Though water births have been growing in popularity in recent years, obstetricians warn that giving birth under water has no proven benefits or edge over traditional delivery methods. However, immersion in warm water may ease the mother's pain in the earlier - and often gentler - phases of labor.
While exact numbers of water births remain unknown in the U.S., the practice is nonetheless thought to be on the rise, with several hospitals now incorporating birthing pools into their arsenal of equipment, and to satisfy new mothers who believe the process contributes to easier births.
Advocates of water births say that delivering infants in a birthing pool is preferable as the environment is reminiscent of the uterus, and though risks do not appear dramatic, nor does the practice appear to have any edge over standard birthing routines. However, mothers-to-be who intend to give birth in a birthing pool are briefed on potential risks - such as difficulties regulating the baby's body temperature, infection, and respiratory distress from accidental inhalation of water. "We always acknowledge to our patients that there is not a lot of high-quality evidence that shows there's a benefit to birthing under water," said Cathy Emeis, a nurse-midwife at the Oregon Health & Science University. The new U.S. guidelines similarly warn caution: "Given these facts and case reports of rare but serious adverse effects in the newborn, the practice of immersion in the second stage of labour - underwater delivery - should be considered an experimental procedure that should only be performed within the context of an appropriately designed clinical trial with informed consent," they state.
Indeed, the appeal of birthing pools may not reduce as a result of the new study, with a relative lack of elevated risk likely to reassure mothers inclined to give birth underwater. "I don't know that this statement will necessarily change women's desire for that option," said the American College of Nurse-Midwives's Tina Johnson.
Conversely, mothers who take to the tub in the early stages of labor may fine that it contributes to additional pain relief, possibly reducing the need for painkillers, as well as the duration of labor, though similarly, more research is needed to confirm any benefits.
The study was published in Pediatrics.