Water birth – pros, cons and can it really help labour pains?

How do water births work? Are there disadvantages to giving birth in water? Here's everything you need to know about labouring in a birthing pool if you're considering having a water birth...

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The NHS says having a water birth – giving birth in warm water – can help make you more comfortable or relaxed during labour. It can even help to make your contractions seem less painful.

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Water births are popular birth plans for many mums-to-be, and they’re often talked about in the news too – thanks to a number of stars like Jacqueline Jossa, Gwyneth Paltrow and Thandie Newton opting to have one.

So, is a water birth the right option for you and your labour?

To help you make an informed decision, here’s everything you need to know about giving birth in a birthing pool. In our guide to having a water birth, we’ll answer:

Feel free to skip ahead to your chosen section to learn more about it by clicking the relevant link – though if you’re seriously considering a water birth, you might want to read the whole piece through ?

Can anyone have a water birth?

Most women should be able to have a water birth. It’s best to speak to your midwife about your specific situation to know for sure.

However, it may not be a suitable option for some women. The NHS says a birthing pool isn’t considered suitable if there are any complications, such as:

  • going to labour early
  • signs of the baby being in distress
  • any sitch where the mum needs a drip, for example if she has insulin-dependent diabetes, or is being induced.

Every woman’s situation is different, but if you have mobility issues or a history of pregnancy complications, you may be advised against a water birth by your midwife.

As we mentioned above, there may also be circumstances where you’re asked by your midwife to leave the birthing pool during labour.

The National Childbirth Trust (NCT) lists these circumstances as:

  • changes in the baby’s heart rate
  • meconium (baby’s poo) staining in your waters
  • bleeding from your vagina during labour
  • if you develop a high temperature, pulse or blood pressure
  • if the water becomes heavily soiled.

Where can I have a water birth?

Water births can be done at home, with a birthing pool, and a trained midwife by your side to assist. 

However, some UK hospitals also have birthing units equipped for water births. To find out if a hospital water birth is an option for you, speak to your midwife.

What happens during a water birth?

water birth what happens

Every woman’s labour is different, and often unpredictable – so it’s hard to say 100% for sure how your water birth will go.

Ideally, you’ll get the chance to shower before going in and make sure your bladder’s not full.

Then, your birthing pool will be filled with water – this’ll be 37°C or slightly under. Your midwife will be on hand the entire time, checking on the temperature.

Typically, you’ll decide when you feel ready to get into the pool, though it’s thought that the water is most beneficial at easing pain and pressure once you’re 5cm dilated or more.

In the pool, you’ll likely try a number of positions to find what’s most comfortable for you while you’re contracting. These can include kneeling and squatting, while holding the sides of the pool, or floating and resting on a pillow.

At home and in some (not all) UK hospitals, your partner can also get into the birthing pool with you, too, if you so wish ?

Having your partner join you in the pool is really a personal choice. A few of our MFM mums admitted they couldn’t think of anything worse, with one telling us:

“I loved the freedom [of water birth] and how there was a bit of distance between me and anyone else.”

At this stage, it’s time to go with the flow, listen to your instincts and what your body’s telling you.

You might find you want to get in and out a couple of times, you may find you need the bathroom (its best if you’re able to go to the toilet to do so) and you’ll want to stay hydrated with sips of water.

You may find the pool’s not right for you while you’re in the water and, in the moment, you’d prefer to give birth on a bed.

All of this is perfectly OK – again, it’s all about listening to what your body needs during labour.

If you’re still in the pool once you’ve given birth, your midwife will gently hand your baby to you, keeping their body warm in the water – with their head above the water.

Will my baby be 
able to breathe underwater?

It’s totally understandable that you might worry about your baby’s breathing in the birth pool, but the short answer is: your baby won’t need to breathe underwater.

“What triggers a newly born baby to breathe is stimulation.” says midwife Anne Richley. That’s why it’s so important that the water in your birthing pool is monitored by your midwife and kept at 37°C.

“It’s the stimulation of the air and the change in temperature and of the hands on the baby that make him breathe.

“Once your baby has emerged, you or your midwife can gently guide him to the surface, where he’ll take his first breath.

“So, that’s why your baby won’t breathe while underwater. After the birth, his body can stay in the water, against yours to keep him warm, with his head above water.”

Can water births help relieve labour pains?

For some women, yes. For others, no. The reality is that every labour is so different, no one can ever say something will 100% work for you.

We know that some women experience it more like a relaxation technique, which helps to take the edge off a little bit, and makes them feel calm and in control.

Fortunately, you are also able to have gas and air (also known as ‘entonox’) while in the pool. (This is the only other kind of pain relief available, though.)

That said: some women do find they have a pretty painless labour thanks to the warmth, the comfort and the calming vibes the water provides.

One of our MFM mums, Jellybabymumdrum, gave us a good indicator of how much pain relief it’ll provide over on our forum:

“Do you find having a bath relaxing now?” she asked. “When I was pregnant with [my daughter] Zoe, whenever I was uncomfortable I went for a bath.

“I had a lot of baths, because it really provided me with relief from the aches, pains and general feeling rubbish so it seemed natural to me to want to labour in water.

“Funnily enough, this time having a bath does absolutely nothing for me at all, and I can now understand why some people don’t have any desire for a water birth whereas before I just didn’t get it.”

What are the pros and cons of water births?

water birth baby

Like all forms of pain relief in labour, there are upsides and a few downsides, too. Here are the advantages and the not-so-advantageous factors you may want to consider…

The advantages of a water birth

  • Labour is usually shorter
  • The buoyancy of the water enables you to be more flexible so can adopt different positions more easily
  • There’s less, if any, need for other pain relief
  • The environment is often more relaxed and less clinical in a room with a pool and you may find that you have one-to-one care from the midwife
  • There’s less trauma to the perineum (the area between the vagina and the back passage)
  • The intervention rate is extremely low
  • Your baby’s heart rate can still be monitored intermittently using a hand-held, waterproof doppler
  • You can still use gas and air in the pool
  • It helps relieve backache, which is good if you’ve suffered from this a lot in pregnancy
  • If you’re having a home birth – and especially if you deliver the placenta in water – it’s a lot less messy, as you just drain the contents of the pool down the toilet!

One thing said about water births is that it *supposedly* feels familiar for the baby, as the water’s a similar feeling to the amniotic fluid they’ve been living in for the last 9 months.

Apparently, this is why some babies born via water birth are less loud and cry-y than their born-on-dry-land counterparts.

The disadvantages of a water birth

  • Some maternity units don’t have birthing pools, or only have one so if someone’s using it you can’t
  • If you want to use one at home, you need to pay to hire it or purchase one.

What water births are really like – mums share their stories

Safe to say loads of our MFM mamas have had water births – and it seems it’s really a different experience for every single person.

MFMer Michelle‘s had 4 water births – and personally, has yet to find a downside.

“The water is very relaxing and is kept nice and warm!! For the birth, it has to be body temp 37.5 degrees but for the labour it can be warmer,” she says, adding: “The pain relief you get in water is amazing.”

“The good thing about water birth is you can try it and if you don’t like it you an always get out of the pool! Unlike other pain relief, which if you don’t like, you have to wait for it to wear off!”

While Baby_B agreed: “I had a water birth and it was the BEST! I was genuinely terrified of labour but had such a positive experience in the birth pool.

“I 110% want one next time. In fact I’d be tempted to go for home birth as I’d be gutted if the birth centre pool wasn’t free

Most important for her – and a lot of our mums – was how freeing a water birth felt. “I felt being in a pool was so relaxing and I felt v unexposed,” she explains.

Jellybabymumdrum added: “The pain relief was amazing . I had nothing else apart from the water and when I had to get out to transfer to hospital, it really shocked me how different the contractions felt on dry land.”

KimmyS84, however, didn’t find the pool so comfortable once she was in the throes of her contraction pain.

“It is that during my contractions I wanted to be standing up and bending over to lean on something, eg the bed,” she confesses.

“As the water is supposed to cover your bump I found I couldn’t find a comfortable position to be in during contractions.”

And pebblesmumdrum sadly didn’t experience the relief other mums have reported:

“Got into the pool about 30 mins after being told I was 4cm,” she shares. “Found it didn’t help with the pain but stayed in for about 50 mins until I felt the urge to push.

“At that point, I was on my knees. My husband went to get the midwife and she made me turn to check heartbeat, and within 3 minutes he was out.”

La1510 found she had a mixed but positive experience, and definitely found that water birth took the ‘sting’ out of her labour.

“I had a water birth and loved it – the pool wasn’t available so I didn’t get in until I was 8cm and was only in there a couple of hours which was perfect for me.

“I’m not sure it gave a huge amount of pain relief during the contractions but it helped keep me relaxed – it also took a lot of the sting out of the crowning/ring of fire moment.”

Generally speaking, MFMers who’d already had their water births wanted to reassure mums-to-be thinking of having one, especially on a couple of key, erm, issues

Do I have to be naked during a water birth?

water birth

In short: no, you don’t have to be naked. You can also wear a bikini top, tankini top or t-shirt if you like.

It seems LOADS of mums-to-be are worried about what to wear on the big day, but the fact is: it’s really up to you whether you wear anything at all.

What you’re wearing during your water birth may well change as your labour goes on, too.

Just ask Jellybabymumdrum, who told us: “I had a tankini all sorted to wear in the pool… didn’t wear anything, and in fact had to be reminded to put some clothes on for when the paramedics arrived.”

While Lamby added: “It’s up to you about clothes, I stripped off fairly early in labour as was so hot and found it easier not to faff with anything when in the bath.”

Nenas also found her swimwear became pretty useless: “I took a tankini but didn’t bother with it in the end, i had completely forgotten about clothing by that point!”

What about if I poo during my water birth?

Another BIG topic was the embarrassing thought of the blood, poop, gunk and general nastiness you might find floating around in the pool – possibly in front of your partner.

But you can’t get around the fact that birthing a baby is a messy business wherever you do it. Luckily, midwives and medical staff are completely, 100% used to it.

So, we want to stress: you don’t need to worry at all about being judged.

In fact, midwives will often make sure the pool stays as clear as possible, as Mummabear-72331 knows:

“When my waters broke, about an hour before I delivered my baby, I had quite a big bloody show,” she shared.

“I was taken out of the bath while it was emptied and refilled with clean water – that took 13 minutes and the pain I felt out of the water whilst resting on the loo was intense!! Much more bearable in the water let me tell you!

“When I felt the urge to push I also remember saying I needed to poo. Which I did but I never saw it.

“The midwife just scooped it out and it was gone (and our sieve from the kitchen was binned LOL)… so your hubby needn’t get involved with that!”

While Baby_B pointed out the water might help you ‘cover up’ any embarrassment.

“There was hardly any mess at all [during my birth]. Yes, you may poo but this is much less embarrassing in water I think.”

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Images: Getty Images

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