Saturday, January 22, 2011

Water Birth

Not too long ago I finished this book whose focus is how evolution and disease leads to surprising conclusions. I won't get into the evolution foray here, but I do want to quote this section of the book:

Legend has it that the first medical water birth took place in the early nineteenth century in France. Birth attendants were struggling to help a woman who had been in labor for more than forty-eight hours when one of the midwives suggested a warm bath might help the expectant mother to relax. According to the story, the baby was born shortly after the woman settled into the tub.

A Russian researcher named Igor Tjarkovsky is often credited as the father of modern water birthing. He designed a special tank in the 1960s for water birthing, but the trend didn't really catch on in the West until the early 1980s or so. The reaction of the medical establishment wasn't encouraging. In medical journals and the popular press, doctors suggested that water birthing was dangerous, filled with unacceptable risks of infection and drowning. It wasn't until 1999, when Ruth Gilbert and Pat Tookey of the Institute of Child Health in London published a serious study showing that water birth was at least as safe as conventional methods, that all these predictions of doom and gloom were shown to be largely baseless.

An even more recent Italian study, published in 2005, has confirmed the safety of water birthing - and demonstrated some stunning advantages. The Italian researchers compared 1,600 water births at a single institution over eight years to the conventional births at the same place during the same time.

First of all, there was no increase of infection in either mother or newborns. In fact there was apparently an additional protection for the newborn against aspiration pneumonia. Babies don't gasp for air until they feel the air on their face; when they're underwater, the mammalian diving reflex - present in all mammals - triggers them to hold their breath. (Fetuses do 'breath' while in their mother's womb, but they're actually sucking in amniotic fluid, not air, which forms a crucial part of their lung development.) When babies are delivered conventionally, they take their first breadth of air as soon as they feel air on their face; sometimes, if they get in a big breath before the doctor can clean their face, this causes them to inhale fecale matter or 'birthing residue' that can cause an infection in their lungs - aspiration pneumonia. But babies delivered underwater don't face that risk - until they're brought to the surface they don't switch from fetal circulation to regular circulation, so there's no risk of them inhaling water, and the attendants have plenty of time to clean their faces while they're still underwater, before lifting them out of it and triggering their first breath.

The study revealed many more benefits. First-time mothers delivering in water had a much shorter first stage of labor. Whether the water relaxed nervous minds or tired muscles or had some other effect, it clearly accelerated the deliver process. Women delivering in water also had a dramatic reduction in the need for episiotomies - the surgical cut routinely performed in the hospital births to expand a woman's vaginal opening in order to prevent complications from tearing. Most of the time they just weren't necessary - the water simply allowed for more of a stretch.

And perhaps most remarkably, the vast majority of the women who gave birth in water needed no painkillers. Only 5 percent of the women who started their labor in water asked for an epidural - com pared to 66 percent of the women who gave birth through conventional means.


A child development researcher named Myrtle McGraw documented these surprising abilities back in 1939 - not only do very young babies hold their breadth, they also make rhythmic movements that propel them through the water. Dr. McGraw found that this 'water-friendly' behavior is instinctual and lasts until babies are about four months old, when the movements become less organized."

My wife gave birth to our fourth baby, a girl, on Thursday morning, at home, in a birthing tub. The labor was extremely short, and less painful than our previous births. She did go through two rather painful contractions outside the tub on a birthing ball, but when she re-entered the water, the contractions were more manageable. Did I mention the labor was fast? The babies head appeared a few minutes before our naturapathic doctor's assistant arrived.

All in all it was an incredible and intense experience, and we've had the enormous blessing to relax with our healthy and happy baby in the comfort of our own home.

Also, as an aside, we were really lucky in the birth's timing. Our oldest daughter is diabetic and we were worried about managing her and the birth at the same time.

Well, my wife's labor started early in the morning and the baby came just in time to wake up our kids and bring them in to see the baby in my wife's arms. I even had time to do a blood sugar test in between one of my wife's early contractions.

Our newest daughter will be our last and the only home birth of the bunch - but by far the best experience of the four.

1 comment:

H said...

Ya know, I was thinking of the need or non-need for pain killers and determined that it is just more comfortable in the birthing tub. If someone had offered me drugs but I had to get out of the tub I would have said, "forget you, I'm stayin' here."
Water is DEFINITELY the way to go!