The History of Waterbirth

Woman in birth pool

To the untrained eye, those offering opinions on the safety and value of waterbirth might be seen to be debating a relatively new and radical practice. While it is easy to assume that as land bound mammals, land is where we are intended to birth, this simplistic notion overlooks a number of key biological facts. 

Our Biological Link to Water

70% of our planet’s surface is covered in water and, after some 40 weeks spent in a liquor-filled womb, a newborn’s body is 90% water. Growing into adulthood the human body is still approximately 60% water. In fact water has often been referred to as ‘the cradle of life’ base on evolutionary theories that life originated in the ocean more than 3 billion years ago.

However debates on the origins of the human race aside, historical artefacts and records tell us that the history of waterbirth began almost as long ago as birth itself.

Waterbirth… 8000 years ago

In Egypt, ancient Petroglyphs (rock carvings) are rumoured to depict the waterbirths of pharaohs some 8000 years ago. Similarly from as early as 2700 BC the Minoan civilisation on the island of Crete created temples in which women laboured and birthed in water.

In California, The Chumash Indians tell stories of women labouring in natural pools and shallow inlets with dolphins hovering nearby. Within the Hawaiian Islands it is believed thousands of generations have been birthed in water. In fact, historical speaking, from the Southern Islands of Japan, to the Panama Indians, to the Maoris of New Zealand, waterbirth appears as not an innovative practice but rather an ancient one.

There is one fact however that can be universally agreed upon. The advent of modern medicine brought about a low point in the history of waterbirth.

The Rebirth of Waterbirth

The first recorded account of a waterbirth in the modern Western world occurred in a village in France in 1803. After labouring for some 48 hours a woman was helped into a warm bath by her doctor in an effort to soothe her and provide temporary pain relief. Shortly after entering the bath the woman’s stalled labour quickly progressed, and her baby was born before any effort could be made to remove her form the bath.

However despite the obvious success of the use of water in this case, and publication of the event in a French medical society journal, it would be the early-1970’s before the history of waterbirth would be revisited by the medical profession in earnest.

The Case for Mothers and Babies

Leading on from studies on the safety and value of waterbirth, performed in the Soviet Union in the 1960’s, in the early 1970’s a number of French and Russian obstetricians began utilising water as a pain control measure and in some cases as a birth option. Meanwhile in Australia waterbirths began to make an appearance, predominantly for midwife-assisted homebirths.

What was unique about the efforts of these midwives and obstetricians was their motivation – to ease the transition from the womb to the outside world, mitigate the effects of birth trauma, and normalise the birth process. Their primary concern was that modern-day maternity care, with all its interventions, was creating traumatic births for babies. Among these physicians was the French obstetrician Frederic Leboyer who concluded that children could be quite literally affected for life by the nature of their birth.

Waterbirth in Australian Hospitals

Along the history of waterbirth timeline, Australian hospitals make an appearance around the 1980’s with hospital-based waterbirth gaining significant popularity by the 1990’s.

It was around this time, after many hospitals had introduced baths to some of the birthing suites, that hospitals began instituting waterbirth polices. In many cases, these policies were more of a side effect of waterbirth than an effort to normalise it. Simply put, as women refused to leave the bath, and wound up birthing their babies there, the need to institute policies became clear.

A Red-Letter Day in NSW

Along the history of waterbirth timeline within NSW stands a red-letter day. This day is 29 June 2010. It was on this day that the policy directive Maternity – Towards Normal Birth in NSW, was released. Published by NSW Health, the aim of this document is to reduce the alarming growth of interventions in labour and birth in NSW.

The key goal of this policy directive is that of restoring normal birth as the predominate practice within the state. The vehicle identified as the key to achieving this is woman-centered labour and birth care, defined by a set of ten steps. Number five on this list, is a requirement that all NSW hospitals “have a written policy on pain relief in labour that includes the use of water immersion in labour and birth.”

Waterbirth Friendly Hospitals

In Australian hospitals today, waterbirth receives a good deal less in the way of raised eyebrows than it did 20 years ago. That said, while many hospitals in Australia may have baths in some birth suites, access often cannot be guaranteed. As a result, women with a firm intent to pursue a waterbirth may choose a hospital based on the availability of baths, or create their own guarantee by taking their own birth pool.

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