Do Epidurals Impact Breastfeeding?

There was a question recently on a list I belong to about the impact of epidurals on breastfeeding. The person asking the question had been told by several hospital based childbirth educators that epidurals do not “cross the placenta’ and thus do not have an impact on the baby. Since this is an issue of concern, I thought I’d share some of my response/thoughts regarding this question here. I was happy to hear Linda J. Smith speak at the LLLI conference luncheon session about this very issue–the impact of birth practices on breastfeeding–and she covered a ton of material about the impact of epidurals on breastfeeding (she also wrote a book on the same topic with the late Mary Kroeger). There is some good information, though much less complete, on her site. The biggest problems with epidurals are the impact on the mother rather than the baby, though the medications used in epidurals DO cross the placenta and get to the baby, they are much less seriously impactful than IV or IM narcotics. An epidural refers to the means of medication delivery not what is actually being delivered into the body, so it is hard to say definitively that one has no effect, because different anesthesiologists use different “cocktails” of drugs in their epidurals. They usually use bupivacaine as the anesthetic, but there are opoids included as well, such as *morphine* or other related opoids like that.

All the books I have as a CBE say that medications used in epidurals do make it to the baby, but effects vary. Most effects are connected to what is happening to mom—i.e. mother gets a fever as a side effect of the meds and that stresses baby. Fluid overloading leads to more fluid in baby’s lungs, etc. The main breastfeeding impact on the mother’s side is excess fluid retention in the breasts due to the fluid “bolus” administered prior to an epidural. Baby is a little sleepy following birth and then can’t latch to severely swollen breasts (which are not “normally” engorged, but excessively so due to excess fluid), and so it goes. You often hear from mothers that their nipples are “too flat” for the baby to latch on to and as you probe further you find that the flatness has NOTHING to do with the mother’s true anatomy, but has to do with that excess fluid. Women are so programmed to look inward and blame themselves for problems that it is really unfortunate (like mothers who “aren’t making enough milk” when it is really a pump with bad suction).

Basically most breastfeeding problems that have to do with birth practices are not correctly attributed to the source—the birth practices—and are instead blamed on the mother (“flat nipples”), the baby (“lazy suck”), or breastfeeding (“sometimes it just doesn’t work out”).

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