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  • Libby Clapham

Drugs used for pain relief in labour connected to drug addiction later in life.

We are so lucky to have modern methods of pain relief during labour - or are we? I remember some years ago Dr Michel Odent warning that many of the drugs commonly used in labour could predispose a child to become addicted to drugs later in life. Now, with death rates from drug addiction in the USA soaring, some interesting research is coming to light which supports this hypothesis. We already know that drugs used in labour cross the placenta to the baby and can make the baby sleepy for a while after birth.

From about twelve weeks gestation the baby starts to swallow the amniotic fluid around it and starts to develop a taste for various foods, based on the mother's diet which are now "flavouring" the fluid. Research has already demonstrated that the mother drinking alcohol during pregnancy can lead to the baby developing a "taste" for alcohol as it grows up.

Research is now also indicating that drugs used during labour can also have the same effect. There is a strong correlation between use of drugs during labour and addiction in later life “In subjects who had subsequently become addicts, a significant proportion of mothers had received opiates or barbiturates, or both during labour"

In particular there are indications that addiction to Fentanyl may often have its roots in use during labour. Since the 1980s Fentanyl is commonly used both in the USA and UK in epidural anaesthesia. More efficient blood analysis has allowed the exact drug used by addicts to be determined and this has shown death from Fentanyl or its analogues has been growing in USA and is responsible for a surge in addiction since 2000.

Clearly not all babies whose mothers use drugs for pain relief go on to become addicts (as one of my children shows, to date). It simply appears to be one of a number of factors. With the use of pain relief in labour being widespread, it does make it worthwhile looking at other ways to have a comfortable labour though.

Western culture has been "messing" with labour for so long that we have "forgotten" how to give birth comfortably (as animals tend to do) and are still rediscovering how to help, rather than hinder, our bodies to give birth comfortably and efficiently.

Most of us grow up with a lifetime of conditioning that birth is dangerous, painful and dramatic which means that we go into labour predisposed to be frightened. Fear produces adrenalin and our bodies, designed to help us survive in the wild, slow down or stop the labour in order to help us escape the "dangerous situation" which has made us afraid. Think dangerous wild animals or marauding enemy tribesmen here.

But there are no wild animals - just a strange hospital, bright lights, unknown midwives and doctors and a message buried deep in our subconscious that giving birth is painful and dangerous. No wonder it hurts and takes a long time.

What we really need to be able to do is to enter labour with positive messages buried deep in our subconscious about how gentle and comfortable birth can be. Staying deeply relaxed allows oxytocin to flow unimpeded, keeping the labour going, our bodies responding efficiently and comfortably.

Hypnobirthing is one of the ways to do this. It helps to replace those negative messages held deep in our minds with confidence that we can do this, and teaches us how to relax deeply, switching off from what is going on around us so that we can birth our babies comfortably with little or no pain relief, as our bodies work efficiently and we stay calm.

References: read more about this and the research at:

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