Water is the first element that humans are acquainted with. When we are in the womb, we float freely through time and space, entirely surrounded by amniotic fluid. No doubt at some level we remember dimly the ease and warmth of this fluid existence, since for most people water is very soothing and relaxing. How many of us like to wallow happily in a warm bath after a long day, or take a warm shower, releasing all our tensions and increasing our wellbeing? The image of floating in a beautiful pool sells thousands of holidays, tapping subliminally into our awareness that water calms the emotions and restores to us our sense of flow.
It was in the early 1990s that water births began to be accepted and to become more popular. I began working in an independent birth centre, the first one in Berlin to offer water births, and was amazed to see babies born into the water. In the years that followed hospitals had to follow suit because women demanded the comfort of a water birth. With the benefit of my experience I can endorse the effectiveness of taking a bath or a shower, or even giving birth directly into the water if that is what feels right for you.
The comfort of a water birth
Water in various guises really is the number one pain relief in labour. It was when I was working in Australia that I was really made aware of this. Many, many women asked for a bath to be run when they were admitted in labour. Some of them did not have access to huge amounts of hot water at home, so they enjoyed the unlimited amounts of it at the birthing centre. (Rental pools for a home water birth are absolutely wonderful, but if you live on an upper floor, you need to check that it will be strong enough to support a home birthing pool.)
Benefits of water labour and water birth
Research has confirmed the wide range whether you are planning to give birth in the water or not, it is very helpful to reach for the good old hot water bottle when labour starts and you feel the first contractions happening. Hopefully, most women will still have a hot water bottle at home! It can bring great relief, and can be placed wherever you are feeling the contractions. When you experience discomfort, it’s a good idea to move around until you find the best position and to place a hot water bottle where relief is most needed. It may be simple and low-tech, but it works really well!
Once labour is progressing, you might want to take a warm shower, or hop into a warm bath. Even when I did my training in a large women’s hospital in the south of Germany in the 1980s, we would invite every woman in labour to take a bath, just to get her more relaxed. I can’t emphasise enough the benefits of water at this time. Even if you think it is not for you, I can assure you that just relaxing in a warm bath or on a birthing ball with a warm shower running over you can result in your cervix opening up amazingly.
The benefits offered by immersion in water during labour and birth.
- Water gives you mobility and allows you to get into any position you find comfortable during labour and for the birth;
- speeds up labour;
- reduces blood pressure;
- gives you a greater feeling of control;
- provides significant pain relief;
- promotes relaxation;
- conserves your energy;
- reduces the need for drugs and intervention;
- gives you a private and protected space;
- reduces perineal trauma and the need for episiotomies;
- reduces rates of C-section;
- is highly rated by experienced providers of birthing services;
- encourages an easier birth for mothers and a gentler welcome for babies; and
- is highly valued by mothers: typically they state that they would consider giving birth in the water again, and some even say they would never give birth any other way!
- Placing a pool of water in a delivery room immediately changes the atmosphere: voices get softer, everyone becomes less stressed and the mother remains calmer.
The effect of buoyancy that deep water immersion creates allows the mother to move spontaneously. No one has to help her get into a new position. She moves as her body and the position of the baby dictate, and that movement helps open the pelvis, allowing the baby to descend. A neck pillow is useful for getting really comfortable in the birthing pool, so you might want to check whether the centre or the hospital you are booked into will provide one, and if not, supply one yourself.
When a woman in labour relaxes in a warm deep bath, free from gravity’s pull on her body, with sensory stimulation reduced, her body is less likely to secrete stress-related hormones. This allows her body to produce the pain inhibitors – endorphins – that complement labour. Noradrenaline and catecholamines, the hormones that are released during stress, actually raise the blood pressure and can inhibit or slow labour, so anything that prevents stress is to be encouraged. A woman in labour who is able to relax physically, is able to relax mentally as well. Many women, midwives, and doctors acknowledge the analgesic effect of water.
Involving your birth partner
Among the many useful tasks that your birth partner should stand ready to carry out (including supporting you in different positions and providing regular food and drink) are running baths when you need them, and preparing hot water bottles – and applying them to the parts of your body where they will be most soothing!