Water Birth : Easier for Mom and Benefits Baby, too
By Vicki Penwell, CPM, The Natural Alternative Midwifery Practice, Boise, Idaho www.BoiseHomeBirth.com
The benefits of water for labor and/or birth are many and varied, and in this article I will try to name just a few. As a Certified Professional Midwife, I have had the opportunity to help many women use water in labor to reduce pain and ease the birth for their baby. By far the most personal experience was five Decembers ago when I midwifed my own first grandchild, and had the honor of assisting her entry into the world in a tub of warm water in her parents living room in Fairbanks, Alaska. Although the temperature outside was frightful, the water birth was beautiful and resulted in my granddaughter being born calm and alert, all 9 pounds 2 ounces of her!
The modern history of water birth began in the 1960’s in Russia, when Soviet doctors undertook strenuous research into the safety and benefits of water birth. In the late 1960’s, French obstetrician Frederick Leboyer began the practice of immersing newborn babies in warm water right after birth to ease the transition from the womb to the outside world.[i] Later, another French obstetrician, Michel Odent, took Leboyers work further, using a pool of warm water to ease the pain of the mother as well as the baby. I have known Michel Odent for many years, and when he came to teach midwives in Alaska at my invitiation in the 1980’s, he told us stories about how he first came to understand that babies could safely be born under water. Dr. Odent found that the warm water often made women’s labor go faster, and women often birthed so quickly they could not get out. By the late 1990’s, thousands of women had given birth in the water at the birthing center in Pithiviers, France, and the notion of water birth had spread to other European nations and finally to North America. [ii]
While water birth is sometimes allowed in hospitals in American, the vast majority of water births occur at birth centers or at home births. At our home birth practice, The Natural Alternative Midwifery Practice, we have a birth pool, known as the AquaDoula, that an expectant women can have set up in her own home. This tub is especially designed for water birth, and includes soft padded floor and sides, a sturdy frame for leaning, a spacious 2 foot depth and 41/2 foot diameter to allow ease of movement, a water heater to maintain constant water temperature, and disposable liners to insure sterility.
Mothers who have labored or birthed in water almost universally sing the praises of this way of giving birth. One mother wrote “It's a funny question to me, "Why have a water birth?" I always want to ask, "Why not have a water birth?" When I think about it, water birth has so many benefits and makes so much sense, I wonder why more women don't choose it. All five of my children were born in water. Every one of them was an experience I now look back on with fondness and great pride. How wonderful it has been to be able to bring my babies into the world in a way that was kind and gentle. How wonderful for me not to have to suffer unbearably to do it.” [iii]
So what are some of the benefits? There is the issue of greater comfort and mobility. The mother has much greater ease and freedom to move spontaneously and to change position to assist the descent of the baby. There is reduced pressure on the abdomen, so the mother feels less pain. The buoyancy promotes more efficient uterine contractions and better blood circulation, resulting in more oxygen getting to the baby. Immersion reduces opposition to gravity and supports the mother's weight so that her energy can be used to cope with the contractions.As a woman relaxes deeply in water, her hormones kick in and she starts progressing faster and with more rhythm; labor becomes more efficient. Water minimizes pain so effectively because it stimulates the touch and temperature nerve fibers in the skin, and this blocks impulses from the pain fibers. Most women having a water birth do not need any other pain relief. Warm water also relaxes the pelvic floor muscles, and softens the vagina, vulva, and perineum, leading to fewer injuries to these tissues. It also feels better for the mother to push her baby out in water, so she is not inhibited from doing so as the urge guides her to gently birth her baby.
Water helps reduce complications in labor, as well. When anxiety is causing high blood pressure, immersion in water often helps lower it. Immersion helps relieve anxiety and promotes relaxation. Water helps a woman to let go and focus inward as labor strengthens, and the moisture in the air makes it easier to breath effectively. Often a long labor is sped up once the mother immerses herself in water.
Empowerment of the mother and enhanced family relationships are a reason many women give for desiring to birth in water. When a woman delivers her baby while remaining drug-free, aware and in control, it greatly enhances the birth experience for her and becomes a source of great personal strength and power that enriches her life forever. When the mother's pain is dramatically reduced, many fathers take a more active role in the delivery, resulting in a greater family bond. Both parents and child get to share a wonderous experience that can enhance their relationships with each other for the rest of their lives. Water birth represents a new and gentler approach to birth. Many psychologists believe that babies born gently grow up to become more gentle adults, and have a greater ability to deal with problems non-violently.
[i] LeBoyer, Frederick. Birth Without Violence. Healing Arts Press; New Edition 2009
[ii] Odent, Michel. Birth Reborn. Birth Works, Incorporated 1994