Water birth is a method of giving birth, which involves immersion in warm water. Proponents believe this method is safe and provides many benefits for both mother and infant, including pain relief and a less traumatic birth experience for the baby. However, critics argue that the procedure introduces unnecessary risks to the infant such as infection and water inhalation.
The use of warm-water pools for labor and childbirth is a relatively recent phenomenon in Western societies. During the 1960s, Russian researcher Igor Charkovsky undertook considerable research into the safety and possible benefits of water birth in the Soviet Union. In the late 1960s, French obstetrician Frederick Leboyer developed the practice of immersing newly-born infants in warm water to help ease the transition from the womb to the outside world, and to mitigate the effects of any possible birth trauma.
Another French obstetrician, Michel Odent, took Leboyer's work further, using the warm-water birth pool for pain relief for the mother, and as a way to normalize the birth process. When some women refused to get out of the water to finish giving birth, Odent started researching the possible benefits for the baby of being born under water, as well as the potential problems in such births. By the late 1990s, thousands of women had given birth at Odent's birthing center at Pithiviers, and the notion of water birth had spread to many other Western countries.
Water birth first came to the United States through couples giving birth at home, but soon was introduced into the medical environment of hospitals and free-standing birth centers by obstetricians and certified nurse midwives. In 1991, Monadnock Community Hospital in Peterborough, New Hampshire became the first hospital to create a protocol for giving birth in water. By 2005, there were over 300 hospitals in the US that had adopted such protocols. More than three-quarters of all National Health Service hospitals in the UK provide this option for laboring women.
For the baby
Childbirth can be a strenuous experience for the baby. Properly heated water helps to ease the transition from the birth canal to the outside world because the warm liquid resembles the familiar intra-uterine environment, and softens light, colors and noises.
To the mother - Pain Management
Harper reports that water birth is an effective form of pain management during labor and delivery (Harper 2000). Water birth is a form of hydrotherapy which, in studies, has been shown to be an effective form of pain management for a variety of conditions especially lower back pain (a common complaint of women in labor). In an appraisal of 17 randomized trials, two controlled studies, 12 cohort studies, and two case reports, it was concluded that there was a definite "benefit from hydrotherapy in pain, function, self-efficacy and affect, joint mobility, strength, and balance, particularly among older adults, subjects with rheumatic conditions and chronic low back pain," (Geytenbeek 2002). When compared with conventional pain management techniques for labor and delivery (e.g. anaesthesia and narcotics) hydrotherapy is also possibly a safer alternative. In studies, epidural anaesthesia (EDA), is correlated with an increased rate of instrumental (e.g. forceps in childbirth) delivery rates and also cesarean section rates (Ros et al. 2007). Full immersion in water promotes physiological responses in the mother that reduce pain including a redistribution of blood volume, which stimulates the release of oxytocin and vasopressin (Katz 1990), the latter which also increases oxytocin blood levels (Odent 1998). The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews has found that "the statistically significant reduction in maternal perception of pain and in the rate of epidural analgesia suggest that water immersion during the first stage of labour is beneficial for some women. No evidence was found that this benefit was associated with poorer outcomes for babies or longer labours."