Women who opt for epidurals are missing out on life's most enriching experience, says Joanna Moorhead

When I told my friends I planned a labour without pain relief they were, to a woman, unconvinced. "You don't realise how tough it's going to be," said one. "Best keep your options open," said another. "You'll never have known pain like it," said a third. Well, that turned out to be true. There is no pain - no pain I've experienced anyway, although I've never had a leg amputated without anaesthetic - like the pain of childbirth. It is the most absorbing pain imaginable: it is a great ocean of pain, a huge sea in which you find yourself tossed by currents you couldn't possibly have anticipated when you set out for your swim.

Just the other day, a friend phoned to say she was in labour with her first child. "It's a bit painful - oh, gosh, yes, it really hurt there," she said. "Do you think I should go into hospital?" I said something tactful like, "Oh, I think you've a while yet," but inside I knew she had hours to go. You can't talk through a contraction, not once you're in proper labour. Anyone who is saying "gosh, it hurts" isn't even at base camp. Climbing Everest is a long way off.

So, first things first: labour hurts. My friends were right: it hurt more than I realised it would. But, despite the pain, I managed to have not just one but three babies without as much as a whiff of gas and air, and I've never been so pleased about anything in my life. When I heard delegates at the Royal College of Midwives conference discussing the merits of drug-free labour, I cheered: because, while no one is ever going to say that labour isn't painful, we really do need to hear a lot more about why, despite the pain, it's worth thinking twice before you jump on the "mine's an epidural" bandwagon. Shockingly, the number of women now having epidurals in the UK is 35 per cent and rising.

And what's wrong with that, I hear you ask. Well, a recent review of all the evidence found that having an epidural means you're likely to have a longer second stage of labour (that's the pushing phase), and that your risk of a forceps or ventouse delivery goes up by a whopping 40 per cent. And one thing leads to another: having a forceps delivery means an increased chance of an episiotomy, and more risk of bladder damage afterwards.

And it's not just epidurals, either: pethidine, the analgesic commonly offered to women in labour, can cause drowsiness in both mother and baby, and being drowsy isn't the best state to be in either when you're giving birth, or when you're being born. Not surprisingly, babies whose mothers have not had drugs tend to score higher in the Apgar test, which medics use to check newborn responsiveness. They also tend to be more likely to breastfeed in the first hour or so of life, and that matters because a baby who feeds successfully early on is more likely to go on to breastfeed without further problems. What's more, according to obstetric experts, pain-relieving drugs can interfere with the production of oxytocin, the so-called "love hormone" that helps forge the bond between mother and child.

Of course there are moments in a labour when pain relief seems enticing: but labour isn't called labour for nothing, and in the midst of the hardest job you ever do, you need to keep your wits about you. But our society has ceased to believe drug-free childbirth is possible, and forgotten that it's how every woman used to do it. Instead, we've been hoodwinked into believing that we can only get through childbirth with the help of drugs and hi-tech monitors and obstetricians - when in fact the evidence suggests the exact opposite, which is that the safest place of all to give birth isn't a hospital, but home.

Two of my labours were at home. The words "pain relief" weren't mentioned once, but it was hugely helpful to be in my own surroundings, to be able to wander around (research shows walking speeds labour up) and to have the one-to-one support of a midwife. She had some good (drug-free) tips on how to make it less painful, too: counting backwards from 100 through a contraction turned out to be a brilliant distraction technique for me.

Of course there are moments in every labour when you find yourself crashing against the rocks, when you wish you were anywhere, anywhere on earth, but here. The classic moment is transition, when labour moves between the first stage, when the cervix is opening up, to the second stage, when the baby's head begins to descend into the birth canal. I remember, in one labour especially, being completely lost then: I remember crying and moaning and saying it was all too much, that I'd never get through. But transition is Mother Nature's tease, because within minutes things had turned around. The next contraction still hurt, but in a new and different and exciting way. The baby was coming! Suddenly it wasn't hopeless, it was absolutely fine.

And it's not just in the delivery room that a drug-free labour comes up trumps. Having a baby without medical intervention is life-changing. I have never done anything as affirming or uplifting as delivering a baby without drugs, and I honestly doubt there's an experience to challenge it. I have never been as pleased or as proud or as triumphant as I was when I picked up my babies off the floor (another plus about not having drugs is that you can resist any suggestion to get on to a bed) and held them in my arms for the first time. And the confidence you get from giving birth goes deep, and lasts a long time: which is just as well, since it turns out that labour is only the warm-up, and you need every ounce of self-belief you can muster to make it through the next 20 years.

Now, lest you're thinking I'd rather die than let a doctor intervene in childbirth, let me tell you about my first delivery. I'd booked the home birth; I'd bought the bean bags; I'd chosen the music. And then came the news that I had pre-eclampsia and needed an immediate caesarean. I was crushed. But it wasn't a time to be sentimental. I had the operation; and as my tiny baby was whisked off to special care, and I was taken to a high-dependency unit, I thanked God for every bit of hi-tech care the NHS could offer. A drug-free delivery wasn't for me on that occasion. But when things are going well, for the majority of women in the majority of labours, there's simply no better way to do it.