Water Birth Has No Proven Benefits? Moms And Experts Disagree

Giving birth in water has come under attack in a joint opinion from two prominent medical organizations released on March 20. They assert that there is no proven benefit to water birth, and that it can carry some risks, therefore it is not recommended. But does their assertion hold water?

Laboring in water may have some benefit, they concede, but actually giving birth there is where the risk comes in, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). Dr. Anthony Vintzileo, chairman of obstetrics and gynecology at Winthrop-University Hospital in Mineola, N.Y, opposes water in labor or birth.

"The birthing process imposes the first life stress test for the unborn... I see no reason to make it more risky by laboring or giving birth in the water."

Water birth advocates, including moms, disagree. It is precisely the issue of stress that makes water birth so appealing to them. Immersion in a deep tub of water relaxes mothers, and makes labor much more tolerable, certainly more so than the prevalent use of pitocin and cytotec to induce or augment labor. Data shows that those drugs greatly increase stress to both mom and baby. But ACOG has no problem recommending them.

Advocates proclaim that babies born in water tend to be more relaxed. Wendy McNair has had both hospital and home water births:

"My water born babies were peaceful and calm. They did not cry. My hospital babies shrieked in terror as the staff delivered them. I believe water birth is safe and highly beneficial for baby and mom. It allows mom excellent pain relief and freedom of movement. The baby is born into an element from which they are familiar with from the womb. My water birth babies were lifted immediately out of the water to my chest. They were all in perfect condition. Water birth is wonderful!!"
One homebirth midwife told The Inquisitr that babies born in water generally do not cry. They are the most peaceful of all the babies that she has witnessed being born. She explains that the babies are immediately brought to the surface and placed on the mother's chest, skin-to-skin, where they are very alert and calm. In contrast, the norm that most medical professionals see are the screaming babies. Dr. David Chamberlain, birth psychologist and author of The Mind of Your Newborn Baby, tells us that their screams are real communication. And they are not at all happy.

Many mothers are passionate in their assertion that water birth has significant benefits.

"My hospital birth is what led me to have 3 home water births. The water is like an epidural - it makes ALL the difference. It's what enables me to have a natural, drug-free birth," says Christi Colvin, photographer and mother of four. "Water birth is safe, effective and and, for me, necessary for a positive birthing experience."

Baby Birthed In Water

"Water births are very peaceful for both mother and baby," according to doula Tara Alcock. "Our second child seemed completely unaware of her birth. Born in the water, she was placed on my chest right after birth and immediately fell asleep. It was the sweetest thing we had ever seen."

Perhaps no one on the planet is more familiar with water birth, its benefits, risks, the studies, and the babies, than Barbara Harper, founder of Waterbirth International. She is in China at present, teaching in a conference for doctors there about water birth, and she teaches all over the world. This is her official response to the ACOG/AAP opinion:

There are no bad outcomes, nothing that would lead ACOG to issue this statement at this time. Doctors see that women want options that are out of their comfort zone, educational scope and experience and it pushes the envelope for freedom of choice and human rights. It is a basic human right to birth without drugs or intervention or interference of any kind. If that can be integrated into a hospital setting, great. But, it still makes doctors nervous because their training demands that they 'do' something at a birth instead of sit by and knit or take the photos. This is why I have titled my new book, 'Birth, Bath and Beyond.' Waterbirth gives you the ability to watch birth happen, relax with it, witness the miracle - and it changes the way you approach all other births after you experience it. Waterbirth equates liability in the litigious world that we live in. Waterbirth challenges the conventional 'security oriented/risk management' approach to maternity care.

The science behind waterbirth, coupled with the experience of at least a quarter of a million women who have done it, will dictate policy and not the opinion of any organization, even ACOG and the AAP.

The Waterbirth International website has gathered a number of studies backing up the safety of water birth for the average mother. The benefits are many. When a mother is buoyant in the water, pressure is relieved, and she can tune in to her body and assume whatever position she needs to, helping baby descend. Endorphins are released for mom and baby, helping them cope with labor. The water helps the mother to conserve her energy. Tears are reduced and the need for episiotomy is eliminated. Labor speeds up and blood pressure is lowered.

Alcock, who is also a childbirth educator, points out that "the CDC states that there are many health benefits to exercising in the water and that you can exercise longer in water than on land without increased effort or joint or muscle pain. Many childbirth educators equate labor to running a marathon so it only stands to reason that the water is the perfect place for a mother in labor to be!"

If a problem presents that would make it better to give birth out of the water, doctors and midwives have found that mothers will intuitively get out of the water and birth on land, where complications may be better addressed.

One of the cited concerns with water birth is that baby might breath in the water, but since the baby has been in a liquid environment up to this point, that concern is physiologically unjustified. Childbirth educator Jill McDanal is known in her circles as a "walking encyclopedia" of birth knowledge.

"It is exposure to air that drives the fluid out of the lungs to promote the drive to breathe," she explains. "You can't displace amniotic fluid with anything else but air. There has only been case of drowning, and that was when the baby was not brought to the surface for quite some time. Normally, they are brought straight out of the water in a matter of moments."

It is very normal for a baby born in water to have a duskier, more bluish, skin color at birth. If the baby is breathing and vigorous upon coming out of the water, the bluer color is not cause for concern. In the birth canal, oxygen saturation levels decrease as a compensatory measure for the compression that happens at birth. According to Neonatal Resuscitation guidelines, "healthy, vigorous infants have an oxygen saturation of 21%." Spontaneous breathing generally ensues as soon as the baby is lifted out of the water, and the baby quickly pinks up. The Inquisitr questioned the mother in the photo above, and was told that the baby breathed immediately and was vigorous and healthy. The photo was snapped moments after the birth, and the baby was the expected pink color very quickly thereafter.

The debate over water birth really isn't about safety, according to some of the experts watching the politics of birth over the years. Marsden Wagner, former director of Maternal and Child Health for the World Health Organization, was quoted in Barbara Harper's video and book "Gentle Birth Choices," and he nails the bottom line about the criticism of home and water birth:

"It's all about territory. It's all about power. It's all about control. And at the end of the day, it's about money."
[Photo credit: yelahneb via photopin cc and Christi Colvin Photography]