You can use water in labor, even if you don't plan on a having a water birth!
Water is one of my favorite pain management tools in labor. Whether you give birth at home or in the hospital, at some point my clients end up in the tub or in the shower.
Here’s why hydrotherapy can be a wonderful option in labor:
You can relax!
Even for those who aren’t pregnant, a nice, warm bath after a long day of work can make you feel more relaxed and calm. Immersion in water can lessen anxiety and promote relaxation. These same benefits apply when you are in labor.
The calming effects of water can actually help with labor progression. When you are feeling relaxed and calm, your body releases endorphins, which promote the production of another hormone called oxytocin. Oxytocin plays an important role in labor, stimulating contractions. (Known as the "love hormone," oxytocin is also involved in attachment and breastfeeding).
When the oxytocin is flowing, your labor can progress. Conversely, when you are feeling stressed and anxious, adrenaline is produced, which can interfere with oxytocin production. So taking a warm bath, combined with other relaxation tools such as music, meditation, dim lighting, massage, and self-hypnosis, can help your labor keep a nice, active pattern.
Note: In early labor, taking a bath can slow down contractions. This is just fine-- early labor should be a time of rest, since it can take hours or even days to turn into active labor. If active labor is imminent, taking a bath won’t stop it!
It provides pain relief.
Water is sometimes referred to as a “liquid epidural.” While water doesn’t take away all sense of pain (although some clients report that at times it comes pretty close), it definitely helps to make the pain of labor more manageable.
The website Evidence Based Birth gives a review of the evidence behind water immersion as pain relief in labor. In a meta-analysis of several studies, it was reported that people who labored in water were less likely to use epidurals or spinal anesthesia for pain relief.
Submerging your body in water isn’t always necessary. Standing in the shower, with the hot water pointed at the part of your body where you are feeling the most pain or discomfort, is also very effective for pain relief.
You can move.
While submerged in water, it may be easier to move your body into positions that may be more difficult or uncomfortable "on land," like hands and knees, or in a squat. Being in water can help take pressure off of areas of your body that ache. You may feel more buoyant and lighter, contributing to feelings of relaxation.
If you are laboring at home, you can use your own bathtub or shower. (In early labor, I encourage my clients to take a bath and then try to sleep for a while, to reserve their energy for active labor.)
At the birth center, there are tubs and sometimes showers for your use. And more and more hospitals are offering tubs to labor in (although most hospitals still don’t allow pushing or giving birth in the water).
Fortunately for those in the Treasure Valley, both St. Lukes and St. Alphonsus offer labor tubs, either in each room or in a single-use shared space on the labor and floor. Some tubs sport jacuzzi-style vents for additional comfort.
For low-risk pregnancies, you can labor in the tub at just about any time, including after your bag of waters has broken, or if you have been induced. When laboring in the hospital tub, the nurses can monitor you intermittently without you having to get out of the water; if you consent to cervical exams, these can often be done in the water as well. (Note that with narcotic pain medications and epidurals, you won’t be allowed to labor in the tub for safety reasons.)
You can try it again.
At some point, if my clients aren’t planning a water birth, they decide to get out of the tub, either to push out their baby or to continue laboring on land. At this point, I can help them maneuver out of the water and wrap them up in a nice, warm towel so we can try some other comfort measures.
Sometimes, my clients decide to try the tub or shower again, and they easily can.
With some pain medications, you can have only a certain number of doses, and your mobility may be decreased for a while. With hydrotherapy, you can return to the tub or shower at just about any time during labor.
If you are worried about an accidental water birth, your doula and care providers can often get a sense of how close you may be to pushing based on your behavior and sensations you are reporting. We can recommend getting out of the tub to give you enough time to get to the place where you intend to birth your baby.
I am a certified labor (birth) doula and postpartum doula serving clients in Boise, Meridian, Eagle, Nampa, and the Greater Treasure Valley.
Do you have questions about using water in your upcoming birth?
I've worked in the forest, in the lab, and in an office cubicle. My favorite and most passionate work has been alongside clients as they reach inside to find their innermost strength, and give birth to their babies. Each birth is an honor to witness.