by Lakshmi Bertram
It’s a funny question to me, “Why have a water birth?” I always want to ask, “Why not have a water birth?” When I think about it, water birth has so many benefits and makes so much sense, I wonder why more women don’t choose it.
All five of my children were born in water. Every one of them was an experience I now look back on with fondness and great pride. How wonderful it has been to be able to bring my babies into the world in a way that was kind and gentle. How wonderful for me not to have to suffer unbearably to do it.
I first heard about water birth one week before my first baby was due. Nineteen years old and convinced I wanted to go natural, water birth offered me something I had given up as only available through drugs: the promise of less pain. The women who had tried it had consistently and unanimously reported that their contractions were far less painful while laboring in the water. And they all said that having had a water birth once, they could not see giving birth in any other way.
This was pretty powerful testimony to me. Never one to wait for the science of a thing to catch up before I made up my own mind, I trusted the women before me who had had water births, over medical opinion. They were women like me and they had birthed babies like I was going to. In my opinion that made them the experts on the subject and, thus, the ones I could trust. What I read and what I heard from them is what convinced me to birth in water.
Aside from pain reduction, water birth offered other benefits that were equally appealing. Episiotomies can be avoided, as the water softens the tissues surrounding the perineum, making them more pliable and able to stretch. And labor itself could be shortened – this is being seen over and over again as more women choose water birth. I would still be able to labor as I liked, in any position I chose, with the added benefit of some laboring positions being easier in the water. Squatting on land is a demanding stretch; in water, with gravity diminished, it comes easily and naturally.
Then, of course, there was the baby quotient, which particularly appealed to me. Never had I heard of a gentler entry for a baby coming into this world. I was enchanted by this prospect of being able to bring a baby from unborn to born without ever having to experience the “trauma” of birth. Gently could it be brought forth and gently could it be lifted to the surface to take it’s first breath while mother and father looked down and spoke to welcome it with whispers of love. How perfect and pure it seemed, how kind and gentle! It took only one day and one answered question before I was ready to search out a suitable tub and have a water birth:
“Why doesn’t the baby drown?”
To me this was the obvious concern; after all, anybody who doesn’t consciously hold his or her breath underwater is in fear of drowning. The answer is so logical and so simple. A baby doesn’t drown during a water birth because the baby is already in water in the womb. It takes air for breath and when a baby comes from water into water without the introduction of air, the lungs remain collapsed and no water can enter. Once the baby is brought to the surface and its face hits the air, breath is drawn and life on earth begins. Knowing these facts, it is clear that water birth is a safe way for a baby to be born.
Having chosen to have a water birth, we selected a tub to birth in – an eighty-gallon fiberglass horse and cattle trough – and then settled in to wait the big day.
My first labor came like clockwork, as if it had been lifted from a textbook and applied to me. It began in the early morning, with contractions weak, light, and far apart, and progressed regularly through the day, getting stronger and closer together.
By 9:00 PM, with the arrival of the mucus plug and active labor, I suddenly realized why it’s called labor! These contractions were so strong they seemed to inhabit all of me. Soon, sitting still was impossible, and I began pacing the floor, walking back and forth, back and forth, as countless millions of women have before me, using gravity and movement to help me in this incredible task of birthing my baby.
At some point my husband and midwife began to fill the birthing tub and as the sound of the running water filled the room I felt a deep, primal longing. Somewhere inside of me I knew with certainty that the water I heard would sooth and comfort me, and it was at that moment that I realized the power of water birth. The water called to me during my labor, promising help, promising comfort, and I so intensely longed to get in, that I made it part of my loop to walk across to the tub with every pass to see how much it had filled.
Finally, it was deep enough. I stepped in and sank down. I will never forget how it felt to ease into the warm water. Immediately it surrounded me like a warm down quilt, holding me close, supporting me. I relaxed, sinking deeper, and noticing how the pains, which had been shooting down my legs and had held like a tight band across my abdomen, had vanished.
In that warm, supporting environment, I sighed, sinking deeper. With the next contraction, I breathed deeply and slowly, marveling at how much better I felt laboring in the water. I fell into the steady rhythm of birth, breathing through each pain and relaxing completely in between, resting so fully that all the tension left me and I could focus, instead, on helping my body to work. I imagined my cervix opening with each contraction and I imagined my body completely rejuvenating in between.
For five hours I labored in that ebb and flow. Using opening sounds like, “Ohhh” and, “Ahhh”, to keep my focus when the pains came harder.
Through transition I breathed hard and swayed, rocking back and forth to ease the pain. The transition pains were the hardest, as they are in almost every birth. I remember thinking, “Ok, I’m ready to be done, now, I don’t want to do this anymore.” And, soon after, I was using a few of my favorite four-letter combinations to express the intensity of what I felt during my contractions. Transition was short, thank goodness, only a half-hour or so, and then I was ready to push.
At a lecture recently, a woman asked me, “How did you know when to push in the water?” It took me a minute before I even understood the question. In the hospital, where she had had her first baby, the attendant had told her when to push and when not to push, based on what they thought from the external, observer’s point of view.
During my first birth, I just pushed when I felt like it. And I really felt like it. To not push would have been the difficult thing to do. My body knew what it wanted; all I had to do was participate. And participate I did, taking a deep breath, holding it, and bearing down, working harder than I ever had in my life.
With transition over, I felt powerful once again. The swearing had stopped, the feeling that I was ready to quit had gone, and I felt a renewed excitement. My baby was almost here!
After 20 minutes, he was born: my first water baby. My midwife lifted him gently as he came out and laid him in my arms. I marveled at him, completely enthralled. How sweet he was, so calm and peaceful. He looked around wide-eyed, listening to our soft voices, gently stretching out in this new womb. He never even cried, he had no need. Nothing had frightened him, nothing had hurt him, and no one had taken him from the only person he had ever known: his mother.
Even though he was good-sized baby at 8 lbs. 14 oz., I sustained only a little tear, which took one stitch, due to pushing both of his shoulders out at once. With later water births of babies 9 lbs., 8 lbs. 11 oz., and 8 lbs. 6 oz., I had no tearing.
As I held my new son in my arms and watched him unfolding, I was overjoyed, ecstatic! I had done it! I had made it through the most intense and challenging experience of my life, and I felt wonderful because of it. Now, as I held the reward of my efforts, wide awake and aware in my arms, I felt so full – full of the power and the miracle of birth, full of the beauty of life and its perfection.
I would not have missed that moment for the world. It was then that I knew what it meant to be a mother, to love someone with more heart than you knew you possessed, and with more love than you ever thought possible. Magic happened for me in that moment which transformed me forever, as I became that most honored of beings: a Mother.
Childbirth is always challenging. It is no small thing to bring a new soul into the world, no small thing to suffer so that another may have life. But birth is not meant to be unbearable. We are not meant to suffer so completely that the experience leaves us feeling less of a woman, instead of more.
Natural birth has always allowed for a woman to keep her power and her strength for the birth. Water birth allows much more. It allows less pain and less suffering, and nurtures one’s belief in oneself.
Knowing all of this, having experienced it for myself, what I still can’t understand is:
“Why not have a water birth?”