To many people, water births may seem like an innovative birthing option, but in fact the practice of giving birth while immersed in water has actually been around for thousands of years. So when was the first water birth and how did it evolve into what we know it as today?
The first water births
Historical artefacts and records show us that the histories of water births have been around since the dawn of the human race. There are ancient rock carvings in Egypt that depict the water births of pharaohs over 8000 years ago, and we know that ancient Minoan civilisations on the island of Crete specifically created temples in which to birth their babies in water.
Stories of generations of women birthing in natural pools and shallow inlets have risen up all over the world, from the Chumash Indians to the Maoris of New Zealand and the Panama Indians. In many cases, such as in Guyana in South America, this ancient tradition of giving birth in a special place along the local river still occurs to this day.
Water births in the modern Western world
The first documented case of a women birthing in water in Europe was in France in 1805. The expectant mother had been in labour for over 48 hours when her doctor suggested she sit in a bath of warm water to help ease her pain. Within an hour of immersing herself in the pool, her labour had progressed and she had given birth to a healthy baby.
Despite this case, it wasn’t until the 1960’s that Russian pioneer, Igor Tjarkovsky, began to look further into this practice. However, his work was rather experimental as he believed birthing babies into cold water rather than warm would help to protect them and aid their cognitive development. Although he made significant strides in this field, his cold water theory was eventually widely disputed.
Eventually, French obstetrician Michael Odent became the key figure behind the practice of using warm water for labour and birth. In 1977 Odent recognised the benefits of birthing pools and installed one in Pithiviers hospital, not necessarily to encourage births in water, but more as a means of assisting women in terms of discomfort and pain during long or difficult labours.
After many years of research, Odent noticed that not only did the warm water help labouring women cope with pain, but it also made for a much smoother transition for the baby. As the warm pool environment seems similar to the womb, Odent found that immersed babies were much calmer immediately after the birth when placed in the mother’s arms, compared to babies born out of water.
Modern water births in the UK
During the 1980s and 1990’s interest and research in water births grew significantly, particularly across the UK, Europe and the US. Key figures such as obstetrician Michael Rosenthal, childbirth educator Barbara Harper in the US, and midwife and childbirth educator Dianne Garland in the UK, all helped to raise awareness and increase women’s confidence in water births, while ensuring procedures and guidelines for labouring in this way were safe and of an appropriate standard.
In the UK in the early ‘90s it was recommended by the ‘Winterton Report’ and the Department of Health’s ‘Changing Childbirth report’ that women be given the choice of having a water birth if the labouring woman’s circumstance allowed them to do so. As a result, many hospitals installed appropriate birthing options such as birth pools, and became experts in water births. Midwives now train for assisting with water births at hospitals, in homes or in birthing centres.