I’m not here to tell you that giving birth in water is right for you. I’ve given birth flat on my back with an epidural, and in a tub at a birthing center. How you give birth is your decision, as long as it’s medically safe for your personal situation. But people constantly wonder if water birth is safe, or if it reduces tearing. Parents also find themselves searching endlessly for water birth reviews, which is where I come in!
I’ll tell you about both my epidural and water birth stories in hopes that reading a water birth experience will help you make the best decision for YOU! Is a healthy baby really the ONLY goal of pregnancy? What about the birth experience?
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Birth Stories Matter
I have many friends and acquaintances who have negative feelings associated with their birth stories.
So many of them struggle with the guilt and shame that is often intertwined with those feelings.
Our society tends to imply, or flat out tell women, that all that matters about birth is having a “healthy” baby, whatever that means.
Whatever happened during the birth process, according to these people, is justified and should be dismissed.
Well, about half the people say that. The other half say that their way is the right way. Period.
But where’s the in-between?
Social media and the blogging world have made pregnant women more aware of the range of birth experiences.
And trust me, we’re all glad that we can read about and identify with birth experiences.
However, it is all too easy to feel alone in any feelings of fear, resentment, anger, or victimhood when most of the world only sees the newborn baby but misses the birth process the mother endured.
Women’s Childbirth Choices: From Past to Present
Historically, the birthing mother has had varying levels of involvement in the birth process:
- From births at home surrounded by the women of the family and a local midwife,
- To Twilight Sleep paired with every intervention 1920-1940s doctors could imagine,
- To births with many options such as epidurals, fetal monitoring, and Lamaze that we’re still familiar with today (with doctor’s wishes still greatly dominated those of the laboring person)
- To the mother- and baby-centered birth practices we’re more familiar with today
The voice of the person actually giving birth has not always been heard very clearly, and sometimes STILL isn’t heard clearly.
In our modern age, we have a plethora of birth-related choices.
- Do we birth in a center, hospital, or at home?
- Should we be attended by midwives, nurses, OB-GYNs, neonatologists, doulas, friends, and/or family?
- Medicated or unmedicated?
The sheer volume of options surrounding pregnancy and childbirth is overwhelming, and the voices speaking out about them are almost deafening.
Despite all these choices (or maybe in spite of them), many women are finding that they can have a stronger voice in the delivery room or birthing suite.
My Very Different Birth Stories
In February, my oldest child will be eight years old, and my youngest is now proudly “five and a half years old.” So many things about their birthdays are still remarkably vivid.
I am lucky to say that both births were fairly uncomplicated and were overall positive, trauma-free events.
No emergency C-sections or railroading care providers in my history, unlike too many other women I know.
But I do have a slightly unique perspective to offer to the conversation about labor and delivery.
I feel a bit like I’m Longfellow talking about Paul Revere with his “One, if by land, and two, if by sea” when I talk about my birth stories.
Baby #1 – my daughter, NL – was born while I lay in a bed with an epidural.
Baby #2 – my son, F – was born during a waterbirth in a birthing pool.
One, if by land, and two, if by sea...
Basically, I have the all-too-unusual experience of being able to compare and contrast “medicated” and “unmedicated” births without a lot of fear or resentment attached to either one.
I can largely thank luck for my positive birth experiences.
But there are some things I had control over that really helped me look back on my children’s birth processes without resentment or fear.
- I chose an OB (for birth #1) and a midwife (for birth #2) who would attend during my birth experience, not someone else in their practice.
- I was clear on my birth plan for each child, and had care providers who respected that plan
- I understood that my plan might not work, so when changes occurred, it was easier to cope
But more on tips for a smooth labor in another article. Here, we’ll focus on my water birth with my son.
What is Natural Water Birth?
For various reasons, before I had my son, I decided I wanted to try for a natura (unmedicated) water birth.
The American Pregnancy Association defines water birth as:
“the process of giving birth in a tub of warm water. […] The theory behind water birth is that since the baby has already been in the amniotic fluid sac for nine months, birthing in a similar environment is gentler for the baby and less stressful for the mother.”
People tend to call it “natural” because it’s “unmedicated,” although nothing about a medicated birth seems “unnatural” to me. I’ve had both, remember.
But you can’t sit in a tub of water with an epidural for pain relief, so underwater births often get the “natural” designation.
Is Giving Birth in Water Safe?
The American Pregnancy Association (APA) also outlines the pros and cons of water birth, and you should take these into consideration when choosing this birthing method.
The APA cites research conducted by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and notes that this British Medical Journal is 95% confident in the safety of water births.
However, they do “see a possible risk of water aspiration” which can occur “if the baby is experiencing stress in the birth canal or if the umbilical cord becomes kinked or twisted.” In these cases, the baby could gasp for air with the “possibility of inhaling water.”
Despite the small risk of water aspiration by the baby if he or she is under duress, the APA notes many benefits of water birth, such as:
- The comfort and soothing nature of warm water
- Buoyancy lessens the mother’s body weight and allows her to move more freely
- Immersion in warm water can lessen blood pressure
- Water can reduce stress-related hormones
- Water can provide a sense of privacy, which can reduce your inhibitions
- For the baby, water birth provides a similar environment as the amniotic sac, and it can reduce the stress of birth
Always make choices regarding your birth based on your own understanding of your body and your pregnancy, ALONG WITH the advice and approval of your healthcare providers.
I considered all my options, did my own research, and consulted extensively with my healthcare team.
After having the experience of laboring on my back with an epidural with my first birth, I knew I wanted something different for a number of reasons.
(Editorial note: for more information about water birth from the perspective of a midwife, this informational article and video from the University of Ohio Wexner Medical Center is really helpful.)
Does Water Birth Reduce Tearing?
I learned that immersion in water actually causes the perineum (area between vagina and anus) to become more elastic, which reduces the risk of tearing or the need for an episiotomy and stitches.
In addition to the potential to avoid tearing during birth, showers and baths had been one of the few things that offered me any relief before my epidural during my first delivery.
So the comfort and mobility that a water birth might offer seemed like a good fit for me.
Before my first birth (by land), my OB had recommended perineal massage to help prevent tearing, but I still ended up needing an episiotomy. But I made it through my water birth with no perineal trauma.
Two Tips for Giving Birth In Water
(1) When planning, really consider who will be there to support you during birth.
Are family and friends good and healthy options for you? If you have a partner, are they able to attend and stay with you?
During my water birth experience, I knew I’d need someone to help set up and take down the birthing pool set up since we were not at a hospital that had them in the rooms. For a variety of reasons, I hired a doula.
My husband works crazy hours at a hospital. So, the likelihood that he would be immediately available at my delivery was low enough that having a doula available for support seemed like a good idea.
Plus, we had no family in town, and my best in-town friends were both also quite pregnant (one delivered 8 days later at 42 weeks, but that’s another story).
For us, a doula was a great choice because we did not have many good options for labor support for me. I am immensely grateful that we were able to hire a doula.
It’s definitely a luxury, but many doulas work on a sliding scale or accept payment plans in hopes of becoming an option for more moms.
(2) When experiencing a water birth, be honest with your care team.
With a good care team, you should have plenty of help, and you may need it. Tell your care team what is working, what isn’t working, and when you need them.
Labor and delivery nurses should be with you and especially available to help you.
You’ll need help changing positions for laboring, plus they can show you labor aids like birthing balls, tubs, etc. that the hospital or birth center offers.
They should also be available to help you with pushing.
Be honest but as kind as you can in the moment. If something is not working for you, ask them to help you find a new position or technique.
They have done this way more times than you have with people who are enduring some of the worst pain of their lives.
They have a much deeper bag of tricks than you can even imagine.
My “Natural” Water Birth Experience
So I wanted a water birth.
My midwife was on board; the doula was hired; the birth pool was waiting by the door; and my husband was slightly terrified but game.
By planning for a water birth, I needed to go under a midwife’s care during the last months of my pregnancy.
But I spent enough time with my obstetrician to feel comfortable with her and communicate my hopes for my delivery. She even checked on me in the delivery room.
Then, my doula got called to another delivery right before mine while both of her partners were also busy.
Needless to say, I was a mess. And suddenly terrified that all the positive water birth reviews I’d read were written by people whose lives weren’t going crazy.
Would my water birth story turn into a nightmare?
With all that going on, my little guy came barreling into the world! Barreling being the unexaggerated, operative word here.
I arrived at the hospital 8 cm dilated after only about 2 hours of active labor.
Labor, as with anything kid-related, rarely goes according to plan.
Because we had communicated about my wants and needs for this birth so extensively (but realistically) before this birth, my midwife flew into action.
She had anti-nausea meds waiting for me in the delivery suite, since I knew active labor made me super nauseated the first time around. I also have a paralyzing fear of vomiting, and bless her, she knew all this about me, as well.
While we waited for the back-up doula to arrive, my doula pumped and began filling the birth tub on her own.
She made it about ⅔ of the way before I absolutely HAD to get in it because my son was crowning.
This labor happened FAST!
Since my husband was still running a fever from the HF&M, he had to wear a mask and gloves and was relegated to the corner.
From his corner, he shouted encouraging words in my general direction.
Clearly, this was not the peaceful, classical music soundtracked water birth experience of some women’s dreams.
I Gave Birth in Water, and I’m So Thankful
But then, I pulled my son up onto my knees.
I leaned back against the 2 out of 3 rings of the birth pool that we managed to inflate in our frantic hour at the hospital before he was born.
He looked around with bright eyes, beautifully pink and calmly breathing, but not crying at all. It wasn’t a scary silence. It was peaceful. Calm.
For a child who runs full throttle in life (seriously, check out my story of parenting THAT kid), a ball of emotion and love, but who desperately craves cuddles and falls asleep best with a calm down podcast and Mommy beside him in bed, it was the perfect arrival.
Chaotic and quick and messy and comical but with a moment of blissful calm at the center.
Oh! and not a single perineal tear and no episiotomy needed. Perfect.
Both Births Were Just Right
When I gave birth to my daughter, I had a fairly calm, medicated birth.
I was my doctor’s only patient on the floor, so she was incredibly available and attentive, and my husband held my hand and leg the whole time I pushed.
He also clipped the umbilical cord.
When I gave birth to my son, I had a 3-hour whirlwind of an unmedicated waterbirth experience in a barely inflated tub with a doula I had never met with my husband hovering just out of reach.
My sick husband couldn’t even touch our son until he was 3 days old.
Nothing went quite as planned with my water birth story, but I had a series of great medical providers who communicated with me frankly and clearly both before and in the delivery room.
For my water birth, I had ideas and hopes for what I wanted, but the grace and flexibility to change them when I needed to.
Thankfully, I also had a loving partner and family, and a whole heck of a lot of luck.
There is no perfect water birth story (or birth story at all).
In the end, I am pretty darn happy with my one by land and one by sea.
Did you have a water birth experience? Tell us all about it in the comments!
Other Birth Posts
Tessa is mommy to NL (age 7) and FR (age 5), school librarian/teacher, doctor’s wife, and the keeper of all the schedules. She has a Master’s in library and information science with a K-12 school library certification and an undergraduate degree in English, and she works at an elementary school library. She writes about living life with OCD, anxiety disorder, and depression, helping my children learn to navigate life with anxiety, ADHD, sensory processing disorder, auditory processing, dyslexia