The short answer is no, you do not “need” an episiotomy. Women rarely (if EVER) actually “need” an episiotomy. An episiotomy is a surgical incision made in the perineum to enlarge the vaginal opening as the baby’s head is being born. This procedure is rarely necessary and you should ask your care provider how often they perform episiotomies. A good answer is, “almost never” or “I’ve done 3 or 4 in my career.” Answers that are NOT good and that should encourage you to question further are, “only if you need it” or, “many first time moms need one” or, “a clean cut is easier to repair than a nasty, jagged tear!” or, “don’t worry about it. I’ll make the decision when the time comes.” These are not good answers, because there has no study has ever shown any benefit to routine use of episiotomy! There is no scientific evidence supporting the practice.
A commonly used analogy to explain why a cut is NOT better than a tear is to imagine a piece of fabric–when you try to tear it, it resists. But, when you make a small cut in the top of the fabric and then then try to tear it, it easily rips all the way down. The same is true of your skin! (and your muscles–an episiotomy cuts through your muscle as well as your skin. Many naturally occurring tears are very small and occur only on the surface of your skin).
Here is some more explanation from an issue of Midwifery Today e-news issue number 8:23:
“Ironically, one of the biggest contributors to perineal tearing is episiotomy, which has long been heralded as the great preventer of tearing. One recent study, which only assessed the effects of episiotomy on third and fourth degree tearing, found a definite correlation between episiotomy and tearing. The risk of severe tearing was found to be nearly four times higher with episiotomy than without. Another study involving thousands of women found that the number one risk factor for perineal tearing was episiotomy.”
Though it often is presented as a choice–i.e. “would you rather tear or be cut?” I offer that there is a third option….Neither! A perineal wound is NOT an inevitable part of giving birth (even with your first baby). Though it is not abnormal to tear, it is also perfectly possible to not tear or need stitches. One way to work with your body to avoid tearing is to give birth on your hands and knees, kneeling, or squatting. Another way is to stop pushing when you feel a burning sensation or “ring of fire” and let the baby’s head naturally ease out. Your uterus will push the baby out without sustained, breath holding, high exertion pushing from you–you can rest and let your uterus do the work! When you are doing forceful or directed pushing you are more likely to tear than if you follow your own body’s pushing urges and signals. Some people also advocate perineal massage prior to birth to help the tissues stretch. While it does not hurt to become more familiar with this part of your body and how your muscles feel when they are relaxed or tense, perineal massage has not been shown to have very much effect on your chance of tearing during birth.