The Cascade of Interventions, Part 2

Written by Dionna on October 11th, 2010

Birth, Holistic Health, Pregnancy, Preparing for Parenting
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The Cascade of Interventions, Part 21

3. Internal Exams

In order to give birth vaginally, your cervix must open to allow the baby passage. I often hear women discuss cervical dilation in the context of late pregnancy and childbirth.

“I was stuck at a 6 for eight hours.”
“That’s nothing, I was at a 3 during two weeks of nearly constant false labor!”
“I’m glad that wasn’t me, I was a 2 when I was admitted to the hospital and was already at a 10 forty-five minutes later.”

Doctors frequently check cervical dilation in the last few weeks of pregnancy. These internal exams can be uncomfortable, if not downright painful. But even though internal exams have become a fairly routine part of doctors’ check-ups both before and during labor, putting any significance on dilation can lead to false expectations about when labor will begin or how long labor will take.

“[T]he degree of cervical dilation prior to the onset of labor is not the best predictor of when true labor will begin.” Nor is it the best predictor of how long labor will last. “You can make oodles of progress and then just sit there for weeks or go from zero-to-baby in no time.”2

Internal exams can cause harm. Multiple painful exams during an already emotional time can make a laboring woman anxious, fearful, and hopeless.3 They can increase the risk of infection, especially if the woman’s water has already broken.4 Each time a nurse or doctor checks for “progress,” bacteria are pushed into the birth canal. Vaginal exams can also “cause the amniotic sac to break prematurely.”5

You are free to ask your medical professional NOT to perform internal exams on you before you go into labor, and you are free to request that internal exams be kept to a minimum during labor. There are times when an internal exam might be helpful to give a medical professional certain information (for example, to ascertain the position of the baby’s head), but there is no reason to interrupt labor unnecessarily to check dilation.

Photo credit: Bramus!

4. Epidurals

“In a recent survey of childbearing women in the United States, 76% of the women who had a vaginal birth reported having an epidural.”6 Shockingly, another survey revealed that 41% of women who received an epidural “were unaware of the procedure’s possible side effects.”7

Epidural Risks to Mothers

Epidurals interfere with the natural progression of labor and can lead to many more medical interventions, including cesarean section. “Epidurals significantly interfere with some of the major hormones of labor and birth, which may explain their negative effect on the processes of labor.”8

With an epidural, because the pelvic muscles relax, it may take longer for the baby to rotate and descend through the birth canal, and the baby is more likely to get stuck in a position (called “posterior”) that makes cesarean surgery much more likely. The absence of pain can interfere with your natural release of oxytocin and may lead to the need for Pitocin. Epidural medication can cause a drop in your blood pressure, so you will need IV fluids both before and during the epidural. Lower blood pressure can cause a drop in blood (and oxygen) flow to your baby, so you will need continuous EFM if you have an epidural. Some women with epidurals do not feel when they need to urinate, so you may need a catheter to empty your bladder.

The changes in the way labor and birth unfold and the interventions needed to watch for, prevent, and manage side effects during an epidural set the stage for a number of possible problems. Studies show that epidurals are associated with a lower rate of spontaneous vaginal birth, a higher rate of instrumental birth (vacuum or forceps), and longer labors, particularly for women having their first babies. Studies also show that women with epidurals have a higher rate of fever during labor and, as a result, their babies may need to be tested and treated for possible infections, necessitating separation of mothers from their babies after birth. There is some evidence that the use of an epidural, especially for first-time mothers, may increase the likelihood of cesarean surgery.”9

Epidural Risks to Newborns

The effects of an epidural on the mother carry over to the newborn.

As noted previously, epidurals often cause laboring mothers to have a fever. Babies are affected by these epidural-induced fevers. “In one large study of first-time mothers, babies born to febrile mothers, 97 percent of whom had received epidurals, were more likely at birth to be in poor condition . . .; to have poor tone; to require resuscitation . . .; and to have seizures in the newborn period, compared to babies born to” mothers without fevers. One researcher has noted a tenfold increase in risk of newborn encephalopathy (signs of brain damage) in babies born to febrile mothers.” “Babies born to febrile mothers are almost always evaluated for infections (sepsis).” (9)

“Sepsis evaluation involves prolonged separation from the mother, admission to special care, invasive tests, and, most likely, administration of antibiotics until tests results are available. In one study of first-time mothers, 34 percent of epidural babies were given a sepsis evaluation compared to 9.8 percent of nonepidural babies.”10

“The ‘septic work-up’ done on such newborns is not only painful but also risky.” The newborn is subjected to blood draws every few hours as well as one or more spinal taps. These aggressive and often unnecessary interventions are stressful to the new baby’s body. Moreover, “placing a baby in an ICU strain the beginning parent-child bond [and] results in” a lower breastfeeding success rate.11

Research has shown that epidurals can negatively affect the breastfeeding relationship for hours, days, even weeks.12 This may be due to the fact that every drug the mother is exposed to during labor crosses over the placenta to the baby “who is more vulnerable to toxic effects.” The drugs present in epidurals have been shown to cause breathing problems, neurobehavioral abnormalities, and weight loss – all of which can be detrimental to a successful latch and breastfeeding relationship.13

The bottom line is that there are significant risks to both mother and newborn from the use of an epidural. Mothers are far too often uninformed about these risks. Every woman should educate herself on the medical interventions she is considering before she goes into labor.

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Statements on this website have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. Products and/or information are not intended to diagnose, cure, treat, or prevent any disease. Readers are advised to do their own research and make decisions in partnership with their healthcare provider. If you are pregnant, are nursing, have a medical condition, or are taking any medication, please consult your physician. Nothing you read here should be relied upon to determine dietary changes, a medical diagnosis, or courses of treatment.

  1. Read about induction and electronic fetal monitoring in Part 1.
  2. Is Cervix Dilation an Early Sign of Labor?
  3. Labor and Birth Interventions
  4. Labor and Birth Interventions; see also The Vaginal Exam During Labor: Is It Necessary?
  5. The Vaginal Exam During Labor: Is It Necessary?
  6. Lamaze International Care Practice #4: No Routine Interventions (citing Declercq E. R, Sakala C, Corry M. P, Applebaum S. Listening to mothers II: Report of the second national U.S. survey of women’s childbearing experiences. 2006 New York: Childbirth Connection).
  7. Care Practice #4: No Routine Interventions (citing Declercq E, Sakala C, Corry M, Applebaum S, Risher P. Listening to mothers: Report of the first national U.S. survey of women’s childbearing experiences. 2002 New York: Maternity Center Association (now, Childbirth Connection)).
  8. Epidurals: Risks and Concerns for Mother and Baby
  9. Care Practice #4: No Routine Interventions
  10. Epidurals: Risks and Concerns for Mother and Baby
  11. Immaculate Deception II: Myth, Magic and Birth at 98-99, Suzanne Arms
  12. Care Practice #4: No Routine Interventions
  13. Epidurals: Risks and Concerns for Mother and Baby (citations in article); see also Why Won’t This Newborn Be Breastfed?

About The Author: Dionna

Code Name: Mama CodeNameMama My NPN Posts

Dionna is co-founder of Natural Parents Network. She blogs about natural parenting and life with a toddler-almost-preschooler at Code Name: Mama. She also co-founded NursingFreedom.org, a site dedicated to normalizing breastfeeding anytime, anywhere.

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