(Trying out our birth pool a week before my home birth.
I labored in the water, but delivered on my bed.)
I labored in the water, but delivered on my bed.)
I realized several weeks ago that there was a fairly important gap in my personal research on the subject of water birth. While I have read a lot about it in books, heard rave reviews from friends, and seen countless water birth YouTube videos, I hadn't personally delved into the scientific literature about water birth. Anecdotal and second-hand evidence can be very helpful, but I wanted to see the nitty-gritty facts myself. Especially after I did a google search and found an OB's blogpost slamming water birth and all its dangerousness.
What I found was that most of the scientific journal articles that come up through a water birth Google search were anecdotal reports and/or case studies of individual cases where doctors suspected that a water delivery contributed to a child's death or poor health. The general sentiment among doctors is fairly well summed-up in this concluding statement (from an article in the journal Pediatrics) penned jointly by a pediatrician, nurse, and obstetrician:
After reviewing the literature, we stop to ponder: what evidence of harm would be enough to convince us to stop the practice? Should the report of a single drowning be enough? Apparently, it was not. At this point, we are convinced there is no evidence to support any benefit of underwater birth for the neonate, and plenty of evidence to suggest harm. (source)Another doctor was so bold as to say: "Water births currently provide no apparent benefit in childbirth" (source). The introductory paragraph of his article had me chuckling to myself:
Despite an absence of supporting evidence, proponents of water births claim benefits and disregard concerns while continuing to fail to subject this approach to the rigors of scientific inquiry. This desire to ignore the facts may be particularly prevalent among individuals who prefer nontraditional delivery techniques.I'm not about to suggest that water birth was the norm among our ancestors, but I would hardly call stirrups+hospital bed the "traditional" delivery technique. Women have only been giving birth strapped to beds for a tiny portion of human existence. And I won't waste my time addressing his claim that ignoring the facts is prevalent among those who prefer to deliver in "nontraditional" ways.
It can be frustrating and confusing trying to find the facts when it comes to water birth. The most comprehensive review of the water birth research (that I'm aware of) is the Cochrane review. Here's what the Cochrane researchers concluded in 2004:
There is evidence that water immersion during the first stage of labour reduces the use of analgesia and reported maternal pain, without adverse outcomes on labour duration, operative delivery or neonatal outcomes. The effects of immersion in water during pregnancy or in the third stage are unclear. One trial explores birth in water, but is too small to determine the outcomes for women or neonates.So, basically, what we know from the scientific literature is that immersion in water can make labor less painful, but apparently we don't have rigorous enough scientific evidence to demonstrate the relative safety of water deliveries when compared with land deliveries.
There are other studies demonstrating many benefits of water birth (though I can't personally vouch for the level of scientific scrutiny used by the researchers). While these studies seem to have been primarily ignored or dismissed by the medical community, they can still be helpful as we strive to explore all the evidence. Here are some of them:
Waterbirths: a comparative study. A prospective study on more than 2,000 waterbirths.
Experience with water births: a prospective longitudinal study of 9 years with almost 4,000 water births
A retrospective comparison of water births and conventional vaginal deliveries.
Effects of water birth on maternal and neonatal outcomes.
Midwife Ronnie Falcao's website also contains a wealth of information on water birth safety.
I think it's helpful to keep in mind that adverse outcomes can occur regardless of mode/location of delivery, and that many modern obstetric practices have been shown by scientific study to be risky or questionable. So I'm a little baffled by some doctors' outrage about water birth and their claims that it shouldn't be allowed to continue without rigorous scientific support. If only they required the same standards for their own practices. Back in April 2009, I quoted Jennifer Block from Pushed: "A recent ACOG survey found that in 43% of malpractice suits involving neurologically impaired babies, Pitocin was to blame" (p. 137), and again: "Even Williams Obstetrics offers a sobering history: 'Oxytocin is a powerful drug, and it has killed or maimed mothers through rupture of the uterus and even more babies through hypoxia from markedly hypertonic uterine contractions'" (p. 138). Yet many doctors still pump women full of Pitocin, often with little or no medical necessity. Given that the percentage of women giving birth underwater is miniscule compared to the number of women being routinely administered Pitocin (a powerful drug with known and frightening side effects), I think tackling the Pitocin problem is far more urgent.
I would love to see a huge randomized controlled trial exploring water birth. I would love to see this matter rigorously addressed. In the meantime, what can we do? I suppose each of us must use whatever tools available to us to determine what is best and safest for our individual circumstances. For me, that includes my own intuition and Spiritual guidance from my Creator who knows the birth process and my body better than any other being. I may not be able to determine, with certainty, that water birth is safe for you or anyone else. But I feel confident I will be able to determine down the road whether it's right for me.
I'd appreciate any wisdom, stories, and insights you might have.