Epidurals may be more than just a miracle method for (theoretically) pain-free childbirth. New data shows that epidurals may yield a surprising postpartum benefit.
There are times in my life, like when I’m reading a beautiful all-natural birth story, that I feel a tad bit guilty for choosing an epidural for the birth of my third child.
But a new study out of China might just help alleviate a little of that guilt.
Sweet relief in more ways than one?
The first-of-its-kind study looked at 214 patients and the 107 women who chose epidurals as their form of pain management during childbirth. Using a postpartum depression scale at both three days and six weeks after their babies’ births, the researchers found that postpartum depression occurred in 14 percent of the women who received epidurals and in almost 35 percent of the women who didn’t have an epidural. The statistics were enough for the researchers to conclude that epidural labor analgesia was, in fact, associated with a decreased risk of postpartum depression.
Many factors contribute to mom’s mental health
While at first glance the results seem to point to epidurals as the clear-cut winner for pain control during labor, it’s not so simple. The study found that breastfeeding and childbirth classes also contributed to lower rates of postpartum depression. Additionally, women who scored high on the three days postpartum scale were more likely to develop depression — suggesting a link between childbirth and postpartum depression.
Postpartum depression is a complex, multi-factor disorder — there isn’t one single factor that any researcher can ever say with certainty causes depression.
Is it too good to be true?
Still, looking at the study I couldn’t help but wonder — is there any truth to it? I struggled greatly with postpartum depression after the long and arduous natural birth of my first child, and even for a few months after the (again) natural birth of my second daughter. But when I chose to have my first-ever epidural with the birth of my third child, I have to admit that although my physical recovery wasn’t a slam-dunk, mentally and emotionally I felt great. There’s no telling if the difference had anything to do with my epidural or was due to the fact that I was more prepared as a mother and that the transition to adding another baby into our lives felt more natural than the first two times around.
So maybe there’s some truth to the study, but it’s still just one study. More importantly, it points to the fact that women need support during labor and childbirth. Although a completely “pain-free” birth might not be possible or even ideal, controlling pain during labor and birth is key. “Pain control gets the mother off to a good beginning rather than starting off defeated and exhausted,” says Katherine Wisner, M.D., a Northwestern Medicine perinatal psychiatrist in the study’s accompanying op-ed. “Whether it’s vaginal or cesarean section delivery, pain control postpartum is an issue for all new mothers. There is no way to have a delivery without pain. The objective here is to avoid severe pain. Controlling that delivery pain so a woman can comfortably develop as a mother is something that makes a lot of sense.”
So whether that’s natural childbirth or an epidural, it comes down to supporting women to have the best birth they can have, because empowering women with knowledge and information are the best tools to help her stay in charge of her physical and mental health.
And as I prepare to give birth for the fourth time around in a few weeks, let’s just say that I won’t hesitate to choose an epidural if I need one.