Your Gentle, Beautiful Water Birth Is Actually A Horrible Idea

shutterstock_22172728__1395676217_142.196.167.223The idea of a birthing pool was always something that appealed to me. There’s nothing more relaxing than a warm bath; makes sense that this ritual would make the laboring process easier. Major medical organizations now agree that laboring underwater can provide benefits for the birthing process, but actually delivering underwater may be dangerous.

Two major medical organizations, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released a statement last week regarding their joint opinion on the safety of water birth:

“Many labor and delivery units are equipped with tubs to be used by laboring women, and immersion in water for relaxation and pain relief is appealing to some,” Dr. Jeffrey Ecker, chairman of the ACOG committee that developed the opinion, said in a college news release.

“But it is important to recognize that laboring in water is not the same as delivering underwater,” Ecker said. “Laboring in water may offer some potential benefits, but delivering underwater does not seem to have clear advantages, and the risk of rare but serious consequences to a delivering baby’s health is something women and providers should all be aware of.”

According to the statement, the two groups believe potential problems associated with underwater delivery include “an increased risk of infection in the mother and baby, difficulty controlling the baby’s body temperature, greater risk of umbilical cord damage, breathing problems caused by the baby inhaling water and possible seizures or asphyxiation of the baby after birth.” The groups seem to agree that while laboring in the water may have clear benefits for the mother, actually delivering in water has no benefits for baby and may actually carry serious risks.

Supporters of water birth (including my own midwives) have argued that babies have a reflex that prevents them from inhaling water. But doctors say this isn’t always the case.  It’s known that babies can inhale fecal matter while in the womb. From Huffpost Parents:

“There are rare risk associated with [water births], especially if the baby is actually delivered in the water,” said Dr. Tonse Raju, chief of the Pregnancy and Perinatology Branch at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, who was involved with the recommendations. Mothers should be aware of these risks, he said. In fact, inhaling bits of fecal matter is also a risk of underwater deliveries, Raju said.

I think it’s just important to do your research and keep an open mind – especially if you are laboring at home. People on either side of the home birth versus hospital birth argument can really have their blinders on. I realize you can also labor in a tub in a hospital, but if you are doing it at home and don’t have the benefit of immediate medical intervention, don’t you want to be fully aware of all of the risks involved? Weighing the risks and reading the research is definitely in order.

(photo: Glamorous Images/ Shutterstock)

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  • Katherine Handcock

    I think you’ve struck the perfect tone with this: not saying “do it!” not saying “don’t do it!”, but just saying, “Be aware that this is the case.” There’s lots of room for choices during labour and delivery, but they should definitely all be informed choices.

    • allisonjayne

      Totally, I agree. Good tone! Informative without being shitty!

    • Valerie

      Agreed. And I have always thought that water labor seemed like a lovely plan but I will admit to cringing and freaking out a smidge when I see a woman on TV giving birth under water. I just want to leap thru the TV and pick up the freaking baby before it drowns!

    • Frances Locke

      I totally agree with you, I think Maria was pitch perfect here.

    • Valerie
    • Bethany Ramos

      Best new username.

    • Robotic Socks

      What? That doesn’t sound like Maria at all!

      Normally, she tells you what to do or not do… or smack you upside your head with a 7-iron

    • Maria Guido

      Very funny.

    • Maria Guido

      Oh good! I was aiming for that :)

  • Robotic Socks

    And what happens if the plummbing gets clogged?

    • SmrtGrl86

      You vomit and call a fucking plumber.

    • Robotic Socks

      It’ll be interesting who can show more butt crack

    • Valerie

      You have clearly never seen a woman in labor. You see a lot more than crack.

    • Valerie

      “Hello, neighborhood plumber? My tub is clogged. With what, you say? Or just some placenta chunks and other birthing matter.”

    • Frances Locke

      What? Drano doesn’t cover placental gunk?

  • pixie

    But what if I’m giving birth to a mermaid? YOU CAN’T TELL ME MY (non-existent) UNBORN CHILD ISN’T A MERMAID!! #howdareyou

    In other words, I agree that this was a very eloquently written piece, and not slamming either side for their decision, but encouraging full research.

    • Bethany Ramos


  • Tinyfaeri

    My birthing center did offer labor in a tub, but not births – they were pretty well in line with the doctors’ recommendations. For me, during transition and before pushing really started it really helped with pain management… but the thought of actually giving birth in a soup of ick has always made me gag a bit.

  • Ro

    Being in the tub slowed my labour down. It felt better, but I wasn’t getting anywhere.

  • Johanna

    Giving birth itself has rare but serious risks. If I were high risk I wouldn’t even consider it, but if I were high risk, I also wouldn’t be seeing midwives. I definitely agree that women should individually weigh the risks and benefits and do whatever they feel most comortable with.

  • My2bits

    I had a water birth that was sort of unplanned. I meant to labor in the water and then get out to push, but by that point I wasn’t going anywhere. My cord did break as she was on the way out, so the water was pretty gross, but all turned out fine. :)
    As a side note, the water birth was soooo much easier than my first laying on my back in the hospital bed birth.

  • NYCNanny

    Ok, hold up…I need more info.
    -an increased risk of infection in the mother and baby… HOW? Since when does water cause infection (assuming it’s clean water.)?
    -difficulty controlling the baby’s body temperature… HOW? (Assuming the water isn’t FREEZING or SCOLDING)
    -greater risk of umbilical cord damage. Again, HOW?
    -breathing problems caused by the baby inhaling water (Correct me if I’m wrong, but as soon as the baby is out of your body, you grab the kid and bring it above water… you’re not letting it swim around in the tub for minutes.)
    -possible seizures or asphyxiation of the baby after birth.. HOW?

    I’m not pro or anti water births. I just need more info on HOW these horrible problems arise due to water delivery and not just, birth.

    • Pappy

      1) The baby can inhale contaminated water (the water will have feces, blood etc mixed in it) and/or the mother’s vaginal tears can be infected by the fecal matter.

      2) The baby is sopping wet, and is often placed immediately on the mother’s chest (which is good practice, when not in water) instead of being removed from the water, dried off and wrapped in a dry blanket. Infants have trouble keeping warm in cold situations (they’re so teeny) and water vastly increases the rate of heat loss.

      3)That one I can’t answer.

      4) The gasp reflex is triggered by the level of carbon dioxide in your blood, not contact with air (as some under-trained midwives believe). Until they are out and breathing they get their oxygen from the placenta, via the umbilical cord. If the placenta or umbilical are compromised, the baby’s level of CO2 will rise and he/she will want to gasp for air as soon as their head and/or body is out. Even normal contractions disrupt the flow of oxygenated blood through the umbilical cord. And, yes, you would think “as soon as the baby is out of your body, you grab the kid and bring it above water” but because some people erroneously believe the “contact with air” myth, I have witnessed waterbirth videos where the parents leave the child underwater for much longer than is safe.

      5) If the baby is deprived of oxygen and inhales the contaminated water, it can lead to asphyxiation. Also, because their lungs are now compromised, they can’t get enough air for normal brain function. This leads to seizures. Keep in mind it’s not as simple as just coughing up the water and then “yay, she’s fine!” like on Baywatch. Their lungs are brand-new and never used, so pathogen-bearing water coating the inside of their respiratory system is potentially deadly. If they don’t drown or suffocate immediately after birth, they can die from infection days/weeks later. This has happened to babies in the past. Check it out.
      Hope this helps!

    • NYCNanny

      Super helpful! Thank you!!

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