It's the sort of story that can send a pregnant woman into a panic. A mom in England rushed her unresponsive son to the hospital at 10 days old, where he was diagnosed with E. coli meningitis, a disease that almost killed him. Doctors are mystified as to how the little boy came down with the often deadly disease, but the mom says there can be just one source: Her baby was born via water birth.
Nicola Wilkins thinks bacteria in the water is to blame for the disease -- one that most commonly occurs in babies 3 months or younger. If you're pregnant and planning a water birth, news like that may send you rushing for the phone to call it all off. But hold off for just a few seconds.
Giving birth in the water does mean welcoming baby in a tub full of bacteria. Tests of birth tubs have found E. coli, staph aureus, colibacilli, and other organisms in the water. One of the big culprits: a mom's own poop, as a significant number of women have a bowel movement during the labor process.
But according to Dr. Ashanti Woods, attending pediatrician at Mercy Medical Center, Family Health Centers of Baltimore, Maryland, studies show that water birth is no riskier than any other method, at least not when infection is considered. While he declined to speak to Wilkins's case, Woods said bacterial concerns about water birth have not been taken lightly, but the popular labor practice has come out on the clean side.
"Even though the bacterial load is high, babies born in water do not appear to get infections at any higher rate when compared to babies born by traditional vaginal delivery or C-Section," he notes.
Nor do water births seem to pose any additional health risks: A study of more than 6,500 midwife-attended water births released by Oregon State researchers in 2016 shows newborns born in water were no more likely than newborns born out of the water to experience low Apgar scores, require transfer to the hospital after birth, or be hospitalized in their first six weeks of life.
Hospitals and birthing centers do have rules meant to limit infection issues, and many use disposable tub liners so each mom starts out in a sanitized environment. Even when liners are used, there are still sanitation guidelines for the staff to follow and which should be available should you ask.
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The official American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) stance states water births present no health benefits to baby. But Woods, a fellow of the AAP, says there are benefits for moms themselves.
Water births have been linked to decreased risk of tearing or episiotomy, decreased need for pain relief intervention, and even shorter labors.
"One could reason happy mom, happy baby," Woods says.
Wilkins's plight is certainly one that draws sympathy. No mom should have to wonder if her newborn is going to die, and it's a relief knowing the little guy made it through okay.
But their health battle need not be the make-or-break portion of your decision about how to give birth. If you want a water birth, your ob-gyn or midwife is the best person to tell you whether or not you're a candidate and what you need to do to ensure both you and your baby are healthy and safe on delivery day.