Attraction to water in labour is universal. For those women who have a shower, bath or are lucky enough to live close by to water, they seem to gravitate to water in pregnancy and in labour. Not all facilities offer the option of a waterbirth, and it is certainly something that women need to ask about when shopping around for a place to give birth. In tropical countries, women often give birth close to a river, lake or the sea. The aborigines of the west coast of Australia used to walk in shallow water before giving birth on the beach. Japanese tradition shows that women living in certain southern island used to give birth in the sea. In fact, oral history suggests that the use of water during labour and birth under water were probably known among people as diverse as the ancient Egyptians, the Indians in Panama, some Pacific islanders and the Maoris of New Zealand. At the beginning of the last century, when most babies were born at home, the father used to spend hours boiling water. This ritual could be seen as an unconscious attempt to include water in the process of birth. Perhaps because we begin our lives surrounded in water (amniotic fluid), this basic familiarity stays with us throughout our lives.
Michel Odent writes: “All over the world, water has always been seen as the ultimate female principle, the Mother of all things. For example, both the letter M, the ‘Mother letter’, and its inverted form W, are descended from Egyptian ideograms representing water in the form of waves. Is this a key to understanding how water can influence the way human babies are born?
Human beings have instincts. This is the main lesson we have learned from the swimming behaviour of babies. It is now categorically known that babies, whatever their ethnic origin, can automatically propel themselves under water, but appear to lose this instinctive ability around the age of four months. In fact, the primitive brain structures which control automatic behaviours do not vanish – they simply become inhibited, controlled and altered by the gigantic development of our new, rational brain, the neocortex.”
It is known that the most active part of her body in labour, is her primitive brain. The primitive brain, which governs instincts, is also considered to be a gland that releases hormones. A woman cannot give birth without releasing a certain number of hormones – oxytocin, endorphins and prolactin. All these hormones are produced directly or indirectly by the primitive brain. This is why many refer to birth as a ‘primitive experience’, because the new brain is overtaken by the primitive part of the brain.
Michel Odent again writes: “By understanding the roles of the two brains we are now in a position to see that if water can make giving birth easier, it is by harmonizing the relationship between the old and the new brain. But the effect of water during labour is better understood if we refer first to observations made by midwives. If these observations are brought together, the conclusion is that each time the neocortex is stimulated, the birth process becomes more difficult. Even simple things such as talking in straightforward terms, to reassure, to encourage, or to explain something, or asking such questions as ‘What does your husband do?’ all stimulate the neocortex. Sensitive midwives don’t talk a lot; if they have something to say, they use simple words or body language.
Sight is the most intellectual of our senses, so another way of stimulating the neocortex, and therefore making the birth more difficult, is to keep the labour
room brightly lit. Indeed, simply observing the labouring woman will stimulate her neocortex. Privacy is a basic need during labour, and is common to all mammals. It is ironic that non-human mammals, whose neocortex is not as developed as ours, know better than us what to do to avoid harmful situations. All of them seek privacy. Privacy, the state in which we feel unobserved, is subjective. The main prerequisite to reach this state is to feel secure. Then, our neocortex can more easily take a back seat.”
I have seen, many times, that women ‘change’ when they transfer to a birthing pool. They quite literally ‘go to another planet.’ They cannot talk. They close their eyes, often sigh, and appear very relaxed. The cervix, very often, will dilate quite quickly. It is important to remember to keep the room quiet, dim lighting and definitely no talking. Some women will instinctively get out of the bath to birth, many stay in the water, trusting that this is the best place for their baby to be born. Women reach a state of consciousness in which their fear is removed completely, allowing their bodies to relax, and their babies born gently and calmly. Women report feeling exhilarated and ecstatic about birthing in this way, also knowing that the baby has experienced no trauma.
Another benefit of water is the elasticity that water has on the tissues of the perineum, reducing the incidence of tearing.
During the birth, babies often open their eyes and move in all directions, using their limbs to work their way to the surface and their mothers embrace. They generally do not cry. It is a wonderful, gentle transition for the baby from one water environment to another. Babies do not breathe until they are out of the water.
The babies that are born in water go on to enjoy water and swimming classes with their parents.