Narcotics can reduce labor pain without many of the side effects epidurals can cause, but these pain medications can also affect your baby. Get to know the benefits and risks of narcotics in labor so you can make an informed choice about using them.

Why choose narcotics for pain relief during labor?

Unlike an epidural, which numbs a certain area, narcotics make you feel a little high or loopy.

Narcotics are systemic medications — meaning they affect the entire body — that take the edge off contractions. Unlike an epidural, which numbs a certain area, narcotics make you feel a little high or loopy — you'll still feel contractions, but won't care as much! Some moms prefer narcotic pain relief since they can still walk around or change positions during labor, instead of being stuck in bed with an epidural. Also, you don't need to wait for an anesthesiologist — a nurse administers narcotics through an I.V. or injection.

Side effects for you — and your baby

In addition to the loopy feeling, narcotics may cause moms to feel nauseous or drowsy. As for the baby?

"Keep in mind that once something enters the mother’s bloodstream, it’s only a matter of minutes before it crosses into the baby’s," explains Dr. Stephen Frausto, MD, FACOG.

It's all in the timing

When to take — or not take — narcotics during labor is particularly important when it comes to the baby. "It is extremely important to administer pain relievers in the early stages on labor," says Dr. Frausto. "They should be administered while the mom is in active labor, and before the cervix is completely dilated. If a pain reliever is administered too close to birth, the baby may become at risk for respiratory depression. This could make it harder for the baby to start breathing on his or her own," he explains.

Choose pain relief methods wisely

There is the potential for side effects for mom and baby from both epidurals and other pain relievers during labor.

Medication can be given to the baby immediately after delivery to counteract breathing problems, but choosing narcotics during labor is a risk some moms don't want to take. You can try natural comfort measures and coping techniques, like deep breathing, visualization, massage or hydrotherapy before taking pain medications. If you decide on medication, depending on how far long in labor you are, you may be able to try narcotic pain relief, then if it doesn't work, get an epidural. Be sure to ask your doctor or midwife about what medications will be available to you, and how they may affect labor, you and the baby. Many go straight for an epidural, believing it's less risky than narcotic pain relief. But Frausto explains, "There is the potential for side effects for mom and baby from both epidurals and other pain relievers during labor."

Read more about pain relief during labor

The truth about epidurals
How to manage labor pain during childbirth and delivery
Labor bag bargains

Topics: