Anaesthetics in labour

Anaesthetics and pain relief are used if your baby needs help to be born by ventouse or forceps delivery, or caesarean section (C-section).

You can breastfeed your baby afterwards, whether you have a regional or general anaesthetic.

Regional anaesthetic

This is where you’re awake, but your lower body's numb. During the birth you may feel pressure and pulling but you shouldn’t feel pain.

After a regional anaesthetic you:

  • won’t be sleepy afterwards
  • should have better pain relief than after a general anaesthetic

Most women have this and it’s usually safer for you and your baby. It also means that you’ll be awake for the birth and if you’ve got your partner with you, you can experience the birth together.

Regional anaesthetics work well for most women however if they don't work you'll be offered a general anaesthetic.

More about local anaesthetics

Types of regional anaesthetic

There are 3 types of regional anaesthetic:

  • Spinal anaesthetic - this is the most common
  • Epidural - you might have your epidural topped up if you’ve had one for labour
  • Spinal anaesthetic and epidural together

More about epidurals

Spinal anaesthetic

For a spinal anaesthetic, the anaesthetist will inject a small amount of local anaesthetic into the spinal fluid in your back. This blocks the pain nerves very quickly and makes you numb from the breasts down.

If you've already had an epidural you can have a stronger dose of local anaesthetic given through the thin plastic tube. This takes a bit longer to work.

Some women have a mix of spinal anaesthetic and epidural, so that the anaesthetic lasts longer.

Complications of a regional anaesthetic

After a regional anaesthetic:

  • your blood pressure may drop, but this is usually easy to treat
  • you might get a bad headache - this occurs in around 1 in 100 women and is usually treated with painkillers and fluids but sometimes it may need special treatment
  • you might have a long-lasting nerve injury (such as a numb patch on your leg or a slightly weak leg) - this is very unusual and can also happen with a normal delivery

If the operation takes a lot longer than expected you can get uncomfortable, and if this happens you’ll be offered a general anaesthetic or more painkillers.

General anaesthetic

A general anaesthetic can be used to put you to sleep during a caesarean section (C-section). Your partner probably won't be able to stay with you in the operating theatre.

You'd usually only have a general anaesthetic:

  • in an emergency
  • if there’s a reason why a regional anaesthetic isn’t right for you, such as a blood clotting condition, infection or a back issue.

When you wake up after the operation you may:

  • feel sore or sick
  • be sleepy for a while
  • need strong painkillers to start with

Your baby can also be a bit sleepy after delivery as they'll have had a small amount of the anaesthetic. This doesn’t usually cause problems, but they may need some support to breathe for a short while.

You’ll go to the recovery area to wake up and that’s where you’ll probably meet your baby.

More about general anaesthetics

Translations and alternative formats of this information are available from Public Health Scotland.

Last updated:
22 September 2020