While most women picture deliver a baby “on land” and in a hospital bed, another alternative has emerged: a water birth. A water birth involves giving birth or laboring through the first stage of labor (before your baby’s birth is imminent) while in a warm tub of water, usually at about 97 degrees Fahrenheit. This may be at a birthing center or even rented for a home birth. The concept behind water births is that it transitions the baby from the amniotic fluid to another warm, comforting pool of fluid.
According to a statement from The American College of Obstetricians, water births during the first stage of labor usually involve a shorter laboring process. Part of this reason could be that women typically require less pain-managing medications, like epidurals or spinal anesthesia, during the water birth.
Doctors don’t recommend water births for pregnancies that involve increased risks for complications during delivery. Examples of reasons you shouldn’t have a water birth include if you have genital herpes, high blood pressure, or are having more than one baby. A mom whose baby is in the breech position also shouldn’t attempt a water birth. Also, a woman should be further along in her pregnancy to ensure a baby is well-developed enough to be healthy after birth. Typically, a water birth should be performed until a baby is at least 37 weeks along and no longer than 41 weeks and 6 days of gestation.
While there are benefits to mom in terms of comfort and likelihood of a reduced duration of delivery, research studies haven’t yet proven any definitive benefits to baby for a water birth. Of course, this is more difficult because researchers can’t poll or quiz babies regarding their birth experience! However, there isn’t any data on fetal outcomes to indicate that a water birth is safer or more beneficial to a baby.
Women have an understandably healthy fear of needing an episiotomy or experiencing a tear during labor. According to the American Pregnancy Association, women who undergo water births are less likely to need an episiotomy or stitches. This is because the warm water is thought to help relax the perineum and make it more elastic and stretchy. The effect is reducing the risks for a vaginal tear. The overall effects of a water birth are designed to be as relaxing as possible. The weightlessness feeling while a woman is in the water can help to reduce a woman’s blood pressure and overall pain experience.
If you’ve considered the possibility of a water birth, talk to your doctor, midwife, or doula. As alternative birthing experiences grow in popularity, more and more birthing centers are adding this option to their offerings. If you are considering a water birth, it’s important to discuss the risks as well as benefits prior to giving birth.