When people hear I had a "water birth" with my son, reactions range from, "Like, in a bathtub?" to "Ew, gross." Even during my pregnancy, when I was merely contemplating the benefits of laboring and delivering in water, I heard warnings out the wazoo.
None of these were professionals, mind you. My local birthing center was equipped with a hospital-grade birthing tub, and my midwives were totally on board. But family and strangers alike were mega concerned—and rightfully so, I suppose. The misconceptions and myths of water birth are out there, and people only wanted us to be safe.
So allow me to shatter a few stereotypes about water births:
This one seems reasonable enough, until you remember that unborn babies had been living in amniotic fluid for their entire existence, and so transitioning from the womb to a warm birthing tub is much more familiar than being exposed to harsh air from the get-go.
"A baby is actually an aquatic animal, receiving all of its oxygen supply from the placental circulation and bypassing its own lungs," said Barbara Harper, RN, founder of Waterbirth International. "The placenta acts as the filtration system and the breathing system for the baby in the womb. When the baby emerges into the water, the same system is still at work. The newborn who is lifted out of the birth water receives a signal to switch over from the fetal circulation to newborn circulation, causing it to pump blood into the lungs for the first time."
So basically babies don't start breathing until they're out of water. That being said, there could be a slight risk of water inhalation if the umbilical cord is twisted or kinked, or if the placenta's oxygen supply is somehow compromised—which is why we have professionals on hand who know what they're doing.
Myth 2: Babies can get infections from the poopy water.
So you know how most moms poop a little during labor? (No? News to you? Sorry to break it to you!) Well there's been some concern raised about whether fecal matter in the water can cause infections. And yet there's no real scientific research indicating that this is true. Harper claims water birth infection rates are reported at less than .01 percent, and that the water might actually provide a barrier, or at least a dilution, to possible bacteria.
But this is another reason to have a trained professional on hand: They scoop the poop ASAP. (It's OK, they do it all the time.)
Myth 3: Birthing tubs speed up/slow down labor.
Like everything with labor (and life), it's individual.
Both could be true, in different circumstances. I wasn't allowed in the birthing tub until I was dilated to 6 cm (the general expert consensus seems to be 5 cm) because the warm water could slow down labor—and mine was barely progressing. And yet when I finally got in the tub (after an embarrassing amount of pleading), my muscles totally relaxed, shooting me from 6 cm to 9 cm in a matter of minutes.
My friend, on the other hand, had to get out of the tub because her labor all but shut down. Like everything with labor (and life), it's individual.
Myth 4: It's painful to deliver in water because there's no lubrication.
I heard this from three—count 'em three—people before I gave birth, so much that I brought the concern to my midwife. "Is it true that I can tear more easily in water? That 'the ring of fire' will be more intense?"
Turns out, it's exactly the opposite. Mountains of evidence (and my own personal experience) indicate that warm water can relax the pelvic floor muscles, actually reducing the incidence and severity of tearing. And perhaps this has more to do with genetics and the skill of my midwife, but I didn't tear at all. (Hallelujah.)
Myth 5: Everyone loves birthing tubs.
I remember telling people that the birthing tub naturally cut down my pain level by 70 percent. I have no clue where I got that figure, but according to Harper, most women claim the water reduces their pain by more than half. And yet pain is subjective, and I certainly still felt the contractions. For me, it was more bearable.
"It's a tool, not a mode of birth," said Nurse Midwife Jessica Anderson from the Center for Midwifery at the CU College of Nursing. "It's a tool that may work out in labor for some women; some women change their mind; the mother may decide to get out, or we may decide that it's not the safest place to birth. It's an option, but it's not right for everybody."
In order to have a water birth, you basically need a low-risk, non-medicated birth, making it unavailable to certain women for reasons out of their control.
If I could go back and do it all over again, I'd have a water birth again and again.
Myth 6: You have to have a home birth.
While many home births include an inflatable birthing tub (like my sister's labor story), more and more hospitals and birthing centers are offering high-tech birthing tub options.
Mine, for instance, was fully sterilized by hospital staff, and it had jets and a filtration system, too.
Myth 7: It's gross.
You'd think so, right? I have nothing to offer beyond my own personal experience, but I was shocked as to how clean and clear the water was throughout the delivery. I certainly didn't want to be sitting in a pool of my own blood and goop—noooo thank you.
I ended up delivering the placenta outside the tub. (Side note: Climbing out with my clamped umbilical cord hanging from my vagina was pretty awkward, but I just produced a living being from my body so what the hell did I care.) So most of the gory aspects of delivery were reserved for the bed.
If I could go back and do it all over again, I'd have a water birth again and again. Beyond my own pain-reducing labor experience, the water birth seemed to give my baby a nice entrance into the world. He was lifted from the warm water and placed directly in my arms, and it took him an unnervingly long minute or so to actually cry. "This happens a lot with water births," my nurse said. "They don't cry right away."
Eventually he did, and he was whisked away to be cleaned and weighed, and life continued as normal. But I'll forever be grateful for that birth experience—for the water that cradled us both.