The current NICE guidelines on maternity care state that giving a woman an epidural can lead to an extended second stage of labour and greater need for an assisted delivery, such as with forceps or a ventouse.

Both of these circumstances are also linked to a greater chance of the woman suffering a severe perineal tear during the birth, and thus a greater chance of long-term physical damage and unpleasant symptoms.

However, new research from the US, highlighted in The Times recently, has found that an epidural has had virtually no effect on the length of the second stage of labour.

The research, carried out by the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, a research affiliate of Harvard Medical School, studied the effects of an epidural in comparison with a placebo in 400 women during labour. On average, those women who had been given an epidural gave birth only one minute later than those who had received the placebo.

It remains to be seen if future studies repeat these findings and whether women will start to be offered greater pain relief in childbirth if it is no longer thought to increase the chances of negative outcomes.

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