Doctors may use general anesthesia during delivery if regional anesthesia is not a suitable option. Doctors typically reserve general anesthesia for surgical deliveries, such as cesarean deliveries.

General anesthesia causes a complete loss of consciousness and sensation. Doctors administer drugs, called anesthetics, to induce this state. People under general anesthesia do not feel any pain, and their body does not respond to reflexes.

An anesthesiologist will constantly monitor the vital signs of a person under general anesthesia to help prevent complications. This specialist is also responsible for bringing people back to full consciousness.

This article will review general anesthesia during delivery, how doctors administer it, the potential risks to the pregnant person and their baby, and other anesthesia types commonly used during labor.

A parent holding their newborn baby after having general anesthesia during delivery -1.Share on Pinterest
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Doctors typically avoid giving general anesthesia to people during labor, as delivery requires a person to be conscious and active. During a vaginal birth, the person must actively participate in the delivery and respond to verbal cues from the healthcare professional.

However, general anesthesia may be necessary for surgical delivery procedures, such as planned or emergency cesarean deliveries, or C-sections. While regional or spinal anesthesia is typically the preferable option during delivery, general anesthesia may be acceptable in people who have back injuries or had back surgeries.

General anesthesia may be an option for people who are undergoing labor and have a blood clotting condition or certain infections that make regional anesthetics unsuitable.

If there are any concerns about using general anesthesia, a person can speak with the doctor in charge of their care. They can help someone understand the risks and benefits.

General anesthesia causes the muscles in the digestive tract and airways to relax. An anesthesiologist has to insert a tube down the windpipe to help ensure oxygen flow, prevent aspiration, and prevent backflow of gastric acid into the lungs. This tube is called an endotracheal tube.

In some cases, doctors may be unable to place the endotracheal tube down the windpipe. This can lead to serious complications, including death. People may also have allergic or adverse reactions to the anesthetic medications, such as malignant hyperthermia and nerve pain.

General anesthesia can have effects on the baby, but these are usually less severe and unlikely to cause serious complications. The baby may seem a bit sleepy and, sometimes, need temporary breathing support.

Anesthesiologists administer the medication for general anesthesia through an intravenous (IV) drip. They must also provide oxygen using an airway mask and place an endotracheal tube down the windpipe.

The anesthesiologist will likely monitor a person during and after delivery, addressing any side effects and examining the risk of complications.

The person may experience side effects with general anesthesia, including:

  • sore throat
  • nausea and vomiting
  • headache
  • difficulty urinating
  • itching
  • chills and shivering
  • muscle aches
  • postoperative delirium
  • cognitive dysfunction

After delivery, the anesthesiologist stops providing the anesthesia medication, and its effects begin wearing off. A person will gradually wake up.

Learn more about anesthesia.

The most common type of anesthesia doctors administer to pregnant people is an epidural injection. It helps provide pain relief during labor. People can receive an epidural at any point during labor.

The epidural numbs the part of the body between the belly button and the upper legs, leaving the pregnant person alert and able to push during delivery. When receiving the injection, people report feeling a burning or stinging sensation.

Epidurals are generally safe, and serious complications are very rare. Still, for some people, it can lead to the following effects:

  • soreness at the injection site
  • headache
  • decreased blood pressure
  • nausea and vomiting

To keep the pregnant person and their baby safe, an anesthesiologist will monitor vital signs and blood pressure to reduce the risk of complications. Sometimes, doctors may give IV fluids to the pregnant person to help prevent dips in blood pressure.

Learn more about the benefits and drawbacks of epidural for delivery.

During childbirth, doctors typically administer general anesthesia only if a person needs to undergo a cesarean delivery, and other types of anesthesia are not suitable due to back injury or other underlying health conditions.

Epidural is the most common type of anesthesia given during labor, as it provides pain relief while keeping the person who is giving birth alert and able to participate in the delivery. An individual can speak with their healthcare team about any concerns regarding the use of anesthesia during delivery.