What is a water birth? Are water births safe for a mother and her baby? Get the facts about this natural delivery experience, and learn about the pros and cons. 

By Bekka Besich and Lambeth Hochwald
Updated October 22, 2019

During a water birth, a woman experiences labor and delivery in a tub of warm water. They’re usually done at home or in birthing centers, and with the assistance of midwives rather than hospital-based OBs. 

Moms who desire a natural childbirth—one without medication or epidurals—sometimes choose water birth because it can provide "a gentle, natural experience,” says Ami Burns, a Chicago-based childbirth educator and writer and owner of Birth Talk. “They find being submerged in a tub provides more comfort during contractions than being 'on land.'"

But that doesn't mean water births are pain-free. In fact, "labor pains are just as present in the water birth 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.

Water births also come with a host of risks and potential complications, some of which can be serious. These range from infection to meconium aspiration to drowning. 

To clear common misconceptions, here's everything moms-to-be need to know about giving birth in water.

Who Can Have a Water Birth?

An uncomplicated pregnancy (low blood pressure, over 37 weeks gestation, baby with a head down, etc.) is required for a water birth. "High-risk conditions or complications in labor often necessitate continuous fetal monitoring or immediate intervention, which is better accomplished outside of the water," explains Edwin Huang, M.D., an OB-GYN practicing in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School.

There are certain circumstances in which women should not choose water birth. Marra Francis, M.D., a gynecologist practicing in San Antonio, specifies that women with "Group B Strep positive cultures, gestational diabetes, preeclampsia, macrosomia, intrauterine growth restriction, prematurity, and an unproven pelvis" should opt out of water birth. 

Of course, always talk to your health-care provider to understand the full risks and reality of your choices. Water birth is a very personal decision, one that requires much thought and research—because there's more to water birth than the tub.

Water Birth Pros and Cons: Is It Safe? 

In 2016, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) advised against water births, given a lack of available data on the topic. The organization said that while immersion during the first stage of labor may have benefits, “there are insufficient data on which to draw conclusions regarding the relative benefits and risks of immersion in water during the second stage of labor and delivery. Therefore, until such data are available, it is the recommendation of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists that birth occur on land, not in water,” according to a November 2016 Commitee Opinion by ACOG.

However, professional organizations like the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and the American College of Nurse–Midwives support water births in certain situations. “Researchers indicate that women who experience uncomplicated pregnancies and labors with limited risk factors and evidence-based management have comparable maternal and neonatal outcomes whether or not they give birth in water,” the American College of Nurse–Midwives said in a 2014 position statement. “Women should be given the opportunity to remain immersed during labor and birth if they wish to do so within the context of a shared decision-making process with their health care providers. This process includes ongoing maternal and fetal assessment as labor progresses”

The Benefits of Water Birth

Contrary to lingering misconceptions, water birth is not just a fad among celebrities. It's a birthing option that's in growing demand. "One doesn't have to be a hippie to have a water birth," explains Burns. 

Many mothers claim that natural water births lessen the pain of labor and delivery, thanks to the buoyancy of the water. “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 who practices in New York City.

Barbara Harper, R.N., founder of Waterbirth International, a nonprofit organization that helps make water births an available option for moms-to-be, and Michelle Collins, C.N.M., an assistant professor of nursing at the Vanderbilt University School of Nursing who specializes in nurse-midwifery explain why water may lessen labor pain. When women get into the deep water of a birth pool, not just a shallow bathtub, there is a chemical and hormonal response that adjusts the level of the hormone oxytocin, which pumps from the brain and helps regulate the intensity of the contractions. So, as the body becomes buoyant in the deep water and more oxytocin is released, more pain-inhibiting endorphins flood the mother's brain, putting her more quickly into an altered state of consciousness and allowing her body to do the work that it needs to do.

What’s more, Harper and Collins say, water causes the perineum to become more relaxed, which can reduce the severity of vaginal tearing

Water Birth Risks

"Anyone thinking about delivering at home needs to think through the worst-case scenario for the ultimate safety of their baby and themselves," says Sharon Mikol, M.D., an OB-GYN practicing in Cleveland. Even though steps are taken to avoid serious outcomes, and advocates state that underwater birth is safe, Patrick Weix, M.D., Ph.D., an OB-GYN practicing in Irving, Texas, and contributor to the medical website healthtap.com, reveals "no adequate randomized controlled studies have been done on water births to demonstrate this."

Water births themselves are not significantly more dangerous than birth out of water, but when they take place at home—and most of them do—there is an increased risk. That’s because there’s there is no immediate medical help with home water births.

Here are some important water birth risks to know.

Infection

Water birth means sitting, pushing, and delivering in a tub—which often includes feces in the tub. A baby born in that environment could possibly swallow the contaminated water, increasing his risk of infection. Depending on whom you ask, the likelihood of an infection differs because data is limited. However, "there is no way to make the water contaminant free,"says Dr. Francis. That’s because the tub becomes contaminated with vaginal and rectal flora the minute a mom sits in the tub, even if the water is sterile.

A baby that swallows tub water is at risk for infection. Babies are genetically and physiologically programmed to take their first breaths of air, not water, within seconds of their head being delivered. They do have a "dive reflex" that instinctively closes their airway and prevents them from breathing in water, but a few scenarios may still cause them to inhale water:

  • They are startled during birth
  • The head is brought to the surface before the rest of the body; this overrides the dive reflex
  • Their oxygen supply from the placenta is affected in some way

It is important to know, however, that even as infectious bacteria is expelled outward during birth, nothing is moving up and inward. Therefore, the risk of infection occurs only if the baby breathes too soon (midwives and OBs are trained to minimize that risk) or if the equipment (tubs, filters, pumps) is not sterilized properly.

Meconium Aspiration

This medical term means a baby has had its first bowel movement before birth and inhales the contaminated amniotic fluid, which causes respiratory problems. Doctors and midwives are able to tell if this has happened when the water breaks because meconium is typically green, sticky, chunky, and thick. Extra precautions have to be taken when the first bowel movement occurs prior to delivery. A doctor or midwife needs immediate access to the baby to be able to clear his airways, which often means delivering on your back. 

Pneumonia

Although significant studies have yet to show the exact percentage of pneumonia cases in natural water birth, it is one of the risks. To prevent pneumonia, the water must remain between 95 and 100° F and the baby must be brought to the surface immediately upon delivery. Pneumonia usually develops within the first 24 to 48 hours after birth, and it is caused by meconium aspiration, fecal contamination, and bacteria from tub water. "There are also case reports of babies dying of pneumonia post-water birth that was a direct result of ingesting water with fecal contamination. As most water births are done at home or in a freestanding birth center, there is little 'research' done as a collective group," Dr. Francis says.

Drowning

Where there is water, there is a risk of drowning. A 2004 study from the Journal of Pediatrics lists "drowning and near-drowning, asphyxiation...as fetal risks of water birth.” Owing to complications, the baby could possibly stay underwater too long and his lungs can fill up with water. Medical professionals do everything to prevent this by placing the baby with his head above water so he can get enough oxygen to breathe as soon as he is born.

Tearing of the Umbilical Cord

Dr. Weix reveals that "short umbilical cords can tether the fetus underwater or tear, leading to fetal blood loss. Maternal tears can be difficult to assess [underwater], and patients may bleed excessively." The good news is that a cord short enough to cause such an incident is rare. 

During a water birth, a baby is usually brought quickly to the surface, head first. This swift movement will enable her to start breathing as soon as possible, but there's a risk that the umbilical cord may snap. "A snapped umbilical cord can be life-threatening, as the fetus can bleed freely until it is stopped. It is usually easily managed by clamping the cord. It leads more often to neonatal anemia than anything else," Dr. Weix explains. 

Where to Have a Water Birth

Although some hospitals allow natural water births, the majority occur at home or at stand-alone birthing centers (these are typically independent facilities, though a growing number are affiliated with and often housed inside of traditional hospitals). Water birth 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 for “water birth centers near me” will give some results. The Birthing Center Locator (birthcenters.org) can show ones in close proximity to you. 

Choosing a Water Birth Tub

The key to achieving buoyancy, and ideally pain relief, is in the choice of water birth 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.

Water Birth Cost

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.

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