I run a waterbirth workshop every 3 months for the NCT – it’s good fun and the parents always learn “things they didn’t know they didn’t know”. I have an old borrowed Birth Pool in a Box and I try to encourage the pregnant mums to kick off their shoes, get in the pool and see how it feels. They don’t always accept the challenge, especially if they are wearing skirts…but it’s useful to have a chance to see if you really like being in a birth pool.
One question that often comes up is “Why doesn’t the baby drown?” usually from an embarrassed dad-to-be who is afraid this might be a “stupid question” (there is NO SUCH THING AS A STUPID QUESTION from an expectant or new parent, by the way).
Firstly, in late pregnancy, your baby practises breathing movements in the womb. But about 48 hours before you go into labour, these practise sessions come to an end. So there isn’t any danger of your baby breathing in the fluids.
Secondly, you know how if a baby releases meconium in the womb (the first poo) then there is a risk of the baby suffering meconium aspiration – in other words, inhaling it? The interesting fact is that not ALL babies, not by a long way, who have meconium in the amniotic fluid have meconium aspiration. They have a way of preventing it from becoming a disaster.
Babies have chemoreceptors at the back of the larynx which close on contact with a substance that is different from amniotic fluid. The water in the birth pool is sufficiently different from amniotic fluid to cause this reaction, which is called the dive reflex.
So as the baby floats up to the surface of the water in the birth pool he or she does not experience the reflex of trying to take a breath.
Wonderfully, babies possess the dive reflex for several months after birth which is why photographers are able to take astonishing photos like the ones at the top of this post, which were taken by my lovely hypnobirthing client Stephanie, who as well as being an expert deep-sea diver is also a brilliant physiotherapist working with post-baby mums. Stephanie had a powerful but calm hypnobirth, during which she stayed relaxed even though her husband Chuong (that’s him holding baby Zola in the picture) was on a plane and rushing through airport security yelling “My wife’s having a baby!” (Admit it – there is a little part of all of us that has always wanted to do that!)
One couple who came to my waterbirth workshop recently said that they used to enjoy swimming sessions with their first child when he was a baby, from the age of 4 months (when the standard initial vaccination programme is finished in the UK) and especially watching him blithely swimming underwater without a care in the world, swimming from mum to dad and back again through the water.
Not far from where I live in London there is a Baby Spa where parents and babies can swim together. For babies who haven’t yet had their full immunisation programme, they have deep basins – about the size and shape of a large butler sink – in which babies can enjoy floating and splashing about.
The third physiological reason why the water-birth baby doesn’t drown is more complicated. There is a built in response to the birth process which involves the baby actually lacking oxygen as he or she is born. This isn’t a bad thing, it is totally normal and a fascinating side-effect of it is that it causes apnea and swallowing, not breathing or gasping.
But if it is prolonged way, way beyond normal then the baby’s first response on leaving the mum’s body might be to gasp which would mean inhaling water into the lungs. So if the midwife monitoring the baby’s heartbeat notices the signs that tell her that the baby has been suffering the expected lack of oxygen for too long, she would ask the mum to get out of the water to birth her baby on land, just in case.
Statistically, waterbirth is too rare for reliable figures to be available, but it seems the number of cases of babies actually drowning at waterbirths is statistically tiny.