; 123(3): 527-35
(3) Roberts, J.E. (2002). The “push” for evidence: management of the second stage. Journal of Midwifery Womens Health. Jan-Feb; 47(1): 2-15.
(4) Hansen, S.L., Clark, S.L., Foster, J.C. (2002). Active pushing versus passive fertal descent in the second stage of labor: a randomized controlled trial. Jan; 99(1): 29-34.
(5) Rouse D.J., Weiner S.J., Bloom SL, Varner M.W., Spong C.Y., Ramin S.M., et al. Second-stage labor duration in nulliparous women: relationship to maternal and perinatal outcomes. Am J Obstet Gynecol 2009;201:357.e1–7
(6) Beilin, Y., Halpern, S. (2010). Ropivacaine versus bupivacaine epidural labor analgesia. Anaesthesia & Analgesia. August, Vol 111(2): 482-487.
(7) Morgan, B., Bulpitt, C.J., Clifton, P., and Lewis, P.J. (1982). Analgesia and satisfaction in childbirth (The Queen Charlotte 1000-mother survey). Lancet, 1, 808.
(8) Poore, M. & Foster, J. (1985). Epidural and no epidural anesthesia: Differences between mothers and their experience of birth. Birth, I. 205.
(9) Lothian, J. A. (2014). Healthy Birth Practice #4: Avoid Interventions Unless They Are Medically Necessary. The Journal of Perinatal Education, 23(4), 198–206. http://doi.org/10.1891/1058-1243.23.4.198
(10) Simkin, P. and Ancheta, R. (2017) The Labor Progress Handbook: Early Interventions to Prevent and Treat Dystocia. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 217.