Do water births help ease the pain of childbirth?

What is a water birth?

A water birth means that some of your labour, or delivery, or both, happen whilst you’re in a birthing pool filled with warm water. Because warm water can help you relax, it can make contractions seem less painful. If your pregnancy is going well, and you are healthy, you can plan to have a water birth at home or in hospital.

Can anyone have a water birth?

As every mum-to-be is different, your midwife is the best person to talk to, as they’ll know your medical history. In general, as long as you’re having a straightforward pregnancy and are at full term with your baby in the head-down position, you should be able to have a water birth.  

What are the benefits of having a water birth?

We’ve all enjoyed the lovely sensation of sinking into a lovely warm bath after a stressful day, so why not harness the relaxing power of warm water to help you during labour? Warm water eases aches and pains, so it follows that a water birth can give you natural pain relief.   Aside from helping to keep you calm, which helps you to take deeper, longer breaths, there are other pluses:

  • The natural pain relief of warm water may mean you need fewer pain-relieving drugs, or only at a later stage
  • In active labour, the water may help your body to release more oxytocin, the labour hormone that helps makes contractions strong and regular
  • The water may also reduce the release of adrenaline (the stress hormone)
  • The natural buoyancy of the water makes you feel lighter, which can only be a good thing when you’re so heavily pregnant!
  • They may also help reduce the risk of tears to the vagina, meaning you might not need stitches  

How do I plan for a water birth?

If you’d like to have a water birth, let your midwife know, so they can help you plan. If you’re planning a home birth, your midwife will be able to tell you about hiring or buying a birth pool. If you’re planning on giving birth in hospital, they’ll know if your local hospital has the right facilities. Here are some questions you may want to ask:

  • Does my local hospital have a birthing pool?
  • If so, how likely am I to be able to use it?
  • How many women use the birthing pool during early labour each year?
  • And how many actually give birth in water?
  • What would happen if the birthing pool isn’t available?  

I want to have a water birth at home

You’ll need to hire or buy a birthing pool to use at home. The pools are much bigger than a bath, as the water needs to comfortably cover your shoulders. Your partner may need to shift some furniture around, to make space, so measure carefully. When they’re filled with water, birth pools are really heavy too, so check the instructions or talk to the company that you’re hiring or buying it from. The last thing you need is a collapsing floor when you’re going into labour!

Your birthing partner will need to make sure the pool’s filled up in good time; as they’re so big, it can take a while. They’ll also need to keep it at the right temperature of 37°, so you and the baby will be comfortable. Having a practice run a few weeks before your due date could help save nerves on the day.  

Some pools have their own filtration and heating systems, so you can set it up, knowing it will be ready when you need it. You might need more than one birthing partner to make sure there are enough people to support you.  

If you don’t want the expense of a birthing pool, you could also lie in a warm bath before you go to hospital, to help ease pain during the first stage of labour. Make the bath as deep as you can by blocking up the overflow, and use a jug to pour water over your tummy. Or get your partner to pour – it might help him relax too, by giving him something to concentrate on.  

I like the sound of it, but would rather be in hospital

Many maternity units have a birthing pool, but unfortunately they won’t be able to guarantee it will be free when you need it. Try and call the labour ward when your labour has started, to let them know you’ll be coming in, and would like a birthing pool if possible. Some rooms have ensuite baths, so that could help give you some relief too.  

Can I use other pain relief as well as a water birth?

You can use gas and air in a birthing pool, but if you want a TENS machine or Pethidine injection, you’ll have to get out of the water. Some women, like Community member murphyshep, didn’t need anything else:  

“I had my little one five weeks ago and I highly recommend a water birth. I had to be monitored prior to getting in to the pool, but as soon as I got in the pain was bearable with only gas and air. My partner delivered him with assistance from the midwife team. I was convinced I was having all pain relief while at home with contractions, but as soon as I got into water I only needed gas and air.”  

Are there any risks?

Back in 2006, The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and the Royal College of Midwives said they both “support labouring in water for healthy women with uncomplicated pregnancies”. Their joint statement continued, “The evidence to support underwater birth is less clear but complications are seemingly rare.”

The 2017 National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) guideline states: 'There is insufficient high-quality evidence to either support or discourage giving birth in water.'

How can I find out more?

If you’re undecided about the best place to have your baby, the Which? Birth Choice tool  could help. Your antenatal classes should cover water births.

Do water births help ease the pain of childbirth?