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What is a water birth?
A water birth involves giving birth in a tub filled with water, instead of on a bed. Babies born underwater continue to receive oxygen from the umbilical cord and do not normally inhale until exposed to air.
What does the newest research suggest?
Researchers at the university analyzed almost 400 water births and more than 2,000 land births from two different midwifery practices. They found that water births were no more risky to newborns than land births, and women who had water births were less likely to suffer perineal tears than women giving birth the traditional way.
The researchers, who reported their findings in the journal Birth, said additional studies on water birth safety are needed. However, they concluded that the results add to evidence that women should be allowed access to a water birth if their pregnancies and labor are low risk.
"The long and short of it is that if you use proper techniques, the outcomes are very good," said senior author Lisa Kane Low, a professor of nursing. "They mirror what we see in international studies of water birth."
Is a water birth safe?
There still aren't enough studies on water births to come to a definitive conclusion about their safety compared to land births. The University of Michigan study didn't include enough water birth cases to pick up on all potential risks. Additionally, it was conducted at just two facilities, and most of the births occurred among white women with private insurance, which isn't representative of the entire population.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) and the American Academy of Pediatrics caution against water birth. They say it's okay for women with low-risk pregnancies to spend the first stage of labor immersed in warm water, because research suggests it can help ease labor pain. But the organizations say that the second stage of labor and birth should occur on land, because there's not enough evidence to show water births are safe.
Meanwhile, the American College of Nurse-Midwives is more supportive of water birth and says it should be made available to women with low-risk pregnancies who want it.
Should you have a water birth?
In spite of the differing opinions of these medical organizations, these most recent findings do offer some reassurance if you are considering a water birth. If your pregnancy is low risk and you are considering a water birth, talk to your OB about the risks and benefits.
But even if you're interested in a water birth, it's hard to get one if you live in the United States. Most hospitals don't offer water births because they're concerned about possible risks to the mom and her baby. Fewer than 10 percent of maternity-care facilities offer water births in America, one report found. The practice is more common in Europe.
Want to see what a water birth looks like? Check out our video of a live water birth and this slideshow of water birth photos.
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