image Few first-time pregnant women escape unsolicited advice from well-meaning friends. To make things even more confusing, there seems to be two camps: "Get the Epidural ASAP" versus "Natural Childbirth Is The Only Way to Have a Baby."

Sorting this out can be intimidating. It may take a bit of soul-searching to reconcile your own attitudes toward pain and your philosophy as to what type of birth experience you—not your partner, doctor, or mother—want. As you make these decisions, though, be sure the doctor, nurse, or midwife who will be seeing you through childbirth understands your instincts and choices.

These days, pain relief in childbirth often means an epidural. During an epidural, anesthesia is injected through a catheter into a space between the vertebra of your lower back and just outside the spinal canal.

Traditional epidurals take 10-20 minutes to work. They anesthetize the entire lower half of your body.

Some variations, known as walking epidurals, combine pain relievers to allow more sensation and numb only the abdominal nerves. Because the walking epidural allows more movement and the feeling of contractions, women are able to feel when to push and help labor along. It also works fast. Pain subsides within two minutes after the two-injection procedure.

The epidural is a significant improvement over previous methods because it allows safe, effective pain relief that allows labor to progress almost naturally. You remain conscious, and little of the drug goes to the baby. In previous eras, the drugs often knocked a woman out or greatly impaired her and endangered the baby's breathing or other vital functions.