Waterbirth – What’s the Big Deal?

While attending the American College of Nurse Midwives (ACNM) Michigan Affiliate conference in January of this year, I had the pleasure of hearing Joanne Bailey, PhD, CNM, speak on “Hydrotherapy and Waterbirth: Evidence, Outcomes and Challenges.”

According to Dr. Bailey, the first documented waterbirth occurred in France in 1803. It wasn’t until the 1970’s and 1980’s that waterbirth started to become more popular in Europe and Russia. In 1983, Michel Odent described 100 stories of waterbirth, mostly positive. In 1989, Barbara Harper, who had studied waterbirth in Russia, held the first waterbirth conference in the U.S. She later went on to found Waterbirth International.

Despite such a long, successful history, there are only three options for someone who wishes to have a waterbirth in West Michigan today. The first is to deliver at home. Those choosing a homebirth may rent or purchase a pool that can be set-up in their home and in which they may labor and/or give birth in. The second option is to choose to give birth in a free-standing birth center. The Simply Born Birth House, in Grand Rapids, has deep tubs to labor and birth comfortably in. The third option is for rebels. If a provider is knowledgeable about how to safely manage a waterbirth, the birthing person may refuse to get out of a hospital tub and deliver underwater.

Why is waterbirth so difficult to access within a hospital? Rebecca Dekker of Evidence Based Birth asked herself that same question while delving into the research and case studies that led to the 2014 joint ACOG (American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists) and AAP (American Academy of Pediatrics) statement against waterbirth. Her conclusion was that they based their decision on limited, isolated cases and not on the larger body of evidence suggesting that waterbirth is safe.

While all West Michigan hospitals have policies against waterbirth, this is not the case everywhere. In fact, Dr. Bailey tells the story of how the first waterbirths occurred at University of Michigan Health System in 1996 as the result of a consumer-driven effort. Currently, 16.4% of the births there occur underwater.

How about you? Did you have a waterbirth and if so, how did you achieve it? Please share your story!