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I was surprised not to have come across this information before, having had three babies in the last few years and having trained as a breastfeeding supporter. I did antenatal classes with the NCT, and while I clearly remember the discussion about pethidine making infants drowsy, and the impact this could have on breastfeeding, I don't remember breastfeeding problems being talked about as a possible side-effect of epidural, although the increased risk of instrumental delivery was certainly made clear. Indeed the NCTs page on pain relief in labour states clearly that pethidine may make the baby drowsy and thus make breastfeeding harder to establish, but does not make the same explicit link for epidural. When I was pregnant I was given this leaflet on pain relief in labour - which claims that with epidural 'Breast-feeding is not impaired, in fact it is often helped.'! (I'd be interested to know whether mothers are still being given this leaflet - let me know in the comments! - as I have numerous problems with it that might provoke a whole new blog post...) The NHS Choices page about the side-effects of epidural is brief, does not mention breastfeeding, and gives no indication of absolute risk (using figures such as 1 in 100) to enable women to make an informed choice. It seemed that accessible, up-to-date information about the potential side-effects of epidural, including on breastfeeding, was hard to come by.
I've never had an epidural - through luck, preparation, or most likely a combination of the two, I had three unmedicated home births. But I have had a spinal headache caused by a dural tap during a lumbar puncture (a complication that occurs in 1% of epidurals) - which was so awful that when faced with having the same procedure again years later, I collapsed in tears in front of the doctor, to his surprise and my own. A side-effect of that dural tap was a three-day separation from my older breastfeeding baby! So I was interested to find out more about the effects of epidural, particularly on breastfeeding. And when I started talking about it I found that women were quick to share their own experiences: from a very limited sample of just a few mothers I heard stories of a newborn whose sucking reflex was inhibited because of a reaction to the epidural, and of a mother who experienced such uncontrollable shaking as a result of the epidural that she could not hold or feed her baby for several hours after birth. Another mother described how the effects of the epidural (the need for a catheter, and the tingling in her legs) affected her movement for 12 hours after birth, leading to problems getting her baby out of the crib and into a good position for breastfeeding. A search of the Alpha Parent's Triumphant Tuesdays series of posts shows that many of the women, who have overcome considerable difficulties to breastfeed, gave birth with an epidural. But these were anecdotes, and I needed more data.
An internet search for articles led me to the La Leche League International page; their article is interesting, but dates from 1999. One of the best resources I found is Sarah Buckley's well-referenced article Epidurals: risks and concerns for mother and baby (2005), which specifically discusses breastfeeding. In addition to these I've also looked at The Impact of Birthing Practices on Breastfeeding by Mary Kroeger with Linda J. Smith, The Hormone of Closeness by Kerstin Uvnas Moberg, Birth Matters by Ina May Gaskin and Childbirth in the Age of Plastics by Michel Odent in terms of what they say about epidural and breastfeeding.
So what did I learn from all this research? There is now a growing body of work focussing on the critical importance of a woman's natural oxytocin (synthetic oxytocin, used in induction and to augment labour, acts differently) in promoting behaviours in mother and infant that help to establish breastfeeding and attachment, with a woman's oxytocin levels reaching a lifetime peak just after she gives birth - unless she has an epidural. As Uvnas Moberg explains:
"An epidural anaesthetic not only blocks the activity in the nerves in the spinal cord that transmit pain, but also in the nerves that lead to the release of oxytocin normally triggered when the baby's head is pushing against the cervix. Consequently, mothers who receive an epidural also have lower levels of oxytocin during labour." (p.64)A potential side-effect of epidural is a drop in blood pressure (natural oxytocin acts to increase a woman's blood pressure slightly during labour); this may mean that the mother is given fluids via a drip (IV). A baby born to a mother given additional IV fluids may lose more weight than expected in the first few days, leading to concerns about breastfeeding, but this weight loss is is due to the infant excreting the excess fluids. (See this article by Nancy Mohrbacher for more.) If a new mother's confidence in breastfeeding is dented, it can be hard to repair.
Kroeger and Smith's chapter on pain relief concludes:
"Strong evidence exists from randomized controlled clinical trials that epidural anesthesia can lead to poor progress of labor...need for oxytocin augmentation, a longer second stage, a lower rate of spontaneous vaginal delivery, increased maternal fever, and increased evaluation and treatment of newborns for suspected sepsis...Observational evidence shows that epidural and narcotic analgesia affects inborn feeding behaviours and adversely affects breastfeeding." (p.114)A Cochrane Intervention Review was carried out in 2011:
"The review identified 38 randomised controlled studies involving 9658 women. All but five studies compared epidural analgesia with opiates. Epidurals relieved labour pain better than other types of pain medication but led to more use of instruments to assist with the birth. Caesarean delivery rates did not differ overall and nor were there effects of the epidural on the baby soon after birth; fewer babies needed a drug (naloxone) to counter opiate use by the mother for pain relief. The risk of caesarean section for fetal distress was increased. Women who used epidurals were more likely to have a longer delivery (second stage of labour), needed their labour contractions stimulated with oxytocin, experienced very low blood pressure, were unable to move for a period of time after the birth (motor blockage), had problems passing urine (fluid retention) and suffered fever. Long-term backache was no different. Further research on reducing the adverse outcomes with epidurals would be helpful."To draw together a few threads: epidural is often associated with synthetic oxytocin (synthetic oxytocin induction provokes painful labour, epidural slows labour progress, synthetic oxytocin augments labour...); this hormonal disruption can interfere with feeding behaviour. An increased risk of instrumental delivery after epidural means pain, stitches and a higher incidence of birth trauma for mothers, and the risk of bruising, swelling and trauma for the infant, which can interfere with early establishment of breastfeeding. IV fluids can distort assessments of baby's weight and dent confidence in breastfeeding. There's an increased risk of post-partum haemorrhage (PPH) after an instrumental delivery; this can lead to breastfeeding problems too, as described in this paper.
There are obvious problems, in our birth culture in the UK, with raising the issue of epidural as a contributing factor in breastfeeding problems. Epidural is common and widely regarded as easy and safe; indeed, there's a cultural perception of it as the 'ultimate' in labour pain relief. (The Lindo Wing, where the Duchess of Cambridge gave birth, reportedly has an epidural rate of 100%). Its efficacy (at relieving pain, although more than 10% of recipients report inadequate pain relief) is seen to outweigh the potential side-effects, although, as this post aims to point out, the true scope of these potential side-effects may be poorly understood, even among health professionals. There's also the (I think) separate issue of women's access to epidural: to be clear, I believe women should have access to the pain relief they need, when they need it - although I want them (and their care providers) to be as armed with the facts as they possibly can. There was a fascinating and in-depth discussion on Mumsnet with consultant obstetric anaesthetist David Bogod about epidural that covers many important points (although I disagree with him about breastfeeding!).
Good information empowers everyone. If midwives, maternity support workers, peer supporters and health visitors were more informed about some of the issues I've raised above, it might mean that more women who want to breastfeed, but are considering epidural or through circumstances have ended up with one they didn't plan for, are well supported. All breastfeeding supporters know that women having breastfeeding problems often need to talk through their births, and that this often gives many clues that shed light on their current difficulties: better information about the effects of epidural on breastfeeding can improve how we support these mothers.
The other side of the coin, of course, is providing women with genuine alternatives to epidural if they want to avoid the risks discussed. Some suggestions:
- continuous support in labour - shown to reduce need for epidural and thus reduce likelihood of instrumental birth.
- consider a home birth - research shows that home birth is safe, particularly for second or subsequent babies, and there are no epidurals at home deliveries (although of course you can transfer in if you do decide you want one). Booking a home birth can keep all options open for low-risk mothers. Information from the Infant Feeding Survey 2010 showed the highest rates of successful breastfeeding initiation and continuation in mothers who birthed at home; at least part of this could be down to the fact that these mothers have neither synthetic oxytocin nor epidural.
- avoid induction if possible.
- hospitals should increase access to water for labour, if not birth itself, for a greater proportion of mothers, not just those at lowest risk. Continuous foetal monitoring (CFM) has been shown to have no benefit over the midwife listening to the baby's heart at intervals, so why can't more women labour in water? Michel Odent (in Childbirth in the Age of Plastics) describes how labour immersion provides pain relief and also an increase in oxytocin...
- Finally, I've just read a case-study, in Birthrights' new Projects and Perspectives, published to coincide with their Dignity Forum on 16 October, of an Ayrshire maternity unit that has begun offering free Hypnobirthing courses to, among others, women who can't have opiate medication or epidural. I'd love to see this programme extended.
What do you think of this post? Too long, too technical? Let me know in the comments - I'd love to hear from you.