Popularising waterbirth

Barbara Harper | 09/12/2014

Detailed News


Barbara Harper has revolutionised childbirth with the introduction of waterbirth technique which gives both mother and baby maximum comfort and pleasure during the process.  Though the concept of waterbirth was not accepted by medical practitioners in the beginning, it is now gaining popularity worldwide          


By Barbara Harper

My journey to achieve a gentle waterbirth began with the exploration of my own birth experience.  In the spring of 1984, I learned of a technique called “rebirthing,” and engaged a professional therapist with whom I worked diligently to replace my cultural and personal beliefs that birth must be painful and a struggle.  I had heard about waterbirth from a former patient in the clinic where I was employed as a nurse. This woman told me she was preparing for a waterbirth and showed me an article from a magazine that had photographs from Russia of a birthing woman in glass tank with a baby between her legs.  I made it my goal to find as much medical and scientific information on this subject.  At that time, there were only a few articles on waterbirth, one of which had been published in a French Medical journal in 1803.

My search took me to anthropology libraries and I found that many cultures had indigenous practices of labouring and givingbirth in water.  The original Hawaiians, the Maori tribes, the coastal tribes of Ghana, Africa and all were seen labouring and giving birth in warm water.  This information along with the article about Russia inspired me to prepare for a waterbirth for my second child.  I took a trip to France in the summer of 1984 to meet Dr Michel Odent in the city of Pithivier, where this physician had been offering women in labour a warm bath in a deep round pool.  I witnessed a birth there and was impressed with the facility and the pool, which was round, blue and very deep so a woman could easily achieve whatever position her body and her baby would dictate. She could squat, change positions and have an almost gravity free environment in which to move.  All the pressure was off her back, her legs, as she was now buoyant.  The buoyancy creates a hormonal response which gives her extra doses of oxytocin, the hormone responsible for creating not only labour contractions but also a sense of ease and pleasure.  Research on the use of water for labour confirms that woman’s labouris significantly shorter.

While in France, I also visited a hospital where the famous obstetrician, Frederick Leboyer, practised and they also encouraged women to give birth in water.  Their philosophy was simple.  Whatever increases a woman’s pleasure in labour, increases her ability to surrender to the process and the baby.

Why waterbirth?

In a waterbirth, a baby flows through his mother, into warm watery fluid that is similar in temperature to the womb – the perfect place for growth and development.  The baby is gently lifted onto his mother's chest either by the mother herself, or the doctor or nurse.  Once on the chest, he stays there and is given time to transition to life, to make the conscious quiet efforts biologically and neurologically to activate his systems for oxygenation, metabolism, nutrition, temperature regulation.  Trained doctors or midwives watch quietly as he is welcomed softly and talked to by only his mother and father, voices that he knows and easily recognises. Everything stops as everyone witnesses and holds the space for this new being to enter into a life of intention.

Each woman who desires a gentle birth, including a waterbirth, has a choice and doctors, midwives and nurses have the responsibility to assist women in finding their centre. The use of water assists in this process in ways that are amazing and extremely beneficial.  There are many other things that we can do to help prepare women for giving birth in this way, but water immersion is a good first step. Doctors need to engage in the study of physiologic birth and apply the principles of gentle birth.  These are subjects that the majority of doctors today did not learn in medical school. 

After attending over 600 waterbirths in my career as a midwife and doula, I know for certain that birth is the safest for mother and baby when not disturbed unless there is a true emergency.  In the professional courses that I and my Waterbirth International team teach across the globe, we often joke that there is really nothing for a doctor or midwife to do except take the pictures of the birth.  But, in reality, the doctor or midwife has been trained to know what physiologic birth looks like and realises quickly when someone needs intervention.  In this way, the doctor or midwife becomes more like a life guard, a guardian of the process, of the space and the baby.  I often ask, “Does the life guard on the beach get paid if they don’t have to rescue anyone that day?”  The answer, of course, is yes, absolutely.

Over the past 30 years, I have been contacted by many celebrities and helped many experience gentle births and waterbirths, connecting them with midwives for either home or hospital birth.  In the UK, the National Health Service offers warm water immersion to every woman who desires to use this gentle form of non-pharmacological pain management.  In the US, we now have approximately 10 percent of all US hospitals offering waterbirth and double that number that offer a warm bath in labour.  The waterbirth movement is growing worldwide.  I just returned from a three-week stay in India where we identified seven cities that now offer waterbirth and trained over 300 new doctors, midwives and nurses in multiple cities. Waterbirth is actively done in over 90 countries around the world in medical facilities.  If you add in the number of birth centres and home birth practices, the number of babies who have been born in water is now over a quarter of a million. 


In the beginning of my waterbirth career, I was laughed at, scorned and even charged with crimes like practicing medicine without a licence.  All of that have changed through research, diligence and education.   It is with great pleasure that I enter medical schools and large teaching hospitals, especially in the US, with present courses for residents, medical students, midwives, practicing obstetricians and nurses. 

When a mother is prepared to give birth through education about her baby and her body, she enters the labour ward with ease and determination.  She knows that she is the vessel through which this new being makes its entrance into the world.  If she is assisted to relax, surrender and be the guide for her baby, working with her baby and letting the baby dictate the speed, the timing and the rhythm of the birth process, the  new being will have a totally different view of life on this earth.  This type of birth also empowers the mother to be a better mother, both on an emotional and chemical level.  It is extremely rare for mothers who have experienced an undisturbed waterbirth to report postpartum depression.

Most births today are hurried with the use of chemicals for induction of labour or artificial rupture of the amniotic sac, or worse, scheduled for surgical removal.  These acts rob the mother and the new being on a hormonal and a spiritual level.  There are very specific points throughout the neurological development during gestation when the sequence and timing of the wiring of the brain is done in an ordered and logical progression.  When these neurological patterns are interrupted by outside influences, such as drugs or chemicals to speed labour or environmental forces, it creates a different kind of brain pattern.  A mother needs care, comfort, quiet, calm, support and kind words of encouragement to be able to release her baby in a gentle and loving way.  She also needs to receive her baby immediately onto her breast and the baby must stay there for a minimum of two to three hours.

The worst possible thing to do in a birth is immediate cord-clamping and separation of the mother and baby.  This act is a violation of an innate biological agenda, which has lifelong consequences.  The womb is the perfect place for keeping the fetus warm, oxygenated, nourished and protected.  The fetus has abehaviour in the womb that is perfect and complete for that place or habitat.  The newborn baby has a behaviour that is perfect and complete for only one place - the mother's chest, which is the perfect place for keeping the newborn warm, oxygenated, nourished and protected.  When this newborn is separated from the ONLY place where he is programmed neurologically to function, the brain actually loses some of its capacity to wire for connection, attachment, self-determination, love and trust.  

Waterbirth International

Any hospital on the planet, with enough education and the right birth pool equipment can begin a water immersion programme. The quality of birthing pools today is extremely good.  When I had my first waterbirth in 1984, I actually built my own tub.  Not a good choice, as it broke just after the baby was born and flooded my bedroom with 300 gallons of water.  Today, the Birth Pool in a Box is available worldwide.  It was designed by midwives, doctors and birthing mothers.

Research demonstrates that with proper awareness of infection control, there is less likelihood of an infection for either mother or baby during a waterbirth.  After the use of the Birth Pool in a Box, the liner is removed, the tub is wiped down with an antibacterial solution and it is ready for a new liner for the next birthing mother.  There are other manufacturers that have produced similar economical and easy to use birth pools.

Waterbirth International is a respected source of information, referrals, education and inspiration for mothers and practitioners all over the planet.  My travels for lectures, workshops, classes and educational trainings have taken me to 52 countries.  The night I gave birth to my son, Samuel, I never dreamed that the message of gentle warm water for labour and birth would be so sought-after and accepted on a global scale.  If we want a gentle peaceful earth, it must begin with gentle peaceful birth.

(Barbara Harperis a registered nurse, certified labour doula, certified childbirth educator, midwife and certified kangaroo mother consultant. She is the founder of Waterbirth InternationalLighthouse Point, Florida)


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