Skip to Content

Can you be put to sleep giving birth?

Giving birth is one of the most intense, painful, and exhilarating experiences a woman can have. As the time to deliver approaches, many women think about pain management options to help them through labor and delivery. One option that some pregnant women consider is being put to sleep, also known as general anesthesia, during childbirth. This raises the important question: can you be put to sleep giving birth?

The quick answer is yes, it is possible to be put under general anesthesia during childbirth. However, this option is very rarely used today. Being put to sleep for delivery comes with a number of risks for both the mother and baby. It is usually only considered when there are serious complications during delivery that make pain relief or consciousness dangerous for the mother.

When General Anesthesia Might Be Used During Childbirth

While quite uncommon, there are some circumstances when a pregnant woman may need to be put under general anesthesia for delivery. Some potential situations when general anesthesia could be used include:

– Emergency C-section – If the baby needs to be delivered immediately via emergency C-section, the mother may need to be put to sleep if there is not enough time to administer a regional anesthesia like an epidural or spinal block. This allows the doctors to proceed with the urgent surgery.

– High risk deliveries – For women with certain medical conditions like heart problems, being awake and in pain could pose too much strain on their bodies. In these cases, the risks of general anesthesia may be lower than the risks of being conscious.

– Severe maternal hemorrhage – Heavy bleeding before, during, or after delivery may necessitate general anesthesia so doctors can find and control sources of bleeding.

– Major birth injuries – If the mother experiences severe injuries during birth like uterine rupture, general anesthesia may be required for emergency surgical repair.

– Severe preeclampsia or eclampsia – These serious conditions that involve extremely high blood pressure can make regional anesthesia ineffective or dangerous. Being put to sleep may be needed to protect the mother.

– Problems administering regional anesthesia – In some cases, it may not be possible to administer regional anesthesia like an epidural due to issues like spinal deformities or blood clotting disorders.

– Patient preference – Rarely, some women may request general anesthesia if they have an intense fear of being awake during delivery. This is usually discouraged due to the higher risks.

As you can see from these examples, general anesthesia during labor is only used when absolutely necessary because the situation is deemed an emergency. It allows doctors to deliver the baby rapidly when the risks of being awake would be too great for the mother.

Risks of General Anesthesia During Labor and Delivery

While being put to sleep for childbirth can provide relief from consciousness and pain when necessary, it does come with a number of risks that must be considered:

Risks for the Mother

– Difficulty breathing – General anesthesia suppresses the mother’s protective airway reflexes and breathing, which could lead to oxygen deprivation.

– Nausea and vomiting – These are common side effects that can be dangerous if the mother vomits while unconscious.

– Blood clots – Immobility under general anesthesia increases the mother’s risk of developing dangerous blood clots in the legs or lungs.

– Infection – Being put under general anesthesia increases the risk of surgical site infections for C-sections.

– Anesthetic complications – Allergic reactions, side effects or anesthesia administration issues could arise.

– Injury during surgery – Without the ability to feel pain or move, the mother is at increased risk of injury during the urgent delivery.

– Death – Though extremely rare, maternal death due to anesthesia complications is possible.

Risks for the Baby

– Premature birth – The urgency of delivery often results in earlier gestational age for the infant.

– Respiratory problems – Medications given for general anesthesia can depress the newborn’s breathing.

– Drug side effects – If anesthesia crosses the placenta, it could have temporary effects on the baby like drowsiness, low muscle tone, and poor reflexes.

– Birth injuries – Without the mother’s ability to push, the use of forceps and vacuums is more likely, increasing risk of injury.

– Separated from mother – Being unconscious delays the mother’s first contact, breastfeeding, and bond with her newborn.

As you can see, both the mother and baby take on additional health risks when general anesthesia is used for delivery versus being awake. That is why it is typically reserved for truly emergent cases.

What to Expect With General Anesthesia for Delivery

If a difficult medical situation arises that calls for general anesthesia during labor, what would this experience be like for the mother? Here is a general overview of the process:

– Consultation with anesthesiologist – The risks, benefits and procedure will be explained and consent obtained. Pre-surgery testing may be done.

– IV placement – An intravenous line will be started, usually in the hand or arm, to administer medications.

– Monitoring – Devices will monitor your blood pressure, heart rate, oxygen levels and breathing once anesthesia begins.

– Sedative given – A sedative medication may be given through the IV to help you relax before going fully asleep.

– Anesthesia administered – Anesthesia medications will flow through the IV to put you into a pain-free, unconscious sleep state. This happens very quickly.

– Delivery – While asleep, the urgent C-section or other delivery method will proceed, followed by wake-up and transfer to recovery.

– Gradual wake-up – You will slowly wake up after delivery as the anesthesia wears off, usually feeling drowsy and possibly nauseous or disoriented.

– Meet baby – As soon as reasonably possible and you are alert, you’ll be able to meet your newborn.

– Post-op care – Typical postoperative care and monitoring for c-section or delivery will continue.

Having general anesthesia will mean missing the actual birth and that exciting moment of meeting your baby right away. But if it allows a safer delivery in an emergency, it can be the best choice for protecting both your and your baby’s health when complications arise.

Alternatives to General Anesthesia for Labor Pain Relief

Because of the significant risks involved, general anesthesia during labor is avoided unless absolutely critical. There are several safer alternatives for pain management during delivery:


– Anesthetic injected into the epidural space surrounding spinal cord.

– Reduces pain and sensation from the abdomen through lower body.

– Catheter allows medication doses to be given continuously.

– Allows mother to be awake and participate in birth.

Spinal Block

– Numbing medication injected directly into spinal fluid.

– Faster pain relief but shorter lasting than epidural.

– Often used for C-sections when time is limited.

– Also allows consciousness and participation in delivery.

Local Anesthesia

– Numbing medication like lidocaine injected into perineum.

– Reduces pain during episiotomies and vaginal repairs.

– Does not affect uterine contractions or ability to push.

Nitrous Oxide

– Also known as laughing gas, provides mild analgesic effects.

– Inhaled through mask during labor contractions.

– Takes edge off pain without major side effects.

– Easy to administer and quick acting.

IV Pain Medications

– Opioid medications like fentanyl given through IV.

– Provides systemic pain relief between epidural doses.

– Does not completely eliminate pain or need for epidural.

– Can cause drowsiness.

When possible, techniques like epidurals, spinal blocks and IV analgesia are safer options that allow the mother to remain conscious. General anesthesia is really a last resort for severely complicated deliveries.

Key Takeaways on General Anesthesia for Childbirth

In summary, the key points to understand about being put to sleep for giving birth include:

– General anesthesia during labor is very uncommon but can be done if truly needed.

– It is only used for emergency deliveries when regional anesthesia is not possible or ideal.

– Both the mother and baby take on greater health risks with general anesthesia.

– An anesthesiologist administers sedative medications through an IV to induce a temporary unconscious state for delivery.

– Safer alternatives like an epidural allow conscious participation in the birth which is preferable.

– Unless a critical medical emergency develops or regional anesthesia fails, general anesthesia is avoided due to the disadvantages for both mother and child.

While not routinely performed, labor and delivery under general anesthesia is sometimes the only choice when serious complications put the mother at great risk without it. But there is no denying this option comes with significant downsides and hazards. When possible, other forms of analgesia that preserve the mother’s consciousness are strongly preferred during childbirth.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why would I need general anesthesia for labor?

General anesthesia may be required in certain emergency situations like heavy bleeding, urgent C-section, placental problems, or issues administering regional anesthesia. It allows urgent delivery when being awake would pose too great a health risk.

What are the risks to me of being put to sleep for delivery?

Risks to the mother include breathing problems, nausea, blood clots, surgical injuries, and even very rare deaths from anesthesia complications. You also miss the experience of being awake for your baby’s birth.

What are the risks to my baby if I have general anesthesia?

Risks to the baby include premature delivery, respiratory depression, birth injuries due to forceps/vacuum use, temporary medication side effects, and delayed bonding with the mother.

How is general anesthesia administered before a C-section?

Intravenous sedative medications are given first to relax you, followed by anesthesia medications through the IV to fully put you to sleep. This happens very rapidly to allow the urgent C-section to proceed.

What alternatives allow me to stay awake for delivery?

Safer options that preserve consciousness include epidurals, spinal blocks, local anesthesia, nitrous oxide gas, and intravenous pain relievers. These are strongly preferred over general anesthesia when possible.


While general anesthesia for childbirth is possible if essential for an emergency delivery, it is rarely ideal or recommended. Being unconscious puts both the mother and baby at higher risk for complications. That is why this option is limited to severely problematic situations where the hazards of being awake and in pain could be life-threatening for the mother. When able, other forms of analgesia that allow wakefulness are much safer alternatives during labor and delivery. But if an emergent C-section or other urgent delivery is needed, general anesthesia remains an available option to rapidly achieve an unconscious state despite the disadvantages involved.