Water births pose no heightened risk to newborns, OSU study finds

on July 13, 2016 at 2:51 PM, updated July 14, 2016 at 9:58 AM

Water births pose no additional risk to low-risk newborns as compared to traditional birthing methods, researchers reported in a study published earlier this year, going against the opinions of some high profile medical groups.

The study, published in the Journal of Midwifery and Women's Health in January, was the largest focused specifically on water births and the first one conducted in the U.S., said lead author Marit Bovbjerg, an epidemiology instructor in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences at Oregon State University.

"The findings suggest that water birth is a reasonably safe, low-intervention option for women who face a low risk of complications during the birthing process," she said in a statement. "These are decisions that should be made in concert with a medical professional."

That goes against recent findings of the some professional organizations including the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists who wrote in a 2014 opinion that, while there were some pain-relieving benefits for mothers who go through the first stager of labor immersed in water, the risks associated with underwater delivery were not worth the benefits.

"The practice of immersion in the second stage of labor (underwater delivery) should be considered an experimental procedure that only should be performed within the context of an appropriately designed clinical trial with informed consent," the opinion read.

The results of the study contradict those statements, said Melissa Cheyney, a co-author of the report, medical anthropologist and associate professor at Oregon State.

"Those groups support laboring in water, but caution against giving birth while immersed," she said in a statement. "Our findings suggest that water birth is a reasonably safe option for low-risk women, especially when the risks associated with pharmacologic pain management, like epidural anesthesia, are considered."

Their findings were based on a cohort of more than 17,000 women who gave birth at home or in a free-standing birthing centers between 2004 and 2009, the vast majority of which were attended by Certified Professional Midwives. Hospital births were excluded from the study.

"There is no one correct choice. The risks and benefits of different birthing options should be weighed carefully."

Of that 17,000, roughly 6,500 women opted for water births and the study's authors found that neither the newborns, nor the new mothers, were more likely to require hospitalization than those who chose non-water birthing procedures.

A pair of Portland parents recently settled a lawsuit against Legacy Emanuel Medical Center for $13 million after their son was diagnosed with birth-induced cerebral palsy due to a water birth at the hospital. It was revealed in the course of the lawsuit, however, that the woman was not considered low risk and was not an ideal candidate for a water birth.

While there was no heightened risk to the newborn, there was an 11 percent higher chance of vaginal tearing for the mother associated with water births, Bovbjerg said, and woman should talk to their doctors to weigh the risks before deciding what's right for them.

"For some women, that potential risk of tearing might be worth taking if they feel they will benefit from other aspects of a water birth, such as improved pain management," Bovbjerg said. "There is no one correct choice. The risks and benefits of different birthing options should be weighed carefully by each individual."

— Kale Williams