Water birthing has been around for centuries. Ancient Egyptian women delivered babies who were destined to become royalty by water birth. Women from indigenous tribes around the world have traditionally entered the shallow ocean or river waters to help ease labor pain and delivery. Water births are still widely practiced in Europe and are gaining popularity in the West. Laboring in water offers hydrotherapy benefits for mother and child. One Canadian study showed 100% of women who birthed in water used no pain medication. (Women who choose water birth are less likely to want drugs in any case.) Midwives say that birthing in water reduces pain by 20-80% for women. It is so effective that the term “aquadural” is popular among midwives as the natural alternative to an epidural. Water creates a sense of weightlessness, so a laboring women’s muscles don’t have to work so hard at supporting her. Water also relaxes the pelvic floor muscles, decreasing birth canal injuries and the need for episiotomy. Birthing pain and pressure is reduced, and water birth labors tend to be shorter, provided a woman waits long enough before entering the water. (Most doulas suggest waiting until the cervix is dilated to 4-5 centimeters before entering the birthing pool. Entering the water prior to this may actually prolong labor.) Hot water from the birthing pool improves circulation to all the organs, especially the uterus, helping to protect the baby against fetal stress. Experts feel that transitioning from the womb into the world is easier for babies surrounded by warm water.
Many expectant moms worry their baby will attempt to breathe during a water birth. The trigger to start a newborn breathing is contact with air on its face. While the baby is submerged, it is still connected to the umbilical cord and receiving oxygen just as it did in the womb. Still, water birth attendants insist a women’s legs and hips be completely immersed in water during the birth process. If she is partly out of water, the baby may breathe in both air and water, increasing risk for lung problems. (If the baby is in distress, a water birth is not a good option.) Other moms worry about the temperature of the water and how it might affect the baby. The temperature of the water is kept to about 98 degrees, normally well tolerated by mother and child. Higher temperatures can be exhausting for the mother and dangerous for the baby. During a water birth (or any birth), staying well hydrated is important, particularly if your labor is long lasting and you’re in the water a long time.
Home births and water births attended by a qualified midwife can be a good option for uncomplicated pregnancies. Many new moms and dads who choose water or home births feel empowered by the calm and personal setting. Some insurance companies cover home birth expenses with in-network providers, but others do not. Check to see what your insurance options are. If you choose to have a home or water birth, have a back up plan ready to go to a hospital with maternity and NICU units quickly if necessary. Unless you have a very experienced midwife and live within a few minutes ride to hospital, home births or water births are not the best choice for high risk pregnancies.