When can I have an epidural?

It is no secret that delivering a baby can be uncomfortable and can feel especially daunting for first-time mothers. During the whole of your labour up until you give birth, there are a variety of pain relief options available to you to help you cope. One of those pain relief measures is an epidural.

An epidural can allow for a more comfortable labour and is put in by an anaesthetist. In this blog, we take a look at what epidurals are and when you can have one. 

What is an epidural?

An epidural is an injection into your back that can help reduce the discomfort of contractions. The local anaesthetic used in the ‘top ups’ usually blocks the pain from labour contractions and during birth.

Epidurals are given by a specialist doctor called an anaesthetist. They will first numb the skin where the epidural will be inserted. A needle is then used to place an epidural catheter (a very thin tube) near the nerves in your spine. The epidural catheter is left in place when the needle is taken out so you can be given painkillers during your labour without any more injections. You may experience some mild discomfort when the epidural needle is placed, and the catheter is inserted.

An epidural is what is known as a ‘regional’ anaesthetic, because not all of your body is affected. It can take up to 40 minutes to give you complete pain relief (including the time it takes to put in the epidural catheter and for the painkillers to start working) but usually you are a lot more comfortable before this.

It is considered to be a highly effective and safe pain relief procedure, which is why many women choose it. Be sure to also view our Epidural Information Card for more information on the pros and cons of having an epidural and other useful information about it.

When can I have an epidural?

We must stress that to know when you should have an epidural, and if you don't have any medical issues that a might mean that it is not suitable for you, have a chat with your midwife, who will be able to give you any help you might need to decide what would work best for your stage of labour.

Most women whose labour has started on its own opt for an epidural when they are considered to be in ‘active’ labour. This is when contractions are getting stronger and more painful and thecervix has dilated to around 4-5cm. If your labour has needed help to get started, as it would during an induction, you may have an epidural sooner that this to help you to cope.

However, there may be a point during your labour journey where it may feel like it may be too late to have one. When you are at around 8 or 9cm dilated, as you are so close, your midwife may advise against it as there may not be enough time for you to position easily and safely for the epidural or to get the full pain relief benefits of the epidural before birth, but this will depend on your individual case and how your labour is progressing.

A study conducted in 2014, concluded that for first time mothers in labour who ask for epidurals for pain relief, the best time to do this is when the woman requests it! So its really your choice.

Can anyone have an epidural?

Though an epidural can be one of the most effective labour pain relief measures available, it may not be possible for everyone to have one. Some people with certain medical problems (such as spina bifida, a previous operation on your back or problems with blood clotting) may not be able to have one.

To be certain, you should discuss this with your anaesthetist, to go over what your particular medical conditions are and what alternative options are available if this is the case.

For more questions about epidurals and pain relief during labour, view our helpful pain relief FAQs section, where we have answered some of the most common questions about this topic.

On our website, you will find we have a huge number of resources for expectant mothers and their families about pain relief options during labour,in both leaflet and video form. Other than epidurals, you will also find that there are other options to help you to cope too.

Browse our website and get to know all the pain relief options available to you. A lot of our resources are translated into various languages and are easy to share.

If you have any questions related to this blog or comments feel free to get in touch. However, please note we cannot provide specific medical advice.

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