Why and how I gave birth without epidural

Posted by ~Summer~ on June 10, 2021
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Giving birth is by far the most incredible, unforgettable and rewarding experience of my life. Right, I should say experiences since I've gone through it not once but four times. Yet, each of them felt equally amazing, nerve-racking and not to mention, painful.
Because I chose to feel everything.

Yup, childbirth has got to be the most physically tormenting ordeal I've ever undergone yet if you ask me, I wouldn't have it any other way. Some people might assume "Why do you want to torture yourself?", "Why don't you want to enjoy giving birth to your baby?" or "You did it because you had no choice?". But the truth is, they are all mistaken. I did it because I wanted to and not because I had to. I did it not for anyone else but for myself. I did it because deep down, I knew I could.

In this post, I'm sharing with you more about why I chose to give birth naturally without epidural as well as some tips which might come in handy.
Going through my first labour experience which lasted 14 hours in Karlskrona, Sweden. I loved sitting on the gym ball and swaying from side to side instead of lying on the bed the whole time.
Before I go on, I have to say this first. No matter how we gave birth, it doesn't make us more or less of a mum. It's the same with breastfeeding or giving formula, either way we choose, we are still mums doing the best we can. Regardless of whether we go through a natural birth with/without painkillers or a planned/unplanned Caesarean, we are all mums who brought a new life into this world and that makes each and every of us equally awesome.

So while I think it's okay to give ourselves a pat on the back for having endured a non-medicated natural birth, it is not a badge of honour to carry around. While the experience might empower us to be more confident of overcoming pain, it does not equate we are stronger in any way. In fact, I personally think that luck played a part in my case in order for me to go through natural births. Although I had to be induced in all of my four labour experiences, I had mostly complication-free pregnancies, - except having gestational diabetes and giving birth to my last baby prematurely - and I thank my lucky stars for that.

My first time taking nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, and while it didn't reduce the pain nor made me feel 'high', it reminded me to control my breathing, took away some of my anxiety and made me feel better psychologically.
A good friend of mine told me she didn't take epidural because of the extra cost that would have been incurred. While that is a real and valid reason, it wasn't the case for me. You see, I gave birth to my firstborn in Sweden and it was FREE to do so. Read more about it in my previous post here. So yes, an epidural would have been free too yet I decided to skip that entirely.
It's true that the culture there is vastly different, for instance my baby was delivered by a midwife and not an obstetrician, they used wooden fetoscopes and measuring tapes instead of ultrasounds when I went for my pregnancy checkups, there is no nursery in the hospital and our baby was left under our care 24/7. Read about why I love the part about not having a nursery and how it made me decide to have all my subsequent babies room-in with me in Singapore.

So why?

For me, it boiled down to these personal reasons.
1) I wanted to feel everything
I wanted to feel every part of the process when my baby came into this world, that includes the joy, the anxiety and the pain. Feeling my baby descending the birth canal is a sensation like no other and it empowers me, motivates me and touches me in ways I can't describe.
With every contraction in the last stage of labour, it was the most painful thing I've felt but it also symbolised to me that my body, this amazing mama's body, was doing what it needed to in order to bring my precious one safely into this beautiful world. I didn't need anyone to tell me when to push, my mama's instincts told me to. When the moment finally came and I pushed with all my might and felt my baby's head, shoulders and whole body slipping out of me, that was truly one of the best feelings in the world and nothing else even comes close. Yes, I felt every bit of you when you came into this world, my dear babies.
It might sound silly to say this but all creatures have maternal instincts and having seen so many documentaries of animals giving birth to their young, why can't we humans do it like every other mammal in the universe instead of wanting to eliminate the pain? Is it just because we can so we ought to? Call me outdated, traditional or stubborn but I still stand by my point of wanting to feel.

2) I wanted to be like my mum
My thinking was "If my mum and grandma could do it, so can I." I mean, who even knew about the word epidural in those days and even if they did, I bet my mum, mother-in-law and grandma would not have opted for it. This is simply because we are not rich and it was deemed as a luxury more than a need in those days.
And if they are strong enough to do without it, why can't I?
If these wonderful women in my life were brave, resilient and determined to face the pain of labour and eventually emerge triumphant, I wanted to go through it the same way too. Yup, my mum was a strong source of motivation for me, especially for my first labour and it was the thought of her that kept me persevering till the finishing line.
3) I had the support of the hubby

When I had doubts about my ability to tolerate the pain before my first labour, the hubby was the one who told me "Just pretend that there is no epidural in this world. You will do fine." 
While it might seem easy for a man to say it as they have no inkling of the level of pain we are talking about, his wise words stuck with me and I was somehow grateful for it. Just so you know, at one point during my first labour, the thought of having an epidural did flash through both our minds because I had endured for over 12 hours, only to find myself dilated at merely 5cm. Luckily, I abandoned that thought and told myself to hang in there a little more because lo and behold, it only took me an hour more to be fully dilated. If the hubby had told me not to try, not to 'suffer' and to opt for painkillers from the beginning, I would probably not have made it.
4) I wanted to avoid the risk of side effects
While it might not be scientifically proven in most cases, there is still a risk of side effects from taking epidural, including both short and long term. I don't like the idea of having any foreign object entering my body, much less a needle that numbs the lower half of my body. So this was also a form of motivation for me not to take it.

Having my first childbirth in Sweden also made all the difference, for instance the midwives encouraged me to walk around, stand up or sway on a gym ball and it took my mind off the pain a little. They offered me ice cream to take off the pain and gave me laughing gas but never suggested that I should take epidural, unlike some of the nurses here in Singapore who might shove it in your face. I felt comforted and assured, and that was important in making me motivated to keep going.
Anyway, I ended up lying on the bed the whole time for my subsequent births in Singapore and looking back, maybe I should have insisted on bringing my own gym ball along, haha. Luckily, having that positive experience in Sweden gave me the knowledge and confidence I needed for my next three childbirths and I can safely say that the first labour is THE important one because once you've crossed that hurdle, you know better on what to expect (eg. the pain level), what to do (eg. controlling your breathing) or what not to do (eg. panicking). In most cases, the labour time decreases as the number of births increase - which was very true for me. 

Things don't always go as predicted and when it comes to labour, we must learn to expect the unexpected and make the most of what we can.

I gave birth in February this year and although it was my fourth time, I was still in for some surprises along the way. The biggest one was when he decided to kick his way out five weeks early and burst my waterbag. I was kept in the observation ward for one night where I didn't manage to sleep a wink due to all the frenzy, only to get informed the next evening that we were going to prep for induction and get the labour started. Having not slept or rested for nearly 40 hours, I became a little afraid if I was going to make it through this long marathon this time round. 

To tell you the truth, even if the labour time for my second, third and fourth births were significantly shorter than the first, the intensity of pain was THE SAME. Yup, so don't expect it to be any less painful, especially at the final stage of contraction just before you are fully dilated - that is the killer every time. The initial contractions are bearable and only a fraction of what is to come. However, if the time gets reduced, then the race gets shortened and you might have more strength to push as you dash to the finishing line.
Holding on tightly to the hubby's hand and asking him to count 1, 2, 3, 4 was how I endured and breathed through the contractions one by one.

For this particular last birth of mine, I felt exhausted and got frantic in the midst when I felt the urge to push yet my gynae had not arrived on the scene. Thankfully she got there just seconds before my baby's head came out and I can only say it was such a huge relief when I used all my remaining strength to get him out in one push. Was that still the best feeling in the world like I said just now? Well, without a doubt.
My only wish was that the nurses in Singapore could have allowed me to carry my newborn babies longer than they did. I still remember how the midwife in Sweden passed my girl to me the moment she came out and we were both naked, sticky, sweaty and bloody. I got to cuddle her, sing to her and pat her for what seemed like an hour before they took her to clean up and that felt totally amazing. If you are giving birth in Singapore, don't forget to request for them to pass the baby to you as soon as possible - that bonding time between mum and baby, even if for just a few minutes, is priceless!


While you can get good advice on the internet from mums who have been there and done that, here is my two cents' worth and having done this four times in my life, I can vouch that these tips worked for me.

1) Do squats and kegels during pregnancy
To be mentally strong during labour, it's good to first be physically fit throughout pregnancy. I try to find time to do some pregnancy exercises, especially from second trimester onward. It doesn't take much time, maybe just 15-20mins each time and 2-3 times a week. I like to do yoga or search for gym ball exercises and you can easily find these on YouTube. Squats and kegels are very important as they keep your pelvic floor muscles strong and will aid you during delivery. You can do them anywhere, even when you do your chores or when you are taking a shower.

2) Find your source of strength
As mentioned above, my mum was my main source of strength for my first labour. Every time a contraction came, I would think of her and focus on a picture of her in my mind. I wanted to make her proud, I wanted to be as strong as her. Subsequently, my kids also became my motivation to persevere and for my last labour, I even visualised the whole family taking pompoms and cheering for me every time the pain came. Find a source of strength that works best for you and focus your mind on it.
3) Eat, drink and shower before you go

I always have a good bath before I make my way to the hospital, no matter if my water bag had burst or the contractions had started. Of course, if you are having complications that cannot wait, this point becomes invalid. But if you can afford to, I would suggest that you stay comfortably at home a little longer before making your way to the hospital. Grab a hot drink, take a book, pack some snacks or anything that makes you happy.
4) Give yourself a pep talk
My coach used to give us pep talks before our badminton competition and I think that works to an extent. When it comes to labour, I become my own coach and I am the best person to motivate myself. I tell me to get mentally prepared for what is to come and not get into a panic, I repeat the words "I can do it, I can do it, I can do it" and "加油, 加油, 加油!" (You can hear me doing that in my video here and watch snippets from my latest labour experience) and when I start to doubt myself, another part of me chases away the doubts and tells me to go on believing that I can and I will.

5) Rid the worries and guilt 

I tend to worry a lot about having my elder kids under the care of the grandparents simply because I only do it during my labour and not on any other day. Yup, it's particularly hard for a stay-at-home mum who is with the kids 24/7 and there are always a thousand things on my mind, like have they bathed, have they eaten, have they done their homework and revised their spelling, did they iron their uniforms etc. The thing is once labour begins, it's important to stop worrying about other things but instead focus on what's coming. All the rest can wait.

6) Relax while you can

For me, the toughest period is usually the last 1-1.5 hours when the contractions reach their peak. Prior to that, I can still scroll on social media, chat with the hubby, watch TV, drink a cup of hot Milo or have a video call with the kids. Try to relax your mind and ease the tension as much as you can before things get more intense. Even when they do, remember that each contraction doesn't last long and we get to take a break in between them. 

7) Listen to yourself
You know best about your heart's desire and your body's ability - and we often belittle ourselves when it comes to giving birth. While there will be others who might give you unsolicited advice and opinions, whether or not to heed, remember that it's ultimately up to you. I heard of cases in Singapore where nurses will tell you things like "You WON'T be able to take the pain. I suggest you take epidural" which is something that wouldn't happen in Sweden as the midwives are very encouraging and will let you try and help you tide through. So my advice is to just listen and believe in yourself, and not feel pressurised into doing anything you don't wish to do.
8) Have a supportive partner

It's important to have someone to hold on to, even though I also know of mums who prefer not to touch the hubbies during labour. For me, I needed to squeeze his hand when the contractions came, perhaps it felt like I was passing a little of the pain to him? Haha. It made me feel supported and not alone in the battle, which was crucial in winning. Whenever I felt that I couldn't bear it any longer, he was the one who would remind me that I was almost there and that I could do it.
9) Keep an open mind
Things can go very differently from what was planned. For my third childbirth, I actually wanted to try doing it completely drug-free, meaning I didn't even want to take the laughing gas. That proved not very possible for me as I needed it to help distract me from the pain eventually and calm my nerves, so I still took it in the end. There's nothing to feel guilty about. Even if you had decided on getting or not getting an epi or decided to deliver via C-Sect, keep an open mind because changes can happen at the very last minute and what is important is that we eventually keep our babies, and ourselves, safe and sound.
This is likely the most important point because when things get intense - and they will! - we tend to hold our breaths and forget to breathe. Or we get into a panic and forget how it is like to breathe normally. My trick is to to take in one long breath and then breathe out four short ones - this was how I breathed in the laughing gas too every time. So whenever the contractions came - I am talking about the really major ones - I would give the hubby's hand a little squeeze and he would say "Breathe in, breath out-2-3-4". It was a rhythm I liked and got accustomed to and it allowed me to control my breathing. Find one that works for you and keep breathing!
11)  Push little by little
The nurses always say "Press this red button when you have the urge to push" and while I didn't understand fully the first time round, I soon realised what it meant after my first baby came. A friend once told me giving birth is like being constipated and having to push out the most gigantic 'poop' of your life. Sounds gross but it is actually quite true.
The sensation and the pushing is somewhat similar, just that this level of pain might be unfamiliar (we are talking about your worst menstrual cramps x 100 or worse). However, I also discovered it was okay to push a little by little because it helped my cervix to dilate fully. You just need to be in control and not let the baby come out too fast and furiously - which I almost did for Ansel because he defied expectations and came out quickly, so I know it's much easier said than done. The good thing about being able to feel it all is that you can actually feel your baby's head moving down the birth canal bit by bit and it's the strangest yet most incredible feeling ever when he/she slips out of your body and arrives in this world.
12) Don't give up
As cliché as it sounds, don't give up even when the going gets tough! Many a time, the finishing line is nearer than what it seems so just hang in there, persevere and trust me, you will get there. Giving birth is just the start of motherhood and if we can overcome this, we can conquer anything in future. 我行,我能,我可以! And if I can do it, so can you.

Angel - born in November 2009 at 37 weeks after a 14-hour labour

Ariel - born in December 2012 at 38 weeks after a 4-hour labour

Asher - born in December 2015 at nearly 39 weeks after a 3-hour labour
Ansel - born in February 2021 at 35 weeks after being hospitalised for 28 hours and arrived 4 hours after induction
Remember that no matter how you choose to deliver your baby, you are an awesome mama so let's continue to rock this motherhood journey together! 

For Angel's birth story, go here.
For Ariel's birth story, go here.
For Asher's birth story, go here.
For Ansel's birth story, go here.


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