During both of my pregnancies I have been drawn to be near the ocean or soaking in hot springs. For my first home birth, I did not have a birth pool available, but I enjoyed showers in labor and tried to fit my large pregnant body in the small apartment bathtub. With my second home birth, 11 years later, my son was born in the water, and much of that labor was spent in the warm waters of the tub. When he was born he opened his eyes under the water and looked up at my husband and I.
As a doula and pregnancy bodyworker for many years, I found that water is one of the most valuable resources for pregnant women, laboring mothers, and babies for relieving pain, increasing mobility, and calming the nervous system. There are so many ways to use water for healing in the childbearing year, and sacred bathing, steaming, and water therapy are a part of many cultural childbirth rituals around the world.
Water has incredible therapeutic benefits during pregnancy, labor and birth. Pregnant women can find comfort, relaxation, and vitality through aquatic exercise or bodywork. During labor, water can help ease pain, shorten labor, and increase the mother's positive experience of labor. Being born in the water is a gentler experience for a baby, and infants and babies love water time in baths and pools for exercise, development, and relaxation. Pregnant women are often really drawn to and comforted by being near the ocean and natural bodies of water. Pregnancy is a great time to connect with the element of water, as our first environment in the womb is a water filled world.
The use of water for birth and beyond ideally begins in pregnancy or before. The more a pregnant woman is able to experience immersion in warm waters, the greater her ability to develop deep relaxation skills and comfort in the water for benefit during labor and birth. Water is a perfect environment for prenatal exercise, bodywork, and yoga. There are aquatic prenatal classes offering women practices for relaxation, stretching, and exercise in pregnancy as well as childbirth and waterbirth preparation. Aquatic craniosacral therapy and Watsu are wonderful water bodywork modalities for pregnancy.
When submerged in water, the body experiences only 15% of the effects of gravity, thus reducing muscular strain and pressure for the pregnant body with the growing demands of the baby. Water creates a buoyant support for the mother to move in three dimensions and be in comfortable positions without having to work as hard to support the weight of her own body. When immersed in water, the body also needs less oxygen, thus more of the body’s resources go to healing and regeneration. Floating in water can remind us of the baby’s experience, stirring our own deep primal memories of beginning our lives in the watery womb.
Waterbirth is a growing trend among women desiring gentle non-medicated births.
Warm water creates a soothing and buoyant medium for a laboring woman to relax her mind and body and birth her baby with ease. The warm water significantly decreases the tension and pain a woman experiences, thus warm water immersion in labor is often referred to as an “aqua-dural” by midwives and doulas. The water can reduce the pain a women feels by half, while also supporting and facilitating labor contractions to be more effective. Waterbirth also creates a gentle supportive environment for the baby to be born into, allowing the baby to have a gentle transition to the world beyond the womb.
In labor, the birthing pool should be deep enough to fully cover the mother’s belly and back, providing optimal soothing pain relief through immersion. The temperature should be comfortable to the mother, not too hot or cold. A pool designed for birthing will provide enough depth for full belly coverage, as well as room for the mother to move into different positions. In the water the mother can be on her hands and knees, leaning forward over the edge of the pool, squatting, supported squat, leaning back on the side of the pool and more. The water gently supports the mother to be in a variety of positions while keeping the pelvis open and the muscles of the hips, pelvis, thighs, and bottom relaxed, allowing optimal room for the the baby to be born.
Water in labor works best if the woman is already in active labor by the time she enters the pool. Then immersion in the water will speed up the rest of her labor, while also reduced pain and increasing mobility. If the woman is in early labor, being in the water may slow labor down. During a prolonged early labor, or during pre-term labor, taking a warm bath or shower may help to relax the uterus and space out contractions allowing the mother to get rest. However, early labor is a great time for working with gravity, walking and being upright. During active labor the water is gentle and supportive of the times of hard labor, transition, pushing, and emergence. Surrounded by warm water in a birthing pool, a laboring woman feels a safe boundary around her, and may feel more private and comfortable, even when surrounded by birthing attendants and family. The water creates intimacy and comfort, it is soothing and relaxing.
A baby born underwater experiences a gentle transition from womb to world. While underwater they are in a similar environment as in the womb, as well as still fully enveloped by the mother’s energy field which permeates the water. The baby is not stimulated to breath or transition to air oxygenation until the face, mouth, and nose surface above the water. Until surfacing the baby is still getting oxygen from the blood from the placenta and intact umbilical cord. The baby is able to be born gently in a reduced gravity environment, allowing the baby to integrate the journey through the birth passage before being introduced to 85% more gravity upon their body.
Waterbirthing is one aspect of the continuum of water for pregnancy, birth, and infancy. While the baby is young, they are learning to move and control their body as it is growing rapidly. Babies who are trained in water, infant swimming, and waterplay are able to experience being immersed in an aquatic environment that supports their optimal brain growth and makes learning movements of the body and coordination easier. This allows the brain to make the necessary connections to support optimal movement and development without having to battle gravity and weight at the same time. Water babies grow strong quickly and show remarkable coordination, tone, friendliness, and confidence.
Waterbirth and the therapeutic benefits of water from pregnancy, labor, birth and beyond has become a global health movement. Igor Charkovsky has been studying the use of water for birth and infant training for over 50 years in Russia and his work inspired the Russian Waterbirth Movement. Elena Tonetti-Vladimirova worked with Igor Charkovsky in Russia for many years and documents some of their waterbirths in the internationally acclaimed film “Birth As We Know It”. In France, Dr. Leboyer introduced warm water baths for infants, and Dr. Michel Odent popularized waterbirth at the birth center in Pithiviers, France. In the United States, Barbara Harper, RN, founded Waterbirth International to raise awareness, education, and resources for waterbirthing and has also trained doctors, midwives, birth centers, hospitals, and birth advocates around the world in the use of waterbirth. Waterbirth is now practiced in homebirths, birth centers, and hospitals in countries all around the world.
Water is a healing medium for women and babies to experience regularly in pregnancy, birth, and infancy. The powers of water assist in deep relaxation, vitality, and movement of the body. Water immersion, exercise, bodywork, and relaxation are incredible modalities for people in all stages of life for optimal health. Water is an amazing element that is essential for all life. The use of water has incredible therapeutic value for pregnant women, in birth, and for babies and it is my vision that all mothers should have access to therapeutic birthing pools in birth centers and hospitals in every community.
Have you had a water birth or used water therapeutically in your pregnancy, labor or postpartum?
I'd love to hear about your experiences with water for mothers and babies in the comments below.