Not so long ago, if you were planning a water birth, chances are doctors, colleagues and even family members would have smirked and scoffed at the idea. But thanks to numerous formal studies proving its benefits for both mother and baby, it is no longer regarded as ‘alternative’. These days, a labouring woman immersed in a warm pool surrounded by scented frangipani candles is just as likely to be an inner city accountant as a yoga teacher.
Even if you’ve never considered water birth, you might be surprised to find yourself adding it to your birth plan, once you’ve read about the many advantages it has to offer. And if you’ve already chosen water birth, it may help to arm yourself with some of the research findings, so you’ve got some fast comebacks to anyone who might question your choice!
Conversely, there could be pressure in your social circle for moms-to-be to have one. If you’re in this position, but don’t feel a water birth is for you, then go with your instincts. It’s your experience and only you can choose what feels right and comfortable for you.
Why water birth is becoming more popular
Since time immemorial, the line ‘Fetch warm water’ has popped up when someone is about to give birth, be it in a book, a film, a play or a story told by elders around the campfire. So, obviously, there is something in the notion of warm water and having babies!
Labouring and then possibly giving birth in a pool does seem to make sense, and there’s a long list of documented benefits:
The buoyancy of water helps a woman to move more easily during labour, and to change position during the actual birth.
Pressure on the abdomen is reduced in a pool. Buoyancy promotes more efficient contractions and better bloody circulation, which in turn helps oxygenate the muscles. This is thought to lessen the mother’s pain and provide more oxygen for the baby.
Floating in a pool is deeply relaxing, which is thought to promote the release of the mother’s hormones, thereby progressing the labour.
Water offers an environment where a woman can behave instinctively and feel in control.
Many women find birth in a pool is a simple and effective way of coping with pain without the use of strong drugs. A reduction in the use of pain-relieving drugs can help both baby and mother feel more ‘with it’ and responsive after the birth.
A Swiss study found that waterbirths have the lowest rate of analgesic pain relief.
The same Swiss study found that water birth has the lowest episiotomy (this is an incision made in the tissue around the vagina in order to ease the final stage of delivery) rates and the lowest incidence of 3rd and 4th degree tears. The theory is that warm water relaxes the pelvic floor muscles and softens the vagina, vulva and perineum, leading to fewer injuries to these tissues.
In some studies, it has been shown to increase the chances of giving birth naturally and normally, with minimal medical intervention.
Some women experience lower blood pressure during water births, possibly because immersion in a pool helps relieve anxiety and promotes relaxation. The effect is heightened if the room is darkened.
Easier breathing, due to the moisture in the air, is particularly helpful for women who are asthmatic.
Many women who’ve experienced different types of birth, rate water birth very highly. They report a more satisfying experience with water birth as it seems softer, gentler and more relaxing.
So, if you like the idea of an intact perineum, less pain, more relaxation, lower blood pressure and a gentler entry into the world for your baby, then water birth is well worth considering.
The mother submerges herself in a pool or tub, between 32-37ºC, which is around the same as your core body temperature. Staying in the water during labour can help reduce the pain of contractions, especially in the lower back. You may choose to actually give birth in the water, although extreme care is required to ensure the newborn baby doesn’t inhale water with their first breaths.
The pool needs to be deep enough to cover your entire belly. And clean enough to drink! It doesn’t have to be sterile, although the tub should be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected in between births. Adding salt or essential oils is not recommended.
Keep in mind that if you enter the tub or pool too early, you may find yourself so relaxed that the level of oxytocin in your body may drop, leading to a slowdown in labour. Getting out of the pool and having a walk around can reduce the effect of labour slowdown.
What are the risks?
Studies critical of water birth generally give evidence from poorly managed or unmonitored water births by inexperienced care providers. As with any birth, things can go wrong, with even a simple complication having potentially devastating effects if there isn’t a midwife or doctor near.
For example, an inexperienced care provider may find it difficult to determine maternal blood loss in a pool.
Where can you have a water birth?
Some hospitals and birth centres may offer water births centres may offer water births. Ask about facilities when you next see your doctor or attend an ante-natal appointment. But be sure to book early as water birth facilities are limited and very popular!
Many private midwives who attend homebirth will support you in a water birth. Some even offer birth pools as part of their service for free or for an extra fee. You can also hire birth pools for a fee.