You may think water birth sounds like something out of Creature from the Black Lagoon. Contrary to lingering misconceptions, water birth is not a fad among celebrities or a fringe practice outside the realm of normal birth. It's a birthing option that's in growing demand. "One doesn't have to be a hippie to have a water birth," explains Ami Burns, a Chicago-based childbirth educator and writer and owner of Birth Talk. Water is a common choice when it comes to managing labor.
To be clear, water birthing is different than immersion labor, which involves getting in a tub or shower to ease discomfort during labor but not during delivery. True water births, on the other hand, occur in a warm, water-filled birthing tub, usually at home or in birthing centers, and with the assistance of midwives, rather than hospital-based OBs. Moms who desire a natural childbirth -- no medication, epidurals, or C-sections -- sometimes choose water birth because it can provide "a gentle, natural experience. They find being submerged in a tub provides more comfort during contractions than being 'on land,'" Burns says. The buoyancy of water allows more relief during labor. "For women who are skeptical about water births, I always ask if they have ever taken a hot bath to relieve terrible menstrual cramps. That is usually the aha moment for most of them," says Amber Ford Cottrell, a doula practicing in New York City. Some women even refer to water birth as a "liquid epidural" or an "aquadural." But that doesn't mean it's pain-free. In fact, "labor pains are just as present in the birthing pools as they are anywhere else, but the environment is more relaxing and soothing therefore offering a more pleasurable experience," says David Ghozland, M.D., an ob-gyn practicing in Santa Monica, California.
The key to achieving buoyancy, and ideally, pain relief is in the choice of tub. Most birthing tubs are inflatable and similar to a kiddie pool. Their pliable sides are softer than those of a regular bathtub, so they allow women to labor in different positions. Unlike a kiddie pool, however, the tubs are wide and deep enough to fully submerge a pregnant belly and, if desired, a partner as well. Birthing tubs can be rented or purchased on the Internet or through a midwife, and they average $250, with liners and filters. If you don't want to rent or buy a birthing tub, you may use your own home bathtub; just make sure your belly can be fully submerged in water and your midwife has easy access to you to assist with labor.
Although some hospitals do allow water births, the majority of these births occur at home or at stand-alone birthing centers. Birthing centers are not mini hospitals; typically, a birthing center is an independent facility, though a growing number are affiliated with and often housed inside of or adjacent to traditional hospitals. The centers are equipped with IVs, oxygen, medication, and infant resuscitation equipment, so if need be, emergency care can be started while mother and baby await transport to the hospital. Even though birthing centers are not as common as hospitals, a quick search on the Birthing Center Locator (birthcenters.org) can show which centers are close to you. Delivering at a birthing center is usually less expensive than a hospital because women typically stay for a shorter time and use fewer interventions. The majority of insurance companies cover births in a birthing center, but only some providers cover home births. Check with your insurance provider to understand your birth coverage.