Can epidurals lead to breathing problems in babies?

New research has investigated whether there is a link between epidurals and breathing problems in babies.

It has long been taught in antenatal classes that epidurals do not affect babies at all, and that narcotic analgesics in labour such as morphine or pethidine can lead to breathing problems and are best avoided.  In other words, the message has been that epidurals are perfectly safe for babies and injectable pain relief is not as safe for babies.

In NSW, almost 50% women use an epidural for pain relief in labour, and when we look at private hospitals, we find that the rate of epidural use in labour is much higher: close to 70%.


The research that was conducted looked at babies born between January 2006 and December 2010 who were greater than 34 weeks gestation and who developed respiratory distress within 24 hours of birth. 

The results found that over 70% of of the babies who experienced breathing difficulty had been born following a labour with an epidural. These results were consistent even when the researchers separated out babies who were preterm from babies who were term.

They conclude that late-preterm and term babies who are exposed to epidural analgesia in labour are more likely to develop breathing problems in the early newborn period.

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