The history and benefits of water birth
Is water a serious alternative to the traditional methods, or is it just a passing fad?
Water birth is not as new as one may be tempted to think.
The first documented birth in water was recorded in France at the beginning of the nineteenth century. This was purely accidental and there is no evidence that it was adopted then as a viable alternative to traditional methods of labour and/or delivery. More than 150 years later, obstetricians in the then Soviet Union started researching this method and it quickly became part of mainstream obstetric practice. It soon spread to virtually every part of the developed world and, today, many obstetric units in the United States, UK and the rest of Europe offer this service.
What if the mother wants a water birth as part of a home birth strategy?
This is a viable proposition.
If there is a big enough bathtub in the house, that is, one that can comfortably accommodate two people, and where there is a reliable hot water supply, then there is no reason why this possibility cannot be explored. Of course, the midwife who will monitor the labour and conduct the delivery should be satisfied that all the other prerequisites for a safe home delivery are in place.
Presently, there are several companies which offer pool rental services. The "birthing" pools are purpose-built and a spacious room in the house can be converted into a temporary delivery room. The advantage of these pools is that they are usually quite spacious and there is an inbuilt thermostatic control of water temperature, which allows for a constant ideal temperature level.
The flip side is that they tend to cost a considerable sum of money to hire.
What are the benefits of labour in water?
The main claimed benefit is the soothing and relaxing effect of the warm water, which in turn reduces the sensation of pain. Secondly, since the atmosphere is decidedly non-medical, this may engender a positive experience of the whole labour and delivery process.
It is claimed that, by being in warm water for such a prolonged period, the perineal and vaginal tissue become so supple that trauma (both in the form of a need for episiotomy and accidental tears) is reduced. There is no conclusive evidence to support this.
What are the benefits to the baby?
In concrete terms, none.
It is true that no painkilling drugs are given to mothers who are labouring in water. This means that these babies are born free of any potential side-effects of these drugs (mostly sedation). However, this cannot be claimed to be an exclusive benefit of water birth, since there are many women who labour the traditional way and opt not to have any of these drugs.
The assertion that delivery under water allows for a smoother entry into the world appears plausible but it is difficult to assess, let alone quantify the purported advantage.