By Kim Smiley
The number of water births in the United States has been increasing in recent years and controversy over their safety continues to rage. The latest development is that the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recently issued a joint statement saying that water births are not recommended and should be avoided, but some midwives and mothers disagree and adamantly defend the benefits of birthing in water. The doctors agree that soaking in water during early labor may make the experience more pleasant for mothers, but feel that actual birth should be outside of the birthing tub.
One of the issues is that the benefits of water birthing are difficult to prove and the potential risks are difficult to quantify . Some mothers believe that birthing in water helps relieve pain and can aid in a drug-free delivery. Supporters of the practice also think that birthing in water can shorten labors, which reduces stress on the mother and the baby. Some midwives have also expressed a belief that water births are gentler on babies, saying that many do not cry when they are born. It’s difficult to definitively study the impacts of water births because birth outcomes depend on so many factors and you can’t do a double-blind study because it’s pretty much impossible to have a placebo for a water birth.
There have been reports of individual cases where something went wrong during a water birth, but there is little information on how often this occurs. There is general agreement that complications are rare, but the doctors releasing the statement feel the risk of complications outweighs the benefits. The most serious concern is the baby drawing its first breath underwater, which could lead to breathing issues and even drowning. There is also a risk of umbilical cord ruptures since the baby must be brought to the surface relatively quickly and the cord may be too short. There is also increased risk of infection for the mother and baby since they are both exposed to potentially contaminated water because birth can get messy.
Until now, there has been little formal guidance provided about water births. Providing more information for expectant mothers is a great first step, but disagreement between medical professionals about birthing methods can add confusion to an already stressful time. Until more studies are done to provide a better understanding of the risks involved, women will have to rely on their own judgment and the guidance of their healthcare provider.
To view an Outline and Cause Map of this issue, please click “Download PDF” above.