Water Birthing History
How long has water birth been around?
We tend to think of labouring in water as relatively new. However, a writer on water births, Janet Balaskas, says that’s not so. She describes legends of South Pacific Islanders giving birth in shallow seawater and of Egyptian pharaohs born in water. In some parts of the world today, such as Guyana, in South America, women go to a special place at the local river to give birth.
Giving birth in water (rather than labouring in it) is a relatively recent development in the Western world. The first water birth that we know about in Europe was in 1803 in France. A mother whose labour had been extremely long and difficult was finally helped to give birth in a tub of warm water.
In the 1970s, some midwives and doctors in Russia and France became interested in ways of helping babies make the transition from life in the uterus (womb) to life outside as smooth as possible. They were worried about the way women in labour were cared for in developed countries.
Their concern was that modern maternity care, with lots of intervention, was making birth traumatic for babies. Some doctors, including French obstetrician Frederic Leboyer, thought babies could be affected for life because of the way they came into the world.
As well as helping women cope with the pain of childbirth, water births also seemed to offer babies a more peaceful journey from the uterus (womb) into their mums’ arms. Babies are bathed in warm water as they emerge from the birth canal, and the pool environment feels similar to the enveloping warmth of the uterus.
Doctors and midwives noted how calm babies were after they had been born in water. They cried less than babies born in air. They appeared more relaxed and were eager to have eye contact with their mums and to breastfeed.
During the 1980s and 1990s, interest in water birth grew in the UK, Europe and Canada Midwives sometimes worried about the responsibility of helping women give birth in water. However, they were often thrilled to be able to assist at a birth that was natural and relaxed.
How has access to water birth changed in the UK?
In 1993, a Department of Health (DH) report into maternity services said women should be given choice in childbirth. The report said women should be able to labour and give birth in water.
As a result, many hospitals installed birth pools. Some became expert in helping women give birth in water.
The DH continues to support the use of birth pools, along with staff skilled in assisting water births, whether at a hospital, a birth centre or in the home.
The national guideline for labour and birth recommends the use of birthing pools for pain relief. In Scotland, knowledge of the use of water to relieve pain is highlighted as important for units where epidurals are not available and midwife-led units in Northern Ireland also tend to offer birth pools.
The professional bodies for obstetricians and midwives support healthy women with straightforward pregnancies who want to labour and give birth in water.
Birthing pools were once used by a minority of women but can now be considered mainstream. However, widespread support for their use and women’s satisfaction with them as a tool for labour has not translated into widespread use.
The proportion of women using them during their labours and births is increasing only gradually. A 2010 review of their use in England reported just one in eight women using a birth pool during their labour and birth, up from one in nine in 2007.
Will I be able to have a water birth?
Service provision is always changing, but it’s thought that most maternity units in the UK can now offer women access to a birth pool. Midwives are expected to have the skills needed to care for a woman labouring or giving birth in water.
If you want to have a water birth, your midwife will need to check that your pregnancy is going well enough. Ask her about your local unit’s policies, and whether they say women with some conditions cannot use the pool.
Next, find out what birth pool facilities are available at maternity units in your area and how often they are used. Birth pools can be underused or unavailable when women want them It’s possible that some maternity units or individual midwives may be less encouraging about their use than others.