I know I'm not the only person who's ever been terrified of childbirth.
As with many topics I know nothing about, it scared me to think that so much was unknown and so many things could go wrong. As my pregnancy has progressed, however, and I've been attending pre-natal classes, reading anything I could find about babies, labor and motherhood, I've been surprised by some of the things I've learned.
Who knew that giving birth on your back is the most unnatural position for labor (on all fours or squatting is preferable), since it restricts the space of the pelvis and can impede blood flow to the baby in the placenta? Most visuals I've seen of pregnancy -- admittedly, accumulated via episodes of "ER," "16 and Pregnant" and assorted Hollywood rom-coms -- never tell you that.
Another little-known fact? Giving birth in the water is meant to be one of the most calming and relaxing ways to go through labor, and all mothers who manage to do it seem absolutely thrilled with the experience.
Now, let me dispel you of the idea that I'm hooked on water birth because supermodel Gisele Bündchen had her baby in the bathtub and claimed the experience was painless (although hearing about that did make her seem a billion times more irritating).
Nor am I naïvely under the illusion that a water birth involves some gorgeous infinity pool with Whirlpool nozzles. Most importantly, I've accepted that giving birth in the water means I'm not going to get one important thing: medical pain relief. So, how did I go from wanting to be completely sedated to reading Ina May Gaskin's "Spiritual Midwifery" and hoping for a pseudo-psychedelic birthing experience?
For starters, I like the idea that water birth is something you really have to think about in advance. Of course, you can always decide that you want some kind of intervention day-of, but it's my view that mentally preparing for a natural childbirth
means that even if you do need/choose to have an epidural or a C-section, you're at least less terrified psychologically because you've prepared to go it alone. You've mastered all yogic poses conducive to labor, spent hours clenching those pelvic floor muscles and fallen asleep from too many breathing exercises. In my mind, if you can handle the idea of going au naturel, then you can cope with any unknown that makes itself known.
For those not choosing to pull a Gisele and deliver in the bath, water birth usually involves using an inflatable pool in your home or a plastic pool in a birth center or hospital. (Many hospitals in the U.K., where I'm having my baby, are equipped with a pool or two.) According to Waterbirth International
, many other hospitals in the U.S. and around the world have started installing birthing pools, so it's no longer just an option for those who want a home birth. Which, by the way, is insanely now illegal in New York, even in the presence of an experienced midwife
You may wonder what's appealing about being in a slightly tepid pool (the water temp can't go above 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit) surrounded by some (well, your
) unpleasant filth. Much like a bath at the end of a stressful day is known to calm and soothe, submerging yourself in water during labor effectively reduces pain naturally and helps to relax the woman, which ultimately aids the rhythm of contractions and keeps breathing steady. In addition, the body's buoyancy in water facilitates labor because it eases movement for the mother. Not to mention you're working with gravity, not against it.
Laboring in water also reduces the risk of tearing, since water softens the tissues of the perineum. And you can combine other natural pain relief like massage, aromatherapy, and gas and air (popular in the U.K.) with a water birth. People also say that water birth is beneficial for babies -- the pool simulates their lives in utero -- providing a smoother transition into the outside world. And babies have a "dive reflex" which stops them from breathing underwater, so there shouldn't be any worries about baby inhaling water when its born.
Of course, water birth isn't for everyone. Anything that even slightly risks baby or mother's health -- including a twin birth or a breech, pre-eclampsia and other pregnancy problems or a labor that's had to be induced -- means a pool birth is out of the question. Also, the timing has to be just right, since quickly increasing contractions decrease the likelihood that you'll be able to get the pool filled to deliver in time. And considering how many unexpected things can occur when you do eventually go into labor, it's hard to predict and definitively say that a water birth will be a sure thing (just like I'm sure one in three women don't go into the hospital in the U.S. thinking they'll end up with a C-section, but apparently that's what happens
While my water birth isn't a 100 percent guarantee, opening my eyes to alternative modes of delivery is not something I'll regret. And natural childbirth or not, I feel much happier and trusting of myself now that I've expanded my horizons. But maybe I should buy a new bikini top ... just in case.
Jennifer Barton is a frequent Lemondrop contributor who knows how to swim.