Our special water baby

Andrew Dunn
Redbridge Guardian, 10 February, 1988

Science writer, Andrew Dunn, of Abbotsford Gardens, Woodford Green, reports on the underwater birth of his daughter.

No longer are water births the preserve of the few.

Until very recently the technique of water births was only available in private clinics or at home. But just before Christmas, my wife Romy became one of the first women to have her baby in a birthing pool, in an NHS hospital – at Whipps Cross Maternity Unit.

Soon after Romy discovered she was pregnant last April, we watched one of Sue Cook”s Having a Baby television programmes. Romy found it quite scary and seriously told me she’d rather have a Caesarian section, under a general anaesthetic, than go through a labour like that.

Then during the summer, we kept hearing about an attractive new idea – having a baby in a tub of warm water. Every time it was mentioned in newspapers or on television, Romy felt envious. She’s always used water to soothe pain, and her favourite place is in the bath – preferably with a good book!

But Romy was offered no choice – her first baby would be born at Whipps Cross. So a conventional birth seemed the only option. After all, the good old battered NHS doesn’t run to fancy ideas like waterbirths, does it! Romy tried to forget the idea.

It turned out that Whipps Cross is the exception to the rule. Romy discovered by chance that there is a birthing pool there. The Jeyrani Health Centre in South Woodford was apparently offering the use of its pool in the hospital free to the first 50 or so women to use it, mainly so that the midwives could gain experience with it. The only charge was for your own clean pool lining.

Romy, naturally shy and not wanting to make a fuss was delegated by her antenatal classmates to investigate. She discussed the idea with her consultant obstetrician at Whipps, Mr Henry Annan, and he was all favour of it. So in November, only about a month before her baby was due, Romy went to see the director of the clinic, a delightful female obstetrician called Gowri Motha.

Dr Motha made clear that it wouldn’t matter if the pool was set up and not used. After all, this was Romy’s first experience of childbirth. Before she left, Romy paid the £25 for her own pool lining.

She felt relief and a sense of eagerness at the prospect. “I felt I could manage in water. I was frightened of labour, but I know water. I felt I could handle it”

At that time, some of the other consultants were not sure about water births. The pool, which had been at Whipps since last September had been assessed by the hospital’s bacteriologists. They had felt very strongly that there was a risk of infection.

In recent weeks however, most of the consultants have decided that, though there is a slight risk (and they tell women of the risk beforehand), if the mothers are happy, then that’s fine. With this particular pool, there is nothing left over from the previous user, so the most likely source of infection of a baby would be its mother, and that is not a problem. There is a risk of infection in any form of delivery. Michel Odent, the doctor who pioneered the method in France and is now over here, had delivered over l20 babies underwater, has seen thousands of women using a pool during labour, and has had no incidence of infection.

By the Wednesday before Christmas, Romy was two weeks overdue, and the hospital decided the baby should be induced When Gowri Motha arrived in the rather drab, grey delivery room, which contained a couple of chairs but no bed, Romy was already having mild contractions.

Dr Motha dimmed the lights and administered the hormone induction gel while I began to assemble the pool. This meant carrying the wall sections from the cupboard, bolting them together on the floor, stretching the plastic lining sheet over the top, and connecting a hose to the sink taps to fill it.

Meanwhile Romy was relaxing herself quite successfully, using the self-hypnosis techniques learnt at the clinic over the previous few weeks. But induced labour is notoriously shorter and sharper than natural labour. After the first wave of continuous contraction had lasted over an hour, Dr Motha gave her a shot of a morphine derivative to ease the pain. Romy swore (literally) that it didn’t and at one point simply announced that she was going home.

After a while the hospital midwife and I got her up and walking, round and round the pool. Romy was hanging round my neck for each contraction, more regular now, more spaced apart An hour later, Dr Motha examined Romy and decided she was sufficiently advanced to clamber into the pool. If women enter the pool too early, the labour tends to slow down rather than speed up. As she sank with relief into the knee-deep water, Romy sighed: “This is wonderful!”

I could see why she’d wanted the pool Apart from the sheer relaxing, soothing effect of the warm water, it meant she had complete freedom of movement She could squat more easily, supported by the water. She could move unaided from a crouching forward position to leaning back on the edge of the pool with no fear of a tumble -which just isn’t possible on dry land. At one point, the midwife suggested Romy got out of the pool for the actual birth. Romy’s reaction was to retreat to the centre of the pool, out of reach! And the water certainly accelerated the labour.

The baby was born within the hour. First the head appeared underwater, and minutes later, the body came too. (When I tell this story, everyone asks, doesn’t it drown? No it doesn’t – it’s still “breathing” through its umbilical cord, as it was in the womb. Babies don’t open their lungs until they feel air on the skin.) Dr Motha lifted our baby slowly and gently through the water and into Romy’s arms. It was a girl, and we’ve called her Mhairi.

Afterwards, Romy was in no doubt that the pool helped. “The induction was much worse than I expected. The first pain was so long and intense it completely destroyed my will: I just wanted to walk away from it. All my ante-natal training and self-hypnosis just went out of the window. I would definitely use it again –infact I doubt if I would happily go into labour again without knowing it was available. I just can’t imagine myself propped up on a bed pushing. The labour was pretty horrible. But I remember the overwheming relief when I got into the water. It’s the only thing that makes me feel I could do it again.”

Romy is one of only three or four mothers to have given birth in the pool at Whipps Cross, though more have used it at some stage of labour. The hospital consultants hope more will use it

Romy’s consultant, Mr Annan, says it’s an option. “The more choice you have, the more complete service you provide.”

His colleague, Mr Lindsay MacMillan, agrees: “I would encourage it, I think it’s a super idea. Vast numbers of babies have been born in water all over the world without any increase in morbidity. It’s not everybody’s cup of tea – a lot of patients would be terrified – but I think it’s an option which should definitely be explored.”

Gowri Motha hopes more will try the pool as well She wants the midwives to learn to use it without her, so that it is always available as an option on the labour ward at Whipps. The pool is also helping her research.

She is convinced that labour is painful because women are conditioned all their lives to expect it, but it needn’t be so. And, she thinks, the baby benefits too: “The baby being born into water is the most sensible way a woman could deliver. His first experience of the outside world is in a medium in which he is capable of moving and being and can help himself to move by swimming motions… the first impression of the world in those few brief seconds after birth, I think is very important”

Gowri Motha’s natural health care centre offers an holistic approach to natural childbirth and infertility with the full support of Whipps Cross where she worked for five years. She works closely with Dr Michel Odent, who holds therapeutic singing sessions at the clinic on Tuesdays for mothers and babies – unborn and newborn.

We can only guess at baby Mbairi’s thoughts. But when she gave us her first smile… it was in the bath.

Redbridge Guardian, 10 February, 1988

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