Lamaze, Shlamaze — Load Up That Epidural

More and more women are having spinal anesthesia during labor. Whatever happened to natural childbirth?

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So much for the well-timed panting and wheezing — and screaming — many women associate with childbirth. Today, according to researchers at the University of Colorado, most women opt for some type of serious drug during delivery. In the past 20 years, the numbers of women getting epidurals — once dismissed as the weak way to get through labor — has skyrocketed, from 22 to 66 percent in large hospitals, and from 13 to 55 percent in midsize hospitals. Small hospitals also reported a massive increase in women receiving the procedure.

While the numbers are striking, they may not represent the sea change in attitudes they initially suggest, says TIME medical writer Christine Gorman. Instead, we may simply be witnessing a return to normalcy. "In the 1970s and early Ď80s there was a very strong trend toward natural childbirth," says Gorman. "Itís possible that the rising rates of epidurals are simply a bounce-back after years of natural births." Thereís a more scientific possibility as well: These days, spinal anesthesia is safer and more precise than ever before, and doctors may be more willing to administer drugs to a wider range of women. And since the alternative to a relatively relaxed numbness can be hours of excruciating pain, itís not hard to grasp the appeal of the quick oblivion of a jab in the back.