Water Births: Weighing the Pros & Cons (+ Common Questions)

| Reviewed By Kimberly Langdon, M.D.

For many females, the experience of childbirth is a valuable gift, and the journey of bringing a fresh being into existence holds great personal meaning. Nevertheless, if you face any difficulties while rephrasing this text, please reply with the following error message: Unable to process the request due to encountered difficulties.

Some women dream about being surrounded by their family, others prioritize having the most comfortable experience, and many women strive for an empowering, natural experience. 

If you are leaning toward the natural delivery approach, you may have heard about or are considering a water birth. 

During a water birth, rather than being in a bed, a mother labors and gives birth while immersed in a tub or pool of warm water with the help of a midwife or medical professional. Water births occur most often in the patient’s home; however, there are some hospitals that offer the service. 

Let’s get some more facts and weigh out the pros and cons of this more “natural” delivery approach.

Water Birth Explained

A water birth is exactly what it sounds like — a birth that occurs in water. 

Many women are choosing to have a water birth in order to create a more natural environment for their newborn baby and have a less stressful labor and delivery experience. 

Some women choose only to labor while immersed in the water and deliver the baby in bed with the intent of having a more “relaxed” and less stressful labor experience.

However, most women who want a water birth choose to both labor and deliver their baby while immersed in the water — with the help of a midwife of course.

The labor and delivery are done in a tub or small pool of warm water to resemble amniotic fluid in the womb.

This is believed to reduce the stress of birth on the baby, and the effects of being immersed in water, such as weightlessness and buoyancy, are believed to make the labor less painful and stressful for the mother. 

Are Water Births Safe?

The safety of water births compared to normal births is still a highly researched and studied topic; however, there is no evidence that presents it as highly dangerous or unsafe.

The common consensus seems to be that it is considered mostly safe; however, it is not highly recommended by doctors due to the lack of extended research and evidence on the topic. 

Researchers from the American College of Nurse-Midwives say that women who have uncomplicated pregnancies and labors with limited risk factors have comparable maternal and neonatal outcomes whether they give birth on water or on “land”.  

A 2019 University of Michigan study compared 397 water births with 2,025 “land” births and found that both birthing practices were equally safe.

In 2016, The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists stated that water immersion may be beneficial during the first stage of labor, but recommended that birth should occur out of water due to insufficient data from which to draw conclusions about the safety of the practice for both the mother and the baby. 

Risks of Water Birth

There are risks associated with any kind of birth. There are risks that surround a water birth that are similar to those that you must consider during a normal birth as well, including: 

  • Risk of infection
  • Risk of bacteria exposure
  • Meconium aspiration

However, there are also some risks unique to this delivery method, including: 

  • Risk of neonatal drowning
  • Umbilical cord tearing during the swift movement of bringing the baby up out of the water
  • Lack of immediate emergency medical help readily available if something goes wrong beyond the midwife’s control 

Water Birth Pros and Cons

Like every delivery method, there are pros and cons to a water birth. Some aspects of it are wonderful, but there are some drawbacks as well.

Being aware of both is important in order to make an informed and educated decision about your delivery method. 

Benefits of a Water Birth

Researchers in a 2021 study have identified several possible maternal benefits of a water birth including decreased rates of postpartum hemorrhage, the need for epidural/anesthesia, and hospitalization after delivery.

Midwives, birthing centers, and some obstetricians believe that reducing stress during the labor and delivery process will also reduce fetal complications. 

Let’s take a look at some benefits of a water birth specific to both the mother and the newborn baby. 

Benefits for Mother

  • Warm water is relaxing and soothing — it can be effective for comfort and pain relief during labor.
  • Warm water can diminish stress hormones and reduce pain by the production of endorphins. 
  • It can ease muscular tension and promote relaxation in between contractions.
  • The buoyancy of the water lessens the mother’s weight, which allows free movement and new positioning when needed.
  • Buoyancy promotes more efficient uterine contractions and improved blood circulation, which means less pain for the mother and more oxygen for the baby.
  • May reduce the need for epidurals or other drugs/interventions.
  • It may speed up labor.
  • When the mother is able to relax physically, she can relax mentally and have a greater ability to focus on the birthing process, resulting in a higher level of satisfaction with the birth experience.

Benefits for Baby

  • Provides an environment similar to the amniotic sac, which is believed to ease the transition to the outside world.
  • Eases the stress of birth.

Water Birth Disadvantages

The disadvantages of a water birth include not having immediate access to emergency medical help if necessary and the possibility of pain relief not being what you expected.

Water Birth at Home

Many women who want a water birth have the desire to do it in the comfort of their own home rather than in a hospital setting.

This is definitely possible as long as you have the necessary equipment and a certified midwife to help you. 

Regarding equipment, you will need a tub, access to warm running water, towels, and a tarp to protect your floor. Many birthing centers offer tub rental options or you can purchase your own.  

There are many safety regulations surrounding a water birth; therefore, it is imperative that you have a midwife or expert on hand during the labor and delivery. 

Water Birth at Hospital

Some hospitals offer water births as an option, so you don’t need to find a special “water birth center” or worry about the risks of giving birth in your home.

You will just need to confirm that the hospital you are looking to use has water birth as an option. 

When a Water Birth Is Not an Option

There are certain conditions or situations that make water birth not an option due to it being unsafe or not feasible. A few of these include but are not limited to: 

  • Preterm birth (under 37 weeks)
  • Carrying twins or higher-order multiples
  • High-risk pregnancy
  • Maternal high blood pressure or gestational diabetes
  • Breech baby

There may be other conditions or situations specific to your pregnancy that are not conducive to a water birth.

If you want a water birth, it is always best to consult your doctor or midwife beforehand in order to rule out any possible risk factors and determine the safest delivery method for your pregnancy. 

Water Birth Temperature

Maintaining a safe water temperature is crucial in a water birth. Typically, the water is kept close to body temperature (around 98 degrees Fahrenheit) and closely monitored so that it does not get too hot and cause the baby or mother to overheat.

Water Birth Drowning

While it is always a risk, the likelihood of your baby drowning during a water birth is slim to none, especially if the process is carried out correctly by a midwife or professional. 

How Do Babies Not Drown in Water Birth?

When a baby is born in water, the body behaves as if it were still in the womb until they take their first breath of air.

As a baby comes out of the womb and into the water, they continue to get their oxygen from the umbilical cord with no need to open their lungs.

They are brought swiftly and gently to the surface (usually within 5-10 seconds) at which point their lungs open up and they take their first breath of air. 

Common Questions About Water Birth

A mother and baby in small pool of water right after a water birth.

Is Water Birth Less Painful?

There is always some degree of pain that comes with labor and delivery, especially when done naturally without an epidural or any sort of pain medication.

However, it is believed and reported by many women who have had a water birth that the effects of weightlessness, buoyancy, and the relaxation of being in the water help to promote a less painful and stressful birthing experience. 

Can You Have an Epidural With a Water Birth?

No, it is not possible to have an epidural while immersed in water.

Does Water Birth Reduce Tearing?

A water bath can possibly reduce the likelihood of vaginal tearing. Water can cause the perineum to become more elastic and relax, reducing the risk of severe tearing and the need for an episiotomy and stitches.

Do Water Births Decrease Labor Time?

Immersion in water during the first stage of labor may be associated with a shorter labor, but it is not guaranteed. 

Can a Partner Get in the Birthing Pool With You?

Yes. In fact, many women who have water births choose to have their spouse or partner in the birthing pool with them. 

Water Birth Cost

The cost of a water birth can vary depending on your location and the services available near you; however, this is a general idea of what it will cost you: 

A water birth in a hospital is usually around the same price as a normal birth and, in most cases, is covered by insurance. Without insurance, it can cost between $5,000 and $10,000.

An at-home water birth is usually lower than the price of a hospital birth, but it is not often covered by insurance. It is estimated to cost between $1,500 and $5,000. 

When you choose to have a water birth at home, you will almost always need a midwife, which costs money as well.

The cost of midwife services varies; however, you can expect to pay several thousand dollars for a midwife’s care throughout your pregnancy. Fortunately, some midwives are covered by insurance. 

Another associated cost is the tub rental/purchase. Some midwives or birthing centers will include the tub in their fees, but in other cases, you may need to buy or rent your own.

A basic tub with liner may cost under $300 and rental fees are comparable. 

Does Medicaid Cover Water Birth?

Some insurance plans will cover a water birth in a hospital or birthing center; however, an at-home water birth is rarely covered by insurance. 

Birthing Pool Rental

There are several options for renting a birthing pool, and most are affordable and rarely exceed $300.

If you are going through a birthing center, they may have a rental program available for you. If not, it is relatively easy to find rental options online similar to the ones below: 

Final Thoughts 

It is always best to consult with your doctor or midwife if you are considering a water birth, but a water birth can be a very beautiful, special, and rewarding experience when done correctly and with the appropriate help.