For many people, the feeling of being immersed in water is relaxing. Even the sound of water running and the look of water reflecting on walls and ceilings can have calming effects.

If you are committed to birth without drugs, one of the most powerful tools you can use during labor and birth is water. Research shows that water immersion is equal to or better than narcotics for pain relief.

At San Francisco Birth Center, we’ve offered the options to labor and birth in water since we opened, and a large majority of our clients — more than 80 percent — use the birth tubs.

Some birthing parents use the tub only as a comfort measure during labor. SF Birth Center client Misa Grannis said she loved how the water allowed her to rest between contractions.

“I actually took one-and-a-half-minute-long micro naps in between,” Misa shared. “Floating in the water, my muscles were able to fully relax, albeit briefly. It was a wonderful little break! 

Tanish Peelgrane also labored in the water. “Back labor was making positioning tricky,” she recalled. Like many folks once it came to pushing, her needs changed. “We needed all the help of gravity to get that baby girl out, so I climbed out after a while.”

Other San Francisco Birth Center clients prefer to stay in the tub for birth. Hannah Addario-Berry, fondly remembers birthing both of her babies in the same tub, while Jacqueline Sharma referred to her SFBC water birth as “a beautiful experience.”

“My husband and I got in the tub after the baby was crowning, and my husband was able to catch our little guy,” Jacqueline said.

The water birth experience at San Francisco Birth Center

We have a tub in each of our two birthing suites at SF Birth Center, and they are specifically designed for comfort during labor and birth.

Bigger than a standard bathtub, our hard-sided birth tubs are deep, so you can completely immerse yourself. You can change positions, and your partner can join you.

Our tubs also have shower heads, allowing for water to flow on your back, shoulders, or neck, for example, if you find that comforting.

If you want to have an unmedicated birth but perhaps you’re new to the idea of water birth, you may be wondering, “Why would I want to try water birth? And what are the benefits?” 

Benefits of laboring in the water

Even if clients use the tub only for labor and not for the actual birth, there are many benefits. 

Hydrotherapy helps clients cope with pain, so they are less likely to transfer to a hospital for pain relief. However, the timing of getting into the tub is important. We encourage clients not to get in too soon; active labor is usually the best time.

We often hear our clients say something like, “Ah, this is so awesome!” when they get into the tub. They feel immediate relief from being immersed in the water.

Laboring in the water also has been shown to reduce anxiety, lead to better fetal positioning in the pelvis, and help the cervix to dilate more rapidly, shortening the first stage of labor.

Benefits of birthing in the water

In the city of San Francisco, we are the only freestanding birth center. We’re also the only facility in town that allows you to have a water birth.

In addition to pain relief there are several benefits associated with water birth, according to recent research. 

In one of its signature articles, Evidence Based Birth (EBB) does a great job summarizing the potential benefits of water birth:

  • Less use of artificial oxytocin
  • Higher rates of normal vaginal birth
  • Less use of episiotomy
  • Higher rates of intact perineum, especially in high-episiotomy settings
  • Lower rates of third- and fourth-degree tears, especially in high-episiotomy settings
  • Greater satisfaction with the birth experience
  • Lower rates of postpartum hemorrhage

Safety concerns about water birth

Whenever the topic of water birth comes up, one of the first questions we hear is, “But is that safe?”

The short answer is yes. The research shows that water birth is safe for both mother and baby. The benefits for moms are clear, and there is no evidence of harm to babies born in water.

Jenna Shaw-Battista, PhD, RN, NP, CNM, FACNM, is a midwife who practices in Davis, California, not too far from San Francisco. She is one of the foremost researchers on water birth and was an expert reviewer for the EBB water birth article, so we asked her to help us with the information we are presenting here.

It’s important to note that the safety and benefit of laboring in water is widely accepted among birth workers, medical professionals, and hospitals.

Birthing in the water, however, is still debated in these circles. Jenna spoke to some of the most common safety concerns. Keep in mind that the following risks are what the evidence has shown in case reports. Case reports are considered the lowest level of research evidence.

Umbilical cord snap

While umbilical cord snap is a possible complication if you pull the baby from the water too quickly, it is rare. To protect against this, as suggested by Evidence Based Birth, we make sure not to place too much traction on the cord when guiding the infant out of the water.

Water aspiration

Fetuses live in fluid in the womb, so welcoming a baby into water is a similar environment for them. While we used to believe that the initiation of a baby’s first breath came from being squeezed in the birth canal, we now know that the amniotic fluid in a baby’s lungs gets reabsorbed in the days preceding labor, thanks to hormonal influence.

In addition, we have learned that babies take their first breath because of a change in temperature. That’s why it’s important the water in a birth tub is the same temperature as the birthing parent’s body — 97-100 degrees Fahrenheit during labor and 99-100 during birth.

When the water is the correct temperature, the baby’s normal physiological response will be to breathe when he or she is lifted from the water.

And most importantly, babies are only in the water for a moment before they are lifted into their parents’ arms.

Infection in mothers and babies

Bacteria can grow in tubs, especially plastic tubing. At San Francisco Birth Center, our tubs are easy to clean, and they don’t have jets. These factors reduce the chance of bacteria growing, thereby lessening the possibility of infections.

Takeaways about water birth

In talking with Jenna, one of the best points she made was that water birth is not for everyone. It’s just a tool in the toolkit. If bathing calms you, you can try it for pain relief.

Also, just like birth center birth, water birth is for healthy, low-risk people who anticipate a healthy baby.

Jenna explained it this way: “There are now decades of research demonstrating that when you restrict water birth to healthy women with babies, who you expect to be healthy, there are no worse outcomes for them when they are in a controlled environment with a trained attendant.”

Jenna herself birthed both of her babies at home in the water. “I never would’ve done that if I found anything that said it wasn’t safe,” Jenna shared. “And I have read literally everything that’s been written about water birth.”

The bottom line is that water birth research says  there is no harm, so why not give it a try at San Francisco Birth Center? If you don’t like it, you can get out. And if you’re not convinced birthing in the water is the right choice for you, it’s OK to use the tub for coping in labor and then get out for birth.

For more information about water birth at San Francisco Birth Center, email us or give us a call at 415-780-0848! We’d love to talk to you about the options for laboring and birthing in the water.