I read a great article this morning over at Peaceful Parenting... http://www.drmomma.org/2010/09/truth-about-epidurals.html. I consider this article more of an opinion since there were no references of studies listed, but it is definitely an interesting consideration.
The article maintains that not only do epidurals affect babies, it may actually make birth more painful for them. I will admit, in all my research of natural birth I had never come across this or even considered it, but the author does make some convincing points. I have observed the effects of the epidural on babies, such as making them more sluggish, but I had never considered whether or no the baby felt pain during labor. It does make sense that the baby would feel pain to some degree, especially since babies sometimes come out bruised or with a broken clavicle, and if you've ever watched a forceps or vacuum extraction, I'm sure the baby feels something from that!
This article points out that mothers and babies alike produce a brain chemical called beta endorphin, which is produced as a result of painful sensations, and this chemical is actually designed to help cope with the pain. Mother and baby both produce this brain opiate, but mother does pass some to the baby through the placenta. When mother gets an epidural, she no longer has pain sensations and therefore, stops production on beta endorphin. The effects on the baby are then decreased beta endorphin to help manage birth pains, in which the baby feels increased pain. Since epidurals effect a mother differently than the baby, the mother gets relief from pain, while the baby does not.
I think this is a very interesting consideration, however, I would love to see some research on this before I jump in with both feet. I think there should also be more research on how epidurals effect babies in general and also how epidurals affect mother and baby bonding, which the article does touch base on a bit. Without this research, I feel we can only speculate, though the article does raise an interesting concern. As mothers, if we knew the epidural was going to increase our babies pain, wouldn't we think twice about getting one?