Water births: Possible benefits and risks | HealthPartners Blog (2024)

When it comes to what you want for your birth experience, you probably have several ideas in mind. Maybe you want to be surrounded with family and friends. Or perhaps you want to limit the experience to yourself, your partner, and your doctor or midwife.

And when it comes to how exactly you’ll labor and deliver your little one, you may be thinking about a water birth. Water births are becoming increasingly popular among women who want to try for a natural birth or use very little pain medication during the birthing process.

But what is a water birth exactly? What are the benefits and the risks of a water birth? Do you need to plan a water birth in advance?

Below we answer these questions and more to help you decide if a water birth may be a fit, so you can talk with your doctor or midwife. They can let you know what steps you can take to finalize your birth plan.

What is a water birth?

Even for those unfamiliar with the term, a water birth is just like it sounds: it’s when part of your labor and the delivery of your baby takes place in a warm body of water, generally a birthing tub or pool.

Benefits of water birth

There are several studies that have been done on the potential benefits of water births. And while more are needed, many women who’ve chosen water births have reported positive effects on their birth experience all the same.

Some women have found giving birth in water to be soothing, helping to ease stress and even calm their newborn baby. These kinds of benefits have also been reported by women who’ve chosen only to labor (but not deliver) in water, which is often called hydrotherapy. Some of the benefits women have reported include:

A more relaxing birth experience

Warm baths are already an everyday way to relax. So, it isn’t hard to imagine why being immersed in a warm bath during labor could have the same relaxation benefits. Some say this may help to lower mom’s blood pressure, making for a calmer experience overall.

A shorter labor

Because of water’s buoyancy, many women find it easier to move and reposition themselves during labor, which can help contractions progress more smoothly.

Less need for pain medication

Since the warm water in the birthing tub can help with relaxation, it may also trigger the release of more endorphins and improve blood flow to the uterine muscles, which can help you naturally handle labor pains.

Feeling more present in the birth experience

Some women find that being able to feel the process of birth, with a manageable level of pain, makes them feel more present and connected to the event.

Risks of water birth

Water birth can be a great choice for moms who want to manage their birth experience naturally, but there are some potential disadvantages to be aware of. Here’s what you should know if you’re asking the question “Are water births safe?”

Water births are only recommended for low-risk pregnancies

Water labors and births are generally only recommended for women with low-risk, single pregnancies, and who have reached term. This is because any complication during labor or delivery can be further complicated by the need to get the mother safely out of the water.

There is limited research on the benefits and risks of water births

While there have been several studies on the potential benefits of hydrotherapy and water births, experts agree that more research needs to be done. Plus, many say more research is especially needed on the potential risks of delivering in water.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) says that while water may provide some benefits in the first stage of labor, there isn’t evidence yet to support benefits for the baby. So, while ACOG says it’s okay to labor in water, they recommend “delivering on land.”

The American College of Nurse-Midwives (ACNM) is more steadfast in the benefits of both laboring and delivering in water. ACNM also acknowledges that more research is needed on the effects of water immersion, specifically during the second and third stages of labor – which includes delivering the baby, as well as the placenta.

Bacteria could lurk in birthing tub water

The time that the baby spends underwater during a water birth is often a top concern for many care professionals.

Since blood, other fluids and solids are a natural part of labor and delivery, babies could be exposed to bacteria if they open their eyes or mouth underwater. And that could possibly lead to infection. However, so far there’s been no evidence of an increase in infection for babies delivered by water birth.

Pain management options can be more limited

If you choose to deliver in water, an epidural and certain other methods won’t be options for pain management. Many women report that being immersed in water can make up for this, but it’s still something to consider as you think about the kind of experience and flexibility you want.

If it turns out that water is not enough to manage your pain and you want to explore other options, it may be possible to have pain medication after getting out of the birthing tub.

Your options will depend on how far into labor you are, and where you choose to give birth. Hospital-based birth centers can support a natural or unmedicated birth, but still provide a lot of flexibility in adjusting your pain management plan as your labor progresses.

Can you have a water birth at a hospital?

Yes, you can have a water birth in a hospital, so you don’t need to find a special “water birth center.” You’ll just need to confirm the hospital you’ve chosen to give birth at offers water birth as an option. All HealthPartners hospitals and birth centers offer water birth.

So, if you’re leaning toward a water birth at a hospital, you’ll likely need to choose a midwife to deliver your baby. Some OB-GYN doctors may have experience with water births, but water births are very common in midwifery.

As for what it may be like on delivery day, know that you can often get into the water whenever you want once contractions start. Your care team will regulate the water temperature, help keep it as clean as possible, and help you move and reposition as needed. Your support partner can stay with you the whole time. And until it’s time to push, they can even be in the water with you.

Like with any birth, your care team will be working to support your birth plan and keep you and your baby safe. If a complication arises, they will work to coordinate the care you and baby need.

If you change your mind and decide you only want to labor in the tub, that’s okay. Usually you can get out at any point during the first stage of labor. Also, sometimes your care team will decide it’s safer for you to move out of the water and deliver in bed.

Otherwise you’ll stay in the tub and once your baby arrives, your midwife will carefully bring them up and into the open air. You’ll get to meet your baby right then and there.

How to plan a water birth

Regardless of where you plan to deliver, a water birth needs to be planned in advance and written into your birth plan. But where do you start? Here are some of the steps you can take:

  • Talk with your doctor or midwife about the pros and cons of water birth, along with any other considerations – Your doctor or midwife can answer any questions you have, and help you understand whether a water birth may be an option based on your goals and risk factors.
  • Come up with a “Plan B” in case something changes, whether it’s your mind or your labor – Laboring and delivering in water is not only about the kind of experience you want, but also how you’ll manage pain. And just in case things don’t go as you hoped, having a backup plan for certain scenarios can help you feel more prepared. Specifically, take some time to learn about the other pain management options that may be available to you, so you know which options you’d be comfortable with if needed.
  • Choose a hospital-based birth center that can support your birth plan (and the unplanned) – For many years, water births were only possible at home or at standalone birth centers. But modern hospital-based birth centers like ours are designed to help you have the birthing experience you’re hoping for by offering a range of birthing options, including water births. They also offer pain management flexibility and are staffed with specialists who provide support and care as your needs change. Finding a hospital that can accommodate your birth wishes and anything that comes up can bring confidence and peace of mind.

Have your birth, your way

You deserve to feel comfortable and confident about bringing your baby into the world. Our hospital-based birth centers are equipped for whatever kind of birth you want to have, so you can meet your baby in the way you’ve always dreamed of.

Water births: Possible benefits and risks | HealthPartners Blog (2024)


Water births: Possible benefits and risks | HealthPartners Blog? ›

The time that the baby spends underwater during a water birth is often a top concern for many care professionals. Since blood, other fluids and solids are a natural part of labor and delivery, babies could be exposed to bacteria if they open their eyes or mouth underwater. And that could possibly lead to infection.

What are risks and benefits of underwater childbirth? ›

Water Birth Pros and Cons: Is It Safe?
Pros of Water BirthCons of Water Birth
Helps ease labor painsMight increase the risk of Infection for the baby or the birthing parent
Can reduce the need for medication or interventionsCould make it difficult to clear a newborn's airway if they inhale meconium
2 more rows
Sep 26, 2023

What are the risks of water births to the baby? ›

Yes, water births are safe. It makes no difference in how healthy babies are, and they're no more likely to have difficulty breathing or to die. In fact, some research suggests your baby is less likely to need a transfer to hospital or stay in hospital or to be admitted to neonatal intensive care.

What are the benefits of water birth tearing? ›

Many women find that the water allows them more control over their labour. Water can help the tissues of the perineum to stretch and relax. This is known to reduce the chance of having severe tears or the need for an episiotomy.

What are the benefits of having a child in water? ›

Some may ask, “Why do people have water births?” or “Is a water birth better?” Well, many women say the benefits of a water birth include a calmer, more relaxed environment with less pain and potential for vagin*l tearing.

Does waterbirth prevent tearing? ›

Your chances of tearing are likely to be the same whether you give birth in water or in air. The 2009 Cochrane Review found no difference in the likelihood of tearing (Cluett and Burns 2009). Episiotomy rates were also similar.

What are the benefits of water birth vs natural birth? ›

Participants in the waterbirth group reported less pain than the land birth group, but the researchers did not give any details on how pain was measured. There was less meconium (baby's first stool) in the amniotic fluid with waterbirth (2% versus 24%) and fewer low Apgar scores with waterbirth compared to land birth.

What is the mortality rate for water births? ›

Perinatal mortality was 1.2/1000 (95% confidence interval 0.4 to 2.9) live births; 8.4/1000 (5.8 to 11.8) live births were admitted for special care. No deaths were directly attributable to delivery in water, but 2 admissions were for water aspiration.

Is a water birth better than an epidural? ›

Results. The 1st stage of labor was shorter in waterbirths compared with vagin*l delivery with epidural analgesia but the 2nd and 3rd stage of labor were shortest in patients having waterbirth compared with conventional vagin*l delivery and vagin*l delivery with epidural analgesia.

Who would be a good candidate for a water birth? ›

If you are healthy, between 37 and 41 weeks in your pregnancy, your baby doesn't have any known fetal abnormalities that could put you or your child at risk (like placenta previa, for example), and you want to labor and/or give birth in water, you could be a good candidate for a midwife-attended water-birth.

Does water birth affect the microbiome? ›

In 26 babies that were born on land … So in dry air, but their mother's had used a tub prior to the birth … and in 34 babies who born on land … That is not in the water with no tub use from the mother. The researchers found no major differences in what we call the bacterial flora between these three groups.

What to expect after a water birth? ›

Babies born under water can be calmer following birth than babies born in air and may not cry or move vigorously. This is normal and no reason for worry. Your midwife will carefully observe you and your baby following birth, giving you any guidance and support needed.

What is the safest way to give birth? ›

vagin*l delivery

It's the most preferred and most common way to deliver a baby because it carries the lowest risk (in most cases). A vagin*l delivery occurs most often between weeks 37 and 42 of pregnancy. A vagin*l delivery has three stages: labor, birth and delivering the placenta.

Does insurance cover a water birth? ›

Is water birth covered by medical insurance? “Water birth, which is covered by insurance the same way traditional birthing options* are,” says Shatken-Stern, “are a great way to bring a bit more of control and natural relief to the birthing process.

How do babies survive water births? ›

When you are close to birthing your baby in the water you will need to keep aware of ensuring your bottom half remains submerged. Babies have lived in fluid for 9 months and therefore have not needed their oxygen from the air as we do, instead they receive this through their umbilical cord.

How to labor in a tub? ›

If you and your baby are doing fine, you may use the tub any time that you want and for as long as you want. Water will provide the most comfort and benefit if it completely covers your body and stomach up to your breasts. Being in water during active labor can help your labor progress faster.

What happens if a baby is born in water? ›

What happens if my baby is born in water? Don't worry, your baby won't drown. If your baby is born in the water, they are brought gently to the surface by the mother or midwife. The baby will not breathe until they meet the air, and they continue to get oxygen through the umbilical cord.

Can babies aspirate during a water birth? ›

Conceivably, uncompromised fetuses may be at risk of water aspiration and its resulting sequelae. Umbilical cord avulsion (cord “snapping” or cord rupture) has been observed as the newborn is lifted or maneuvered out of the water.

Can babies breathe in water during water birth? ›

The entry of water into the baby's lungs can be avoided by lifting the baby out to the surface of the water as soon as possible. Babies by themselves will not breathe until exposed to air.

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