There were 70,000 fewer women given drugs such as gas and air, pethidine or an epidural in 2018 and 2019, compared to 2008 and 2009 – a drop of 6%.
It’s led to warnings from the British Pregnancy Advice Service against seeing the decline as a “cause for celebration”. Clare Murphy, director of external affairs at the charity, said we need to better understand the factors behind this shift.
Murphy said many women feel they’ve “failed” if they needed pain relief – and I know exactly what they mean. My decision to try and give birth without pain relief with my first child became one of cautious, personal resilience.
When I was pregnant with my daughter, now seven, I did what many parents do, and joined my local NCT group. I knew nothing about birth before that: I hadn’t heard of pethidine, thought gas and air was probably a bit like helium, and had never even held a newborn baby.
I was intrigued by the idea of a water birth, but worried the baby would drown if it was underwater (spoiler: it won’t). And I absolutely, unequivocally, assumed I’d take whatever pain relief was on offer. That was, until.... I went to NCT. Over six weeks, once a week, my husband and I learned about breastfeeding, changing nappies, and the pros and cons of pain relief.
And what’s interesting is that of the six other pregnant couples we were paired with on our course, five opted to go for what was dubbed a “natural” or “straightforward” birth, where possible: one without induction, drugs, epidural, forceps or ventouse, an episiotomy or C-section.
After doing the antenatal course, I came away desperately wanting to have a “natural” birth, too – which seems slightly bonkers, given that I now know how painful it is. After all: we wouldn’t encourage anyone to have a “natural” root canal, or a “natural” hip replacement – why is birth so different?
I was stubborn, too. I didn’t want to “fail” at birth. I wanted to “win”.
I’ve since spoken to the NCT, who say they want women to feel empowered to “make their own informed decisions about their care and birth experience”, and insist mothers-to-be, “shouldn’t ever feel pushed into giving birth a certain way or judged about their decisions”.
But giving birth without pain relief became so important to me. I wanted to see how much I could withstand – I was curious what my body could handle. And I was stubborn, too. I didn’t want to “fail” at birth. I wanted to “win”.
Ridiculous, isn’t it? Because it’s all just a roll of the dice – and I was lucky. My labour was quick and relatively fuss-free. I didn’t get to the point where I felt I needed extra help, so I didn’t have any. But if it hadn’t gone smoothly? Well, I’d have no doubt been screaming out for drugs. And proud of it.
I’ve heard so many horror stories about birth; seen the ashen faces of my closest friends. Heard them describe being rushed to theatre for emergency C-sections, or being in labour for 36 gruelling, painful hours. I’ve witnessed their scars – physical and emotional.
And it’s because of their birth traumas that I take issue with anyone pushing the idea of a halcyon “natural” birth. Going into labour, even when it is low-risk and straightforward, is still frightening and unpredictable.
Telling women they’ve “failed” if they succumb to gas and air, or a full-blown epidural, doesn’t help anyone at all. Least of all, mothers.