A water birth involves immersing yourself in water as you prepare to go into labour. With the help of a midwife or doula, you then birth your baby as you would in a hospital, except here you’re in a birthing pool or tub and you welcome your little one under water.
A cool concept certainly, but is it safe?
Swimming into life
Water birth works on the premise that your baby, having lived in an amniotic fluid sac for his gestation period, will feel comfortable being birthed into a similar environment. Studies into the practice say that the method of birthing is softer and gentler for mom and baby, in comparison to the harder, colder environment of a hospital room.
Water birth is more of a philosophy of non-intervention, says pregnancy expert and midwife, Tina Otte. “Water is a relaxing medium. When a woman in labour relaxes in a warm bath, buoyant and free from gravity’s pull, with sensory stimulation reduced, her body is less likely to secrete stress hormones.”
As Otte explains, water birth does have merit and much to recommend it. Water makes for a softer landing and reduces injury and risk to the mom and baby. “The water softens the perineum, reducing injury while skeletal pressure is reduced, helping the mother conserve her energy.”
Water birth is also thought to be gentler for the baby. Babies are aquatic creatures throughout pregnancy. At birth, a newborn is bombarded with new sensations. When birth takes place in water this transition is less dramatic. The water offers familiar comfort after the stress of the birth.
A 2009 report by the Cochrane Organization about water births found that:
- Water immersion during the first stage of labour significantly reduced epidural and spinal analgesia requirements.
- One trial showed that immersion in water during the second stage of labour increased women’s satisfaction with their birth experience.
Other research shows that there’s no evidence that a water birth would adversely affect the baby. A recent study published in the Journal of Midwifery and Women’s Health reveals that newborns born in water were no more likely to need hospital care, than babies born in hospital. This is one of the largest studies done on water births to date. “The findings suggest that water birth is a reasonably safe, low-intervention option for women who face a low risk of complications during the birthing process.”
A water birth needs to be done with a professional. There’s the risk of aspiration, which is a concern. A 2014 study by the National Health Institute in America details this risk: “When a baby is born, everyone awaits that first cry, which signals that the newborn has emerged safely from the womb. The delay of that response is very stressful for most people. There are several mechanisms that prevent the baby from inhaling or gasping while it is still submerged in the water as the head is born and after the full body has slipped into the water.”
There other risks too.
Overheating. Water that’s too hot can cause dizziness and dehydration, as well as discomfort for mom and baby, raising the foetal temperature. This can be dangerous.
Infection could pose a problem. Just because you’re in water doesn’t necessarily mean the risk of infection is washed away.
“The incidence of post-partum haemorrhage is not increased after birth in water, however if bleeding is excessive, the mother must leave the water immediately. The pool should be near the labour ward to ensure that the transfer time is short,” explains Otte.