Warm Water: The Liquid “Epidural”
The benefits of warm water during labor and birth are numerous. Warm water used in labor and birth reduces the hours and stress of labor, offers bodily support and relaxes the mother, helping to ease the baby’s journey. The baby makes its transition to breathing air in a familiar, gentle medium. It offers the woman the chance to move more freely and take up any position she wants and also reduces her energy consumption. As is well known, if the labor is easier on the mother, it will be easier on the baby.
Heat dilates blood vessels and speeds the removal of the painful by-products of muscle work. Actually, both heat and cold can reduce muscle spasms and increase your pain threshold. In labor, a good long soak in a pool or bath or warm water can promote overall relaxation and decrease tension and pain.
Most doctors recommend you avoid the tub if your water has broken, especially in a hospital where bacteria is more prevalent. Other practitioners believe that it’s safe to take a bath in your own clean tub because it contains household bacteria to which you are already resistant. In fact, a Danish study revealed no increased infection in women who bathed throughout labor. Another study proved that water does not enter the vagina when a woman remains upright in the tub.
Dr. Michel Odent became famous for using a warm water pool at his clinic in Pithiviers, France, to help women relax in labor. Odent wrote that water gave a laboring woman these benefits:
· Water reduces a woman’s inhibitions toward giving birth by diminishing catecholamines, the stress hormones.
· Water allows women to enter a different, more primitive level of consciousness.
· Water promotes relaxation, especially if the room is semi-dark and sounds are reduced.
· Water makes contractions more effective and less painful, thereby shortening labor.
Occasionally a shower is sufficient to gain these benefits, particularly if it affords a woman the privacy Odent believes is essential to the laboring process.
Soaking in warm water during labor can be invaluable for a woman with painful contractions, especially if she’s experiencing back labor. It is not uncommon that labor stalls at around five centimeters or transition, just before full dilation, are the times when many women ask for painkilling drugs. Dr. Odent observed that if a woman waits to get into the pool until she is five centimeters dilated, her cervix often dilates completely within about one or two hours after she gets into the water.
Odent discovered other benefits of water included no episiotomies and only superficial perineal lacerations Babies born underwater experienced a gentle transition to life outside the womb and seemed to cry less or at all. Odent concluded that underwater birth did not seem to pose any serious risks for the healthy mother or her baby.
Dr. Michael Rosenthal, who has assisted at almost 800 water births at the Family Birthing Center in Upland, California, comments on the different reactions of doctors and mothers. “Pregnant women rarely ask why one would use a bath in labor; physicians usually do.”
Women who actively seek out underwater birth for their babies report resting in a tub of water heated to around 100 degrees and easing their babies out while still surrounded by warm water. Adherents of underwaterbirth say it reduces birth stress and unnecessary interventions for both mother and baby.
Other forms of water therapy during labor include soaking the feet or hands in a basin of warm water, hot compresses applied to the lower back to alleviate back pain, or a hot water bottle or heating pad placed where you need them the most; on your lower abdomen or groin, your back, your upper thighs, or your perineum. One mother says, “During labor, I sat crossed-legged with an overstuffed hot water bottle at the small of my back. It felt great.”
In many hospital birthing rooms and home deliveries, the woman’s companion or birth attendant frequently applies hot compresses to her perineum to ease the intense stretching that takes place during birth. One mother recalls, “Tim boiled hot water for the compresses which the midwife applied while I was pushing. This felt wonderful and it helped me to relax and stretch those muscles that allowed the baby to be born without any tearing.”
More and more women and men are demanding the use of water (hydrotherapy) to achieve pain relief without the risks associated with drugs, and also to establish a soothing environment for their newborn’s entry into the world. Water provides a wondrous alternative to drugs during labor. To birthing women, water is like a liquid “epidural.”