The Basics of Water Birth

Medically Reviewed by Nivin Todd, MD on September 11, 2022
4 min read

A water birth means at least part of your labor, delivery, or both happen while you’re in a birth pool filled with warm water. It can take place in a hospital, a birthing center, or at home. A doctor, nurse-midwife, or midwife helps you through it.

In the U.S., some birthing centers and hospitals offer water births. Birthing centers are medical facilities that offer a more homelike setting than a hospital and more natural options for women having babies. The use of a birthing pool during the first stage of labor might:

  • Help ease pain
  • Keep you from needing anesthesia
  • Shorten your labor

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), which sets guidelines for pregnancy and childbirth care in the U.S., says a water birth during the first stage of labor may have some benefits but delivering your baby underwater should be considered an experimental procedure with risks. The first stage is from when contractions start until your cervix is fully dilated.

Studies show water birth during stage one doesn’t improve your or your baby’s medical outcome.

A warm bath might help you relax and help you feel more in control. Floating in water helps you move around more easily than in bed, too.

Some science suggests that the water may lower chances of severe vaginal tearing. And it may improve blood flow to the uterus. But study results about these points aren’t clear.

Things change during the second part of labor. That’s when your cervix is completely dilated and open and you start pushing until the baby is born.

Many doctors say there isn’t enough information to decide how safe or useful water birth is during this period.

Being out of the water for the second part of your labor makes it easier to move fast in case something goes wrong, ACOG spokesman Aaron Caughey, MD, says.

“If you have to do an emergency C-section, it would be foolhardy to risk an extra 4 or 5 minutes to move you out of the water,” says Caughey, chairman of the obstetrics and gynecology department at Oregon Health and Science University.

Here are some of the rare problems that could happen while water birthing:

  • You or your baby could get an infection.
  • The umbilical cord could snap before your baby comes out of the water.
  • Your baby’s body temperature could be too high or too low.
  • Your baby could breathe in bath water.
  • Your baby could have seizures or not be able to breathe.

“It’s important to emphasize the ‘rare’ part. But these are the sorts of outcomes that are severe, like drowning,” says Jeffrey Ecker, MD, who co-wrote the ACOG committee's opinion on water births.

Some factors may keep you out of the running for a water birth. You shouldn’t try it if:

  • You’re younger than 17 or older than 35.
  • You have complications like preeclampsia or diabetes.
  • You’re having twins or multiples.
  • The baby is in the breech position.
  • The baby is premature.
  • You’re having a really big baby.
  • You need to be constantly monitored and it can’t be done in the tub.
  • You have an infection.

If you’re thinking about a water birth, talk to your health care professional early in your pregnancy to find out if it’s a service the hospital provides. If so, who will manage your labor and delivery? A midwife can assist, but they will need backup from a physician 

If it’s not done in a hospital near you, you may have to go to a birthing center or do it at home.

Regardless of where you decide to deliver, having a water birth means you should ask questions about how the labor and delivery are done. Things to look for:

  • You have an experienced, licensed health care professional with doctor backup to help you through the labor and delivery.
  • High standards are kept to ensure the tub is clean and well-maintained.
  • Proper infection control measures are in place.
  • You and your baby are being properly monitored while in the tub as required.
  • There’s a plan to get you out of the tub as soon your doctor, nurse, or midwife says it’s time.
  • The water temperature is well-regulated, usually between 97 to 100 F.
  • You drink water during the birth to avoid dehydration.

Getting into a warm bath too early might slow your labor.

If your water birth is done in a hospital, it usually costs same as a vaginal birth if it’s covered by insurance. You may be required to rent the tub, which may be an extra $200 to $400.

If you buy your own tub or pool for a home birth, it can range between $65 to $500 depending on how fancy you go.

The fees for a midwife or nurse-midwife for a water birth at home will be the same as a normal birth, ranging from $2,000 to $6,000.

If you’re having your water birth at a hospital or birthing center, the midwife’s fee might be included in what you pay the facility, but usually only if they are employed by the hospital. Birthing centers charge between $3,00 and $4,000 per birth.