I read in the press yesterday about the link an Australian research team has made between women receiving epidural pain relief at birth and their subsequent difficulty with breast-feeding, and a loud click sounded in my brain. According to The Sunday Times’ article,
The research suggests that some of the drugs used in epidurals make their way into babies’ bloodstreams, subtly affecting their brains and development for weeks afterwards — including making them less willing to breast-feed.
The researchers followed 1,280 women, of whom 416 had an epidural. The researchers found that 93% of the full group breast-fed their babies in the first week, but those who had epidurals had more difficulty breast-feeding in the first few days after giving birth. After six months, the women who had epidurals were twice as likely to have given up breast-feeding.
I have done comprehensive research of my own, and can say without a doubt that my two babies who were born at home with no pain relief were both wonderful latchers, ate heartily and – despite the minor complication of my hugely swollen breasts – had no trouble with breast-feeding at all.
However, my first baby did not have it that easy. To start with, she was a back labour, which meant that although she was lying head down, she was facing the wrong way and had to turn around completely before she could come down the birth canal. That process of her turning around was so agonising that I started baying loudly for pain relief. The first shot of epidural had the desired effect of relaxing me – they dimmed the lights, I had a superficial nap, Thomas went home for a shower – but the top-up two hours later meant that my blood pressure suddenly dipped dangerously, labour speeded up, and since I could feel nothing (and so couldn’t push), the doctor had to go in and fetch Lily with a tool that looked like something you’d unblock your loo with. Thomas got to hold our little baby, while the doctor took a needle and thread and repaired the damage she’d done to me. I remember asking her how many stitches there were and her saying, “You don’t need to know.” Actually, I did – I felt like a warhorse who’d survived a bloody battle and I needed to know the extent of my wounds.
After two nights in our busy London hospital – where the full extent of my breast-feeding education was being told “you’re not doing it right” – we were sent home. Things went rapidly downhill. The first night at home I spent alternatively trying and failing to feed my baby, and staring down her throat as she screamed. I think if a nice hospital nurse had come by and muttered comfortingly, “Let me give her a bottle, dearie, and you get some sleep”, I would have willingly surrendered my breast-feeding principles on the spot. We persevered, but it remained difficult for quite a while. At the time, I thought this was because:
- She was very tiny, with a minute little mouth
- She had a bad headache from being suctioned out of me
- We had got ourselves into some bad latching habits (“not doing it right”)
But I now know there is also every chance that she had some fentanyl in her bloodstream, which made her coordination bad, especially in the jaw area. I didn’t stop breast-feeding, and I wasn’t tempted to do so. I was determined, quite hardcore really, that this was the way I was going to feed my baby, and with the help of a committed midwive who staved off mastitis at the eleventh hour, the Le Leche League’s mind-altering advice to lie down and get some sleep while feeding my baby and a small library of baby books, we got through it. But it would be good, as the researchers point out in their report, if women who had epidurals during birth received the education and the support they needed to cope with any problems before leaving hospital. Or, at the very least, the telephone number of their nearest La Leche League support group.