What Is a Water Birth?
While water birth is not a particularly mainstream option in this country, women around the world often give birth in water. Traditionally in Hawaii and some other coastal cultures, women sometimes even gave birth in the ocean.
Midwives who attend water births note that one of the most striking benefits of water birth is pain management.
Today in the United States, water births most often find Mom laboring in a large tub of warm water. As the baby descends down the birth canal, Mom, Dad or a birth attendant, such as a midwife, monitor the progress of the baby. With the final push, the baby is caught and lifted gently to the surface of the water, where most babies begin to breathe on their own with much less crying than is typical of a more conventional birth. The cord is often not cut for several minutes as the baby becomes accustomed to using its lungs while floating in the watery environment, cuddled by his or her parents.
The Benefits of Water Birth
Medical researchers in other countries have found water birth to be a safe way for low-risk mothers to deliver healthy babies. Scientists in Austria found that women who gave birth in the water used less pain medication and labor-augmenting drugs (such as oxytocin and Pitocin), had less hemorrhaging and infection and delivered equally healthy babies when compared to women who had a conventional vaginal delivery. In a different study conducted in London, England, researchers found that women choosing water birth to deliver their first babies had less perineal trauma (episiotomies or tearing) and spent 90 fewer minutes in labor.
Midwives who attend water births note that one of the most striking benefits of water birth is pain management. According to Linda Cole, certified nurse-midwife and executive director of the Lisa Ross Birth and Women’s Center in Knoxville, Tenn., water is a wonderful environment for reducing labor pain. “The water birth tub is best entered in good active labor (around the time many women in the hospital receive an epidural),” she says. “It is apparent to the observer that there is profound relaxation for the laboring woman gained by entering the birth tub.”
The watery environment is also great for babies. “The warm water makes a gentle transition for babies, and it is observed by our midwives that these babies emerge calm, yet very alert,” says Cole. “The infant enjoys continued warmth from the water after the birth, as he/she is held in its parent’s arms in the tub.”
In addition to the mom and baby, a water birth can be special for others attending the birth. Fathers often choose to be in the birthing tub with their partners, and many dads catch their babies as they emerge into the world.
Midwives really enjoy the experience as well. “The midwives at our center all love the water births that occur there,” says Cole. “They are empowering for both the women giving birth and the midwives attending those births.”
Cole emphasizes the dangers of water birth are few, especially in the hands of an experienced professional midwife. She occasionally moves women out of the tub if the baby’s shoulders are tight or if they have trouble monitoring the baby’s progress. Also, at her center, women are assisted out of the tub to deliver the placenta, so they can more safely monitor the amount of blood loss.
Choosing a Water Birth
There are two main options for a water birth location: at home or at a birthing center, although some hospitals are now offering water-birthing options as well.
I chose the birth center option because of my center’s experience with water birth, their close association with a hospital and high-risk specialists, and their very snazzy birthing tub. Especially for the birth of our first child, we are prepared to trade some of the privacy and intimacy of giving birth in our living room for not having to figure out all the logistics of giving birth in our living room.
Jeanette LeBlanc of Glendale, Ariz., chose a home birth. Her decision to have a water birth was one she made during the labor process. “I was not committed to water at all,” she says. “I knew that water relaxes me. However, I just wanted the pool available to me and intended to make my choice about where I labored and delivered based on what felt right at the time.”
She made her decision for a home birth, with a water tub to labor in, based on extensive research, and she advises other parents considering this route to do the same. “Do your research, trust your instincts and follow your heart – only you can decide if a home water birth is the right choice for you,” she says. “It is outside the normal pregnancy and birth experience in this country, and you may encounter very negative opinions, but have faith in your body and in the amazing process of birth.”
h If you are considering a water birth, it is essential to find the right provider. “Expectant moms who want a water birth should find a professional birth attendant whom they fully trust and who has past experience attending water births,” says Karil Daniels, a San Francisco-based filmmaker and water birth educator. “It is critical that the birth care provider is not reluctant and is genuinely supportive of a woman’s desire for a water birth.”
Particularly if you are having a home water birth, there are a lot of logistical preparations. Several companies rent and sell water-birthing tubs. Women have used options as simple as an inflated kiddie pool or as complex as a Jacuzzi hot tub.
Spend time checking out the options well in advance of your birth – try talking with your midwife or doing an online search. Whether you are having a home or a birth center water birth, it is important to prepare yourself and anyone else who will be sharing your birth experience.
“I urge women who are considering water birth to educate themselves about birth in general and water birth in particular, so they know what issues they will face and how water birth can assist them in creating the best possible birth situation for themselves and their babies,” says Daniels.
Is Waterbirth for You?
Want to learn more about water birth? Karil Daniels’ award-winning video, Water Baby: Experiences of Water birth or iParenting Media’s Birth Stories.com Web site are good places to start. Watching a water birth is a wonderful way of visualizing the experience and assessing your responses on an emotional and intuitive level.
Water birth is not for everyone. Like me, you may find that your first reaction to seeing a water birth will tell you whether it is the right birthing choice for you.