Opioids are commonly used for pain relief during childbirth. Most pregnant women in the United States choose to use pain medication to help them cope during labor and delivery.
There's very little risk of becoming addicted to opioids if you choose to use them for pain relief during labor and delivery. You'll only be exposed to the medication for a short time, and the amount you receive is carefully controlled by your OB, midwife, or anesthesiologist.
There is some risk that your baby will be affected by the medication, but the risk is low. Here's what we know.
Epidural pain relief
Many women opt to have pain medication delivered through an epidural. If you choose an epidural, opioids are delivered through a thin, flexible tube (catheter) inserted into the space outside the membrane that surrounds your spinal cord.
Only a small amount of the medication enters your bloodstream and an even smaller amount reaches your baby, but there is some risk of short-term effects such as drowsiness.
The most recent studies suggest that an epidural does not have a negative effect on a newborn as measured by his Apgar score, an evaluation routinely done immediately following birth.
Read more about the risks and benefits of epidurals.
Systemic pain relief
Another option for pain relief during labor is to have opioids administered by IV. This method is called systemic pain relief because it affects your whole body.
Having opioids in your bloodstream close to delivery may cause your baby to have trouble breathing properly after birth, so your provider will avoid giving you opioids toward the end of labor.
If your labor progresses more quickly than expected, and it's likely that you still have opioids in your system when you deliver, your baby may be given a medication right after birth to counteract the effects of the opioids.
Read more about the risks and benefits of opioids for systemic pain relief.
If you don't like the idea of relying on opioids or other medications for pain relief during labor, you may want to consider using breathing and relaxation techniques instead.