Water births - or the practice of giving birth to a baby in a tub or pool of water - became popular in this country in the 1990s. Advocates claim that water births can shorten labor and ease pain for the mother while making the transition from inside the womb to out an easier one for the baby.  But a new report took a closer look at these claims and found them unsubstantiated.  The expert panel even went one step further and suggested that water births are not even safe, or at least safe enough for them to recommend.

The report, which was written by a panel of experts from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists examined the available data on water births. The panel members agreed that there is good evidence that it is safe for a woman to labor while immersed in a tub of water.  But they felt that the risks were too great to recommend that women actually give birth while in the water.

The report drew a clear line between the use of water in early and late stages of labor.  Studies have shown that when used in the initial stages of labor, water immersion can help laboring mothers relax, easing pain, reducing the need for epidurals, and even shortening labor.  But women who actually gave birth in the water did not see additional health benefits.  They still had perineal trauma or tears, and they still needed Cesarean sections at about the same rate as women who were not immersed in water. But water births were linked to a number of risks for both moms and babies, such as infections, hyper or hypothermia, and umbilical cord ruptures, which can lead to blood loss and shock.

It's this risk over reward ratio that the panel used when making their recommendation to allow pregnant moms to labor in water, but not give birth there.  This recommendation has not been warmly received by many nurse-midwives who see water births as a standard option in midwife-assisted labor and delivery. Jenna Shaw-Battista, director of the nurse midwifery education program at the University of California, San Francisco is completing a study of 1,200 women who labored or birthed in water.  In an interview with NPR, Shaw-Battista countered the recommendation, saying "given the bulk of the data, I don't think we should use case reports to reject options that women are currently enjoying."  

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Water births not safe, say experts. Midwives disagree
Water immersion may be OK for labor, but not for delivery, says panel of pediatricians and OBGYNS.