When it comes to what you want for your birth experience, you probably have several ideas in mind. Maybe you want to be surrounded with family and friends. Or perhaps you want to limit the experience to yourself, your partner, and your doctor or midwife.

And when it comes to how exactly you’ll labor and deliver your little one, you may be thinking about a water birth. Water births are becoming increasingly popular among women who want to try for a natural birth or use very little pain medication during the birthing process.

But what is a water birth exactly? What are the benefits and the risks of a water birth? Do you need to plan a water birth in advance?

Below we answer these questions and more to help you decide if a water birth may be a fit, so you can talk with your doctor or midwife. They can let you know what steps you can take to finalize your birth plan.

What is a water birth?

Even for those unfamiliar with the term, a water birth is just like it sounds: it’s when part of your labor and the delivery of your baby takes place in a warm body of water, generally a birthing tub or pool.

Benefits of water birth

There are several studies that have been done on the potential benefits of water births. And while more are needed, many women who’ve chosen water births have reported positive effects on their birth experience all the same.

Some women have found giving birth in water to be soothing, helping to ease stress and even calm their newborn baby. These kinds of benefits have also been reported by women who’ve chosen only to labor (but not deliver) in water, which is often called hydrotherapy. Some of the benefits women have reported include:

A more relaxing birth experience

Warm baths are already an everyday way to relax. So, it isn’t hard to imagine why being immersed in a warm bath during labor could have the same relaxation benefits. Some say this may help to lower mom’s blood pressure, making for a calmer experience overall.

A shorter labor

Because of water’s buoyancy, many women find it easier to move and reposition themselves during labor, which can help contractions progress more smoothly.

Less need for pain medication

Since the warm water in the birthing tub can help with relaxation, it may also trigger the release of more endorphins and improve blood flow to the uterine muscles, which can help you naturally handle labor pains.

Feeling more present in the birth experience

Some women find that being able to feel the process of birth, with a manageable level of pain, makes them feel more present and connected to the event.

Risks of water birth

Water birth can be a great choice for moms who want to manage their birth experience naturally, but there are some potential disadvantages to be aware of. Here’s what you should know if you’re asking the question “Are water births safe?”

Water births are only recommended for low-risk pregnancies

Water labors and births are generally only recommended for women with low-risk, single pregnancies, and who have reached term. This is because any complication during labor or delivery can be further complicated by the need to get the mother safely out of the water.

There is limited research on the benefits and risks of water births

While there have been several studies on the potential benefits of hydrotherapy and water births, experts agree that more research needs to be done. Plus, many say more research is especially needed on the potential risks of delivering in water.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) says that while water may provide some benefits in the first stage of labor, there isn’t evidence yet to support benefits for the baby. So, while ACOG says it’s okay to labor in water, they recommend “delivering on land.”

The American College of Nurse-Midwives (ACNM) is more steadfast in the benefits of both laboring and delivering in water. ACNM also acknowledges that more research is needed on the effects of water immersion, specifically during the second and third stages of labor – which includes delivering the baby, as well as the placenta.

Bacteria could lurk in birthing tub water

The time that the baby spends underwater during a water birth is often a top concern for many care professionals.

Since blood, other fluids and solids are a natural part of labor and delivery, babies could be exposed to bacteria if they open their eyes or mouth underwater. And that could possibly lead to infection. However, so far there’s been no evidence of an increase in infection for babies delivered by water birth.

Pain management options can be more limited

If you choose to deliver in water, an epidural and certain other methods won’t be options for pain management. Many women report that being immersed in water can make up for this, but it’s still something to consider as you think about the kind of experience and flexibility you want.

If it turns out that water is not enough to manage your pain and you want to explore other options, it may be possible to have pain medication after getting out of the birthing tub.

Your options will depend on how far into labor you are, and where you choose to give birth. Hospital-based birth centers can support a natural or unmedicated birth, but still provide a lot of flexibility in adjusting your pain management plan as your labor progresses.

Can you have a water birth at a hospital?

Yes, you can have a water birth in a hospital, so you don’t need to find a special “water birth center.” You’ll just need to confirm the hospital you’ve chosen to give birth at offers water birth as an option. All HealthPartners hospitals and birth centers offer water birth.

So, if you’re leaning toward a water birth at a hospital, you’ll likely need to choose a midwife to deliver your baby. Some OB-GYN doctors may have experience with water births, but water births are very common in midwifery.

As for what it may be like on delivery day, know that you can often get into the water whenever you want once contractions start. Your care team will regulate the water temperature, help keep it as clean as possible, and help you move and reposition as needed. Your support partner can stay with you the whole time. And until it’s time to push, they can even be in the water with you.

Like with any birth, your care team will be working to support your birth plan and keep you and your baby safe. If a complication arises, they will work to coordinate the care you and baby need.

If you change your mind and decide you only want to labor in the tub, that’s okay. Usually you can get out at any point during the first stage of labor. Also, sometimes your care team will decide it’s safer for you to move out of the water and deliver in bed.

Otherwise you’ll stay in the tub and once your baby arrives, your midwife will carefully bring them up and into the open air. You’ll get to meet your baby right then and there.

How to plan a water birth

Regardless of where you plan to deliver, a water birth needs to be planned in advance and written into your birth plan. But where do you start? Here are some of the steps you can take:

  • Talk with your doctor or midwife about the pros and cons of water birth, along with any other considerations – Your doctor or midwife can answer any questions you have, and help you understand whether a water birth may be an option based on your goals and risk factors.
  • Come up with a “Plan B” in case something changes, whether it’s your mind or your labor – Laboring and delivering in water is not only about the kind of experience you want, but also how you’ll manage pain. And just in case things don’t go as you hoped, having a backup plan for certain scenarios can help you feel more prepared. Specifically, take some time to learn about the other pain management options that may be available to you, so you know which options you’d be comfortable with if needed.
  • Choose a hospital-based birth center that can support your birth plan (and the unplanned) – For many years, water births were only possible at home or at standalone birth centers. But modern hospital-based birth centers like ours are designed to help you have the birthing experience you’re hoping for by offering a range of birthing options, including water births. They also offer pain management flexibility and are staffed with specialists who provide support and care as your needs change. Finding a hospital that can accommodate your birth wishes and anything that comes up can bring confidence and peace of mind.

Have your birth, your way

You deserve to feel comfortable and confident about bringing your baby into the world. Our hospital-based birth centers are equipped for whatever kind of birth you want to have, so you can meet your baby in the way you’ve always dreamed of.