Whenever I share my birth story to friends asking for labor advice, I always say that if I could go back, I would have labored longer in water.
I don’t remember how much time exactly I spent soaking in a tub in my labor and delivery room, but I do remember feeling little to no pain as I lay submerged in water. My body lost its heaviness, the warmth relaxed my muscles, and my contractions felt more like menstrual cramps I could handle. I got out because I was nervous that out of sheer exhaustion I would fall asleep in the tub. That, and my toes were pruning.
For me, water immersion was by far the best labor method. At many medical centers, including where I delivered, water deliveries are not an option. I never thought about delivering in water during my pregnancy – and don’t think to this day that I would -- but I do understand why some women choose that method.
That’s why I was hesitant to read a new report released by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Academy of Pediatrics finding no scientifically proven health benefits to laboring or delivering in water. When it comes to water immersion during labor, many women may experience less pain -- and some may go on not feeling the need for an epidural -- but overall there are no health benefits to the mother or the baby, the report found. It’s the same case for underwater deliveries. Also, according to the report, the idea that an underwater delivery helps a baby transition from life in the womb to the outside world is unfounded and underwater births could be risky for the baby.
Indeed, there are risks to underwater labor and delivery for some women, but Tara Poulin, a certified doula and founder of Birthing Gently says water immersion for labor and delivery should be considered a safe choice for low-risk pregnant women who clear the method by their physician.
“If you look at the psychological aspect as medical, there is a clear health benefit,” Poulin said.
Poulin has worked with women who have chosen to labor and even deliver in water. Water immersion for labor is especially helpful for women with known anxiety to help them relax, she said.
“It also increases the pain threshold,” she said.
Water will also help soften the perineum and help it stretch better during delivery, she said. This is why some women who are pushing during delivery are given a warm compress in between contractions.
However, stay immersed in water for too long can over-relax the body and slow labor down. That’s why it’s important to go at it in intervals and make sure to get up and walk around to keep the muscles moving.
In rare cases, there are also risks to birthing under water. There's been very little scientific studies looking into water births, and those that do have included a very small number of women. The report reviewed a few of these small studies and found that the risks could include:
- Higher risk for infection for the mother and baby
- Difficulty regulating the baby’s body temperature after birth
- The baby may choke on the water, which could lead to serious respiratory problems
- The baby could accidentally drown
Given the risks, the two organizations concluded that while they don’t discourage the use of water immersion for labor, they do consider underwater deliveries to be too experimental to recommend. If it is the delivery method chosen, it should be performed cautiously, they wrote.
Since each pregnancy is different and women present at different levels of risk, it’s important that women run any labor or delivery method their considering by their doctor. Water births are no different.
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