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Water Birth (Again)

Note: I had just finished writing this article when I discovered Dr. Jones had beat me to the punch with his March 28th article on the same subject. He did an excellent job, and of course reached the same conclusions I did (it’s not that great minds think alike, but that we base our conclusions on the same body of evidence). Rather than let my efforts go to waste, I decided to go ahead and publish my shorter, more idiosyncratic article. If it’s worth saying, it’s worth saying twice; and different approaches may appeal to different readers.


“Humani nihil a me alienum puto.”

Nothing human should be alien to me, and I can understand why people do most of the strange things they do, but water birth is something I have really had difficulty with. Why would anyone want a baby to be born underwater? Why would they want to buy a special pool, set it up in the living room, fill it with water, keep the water at the right temperature, and then have to deal with emptying the pool and cleaning up afterwards? I read about it and tried to understand, and now I have some insight into their reasons; but I think they are poor reasons, and the whole concept remains pretty alien to my mind.

The claims

I found a fuzzy feel-good rationale on the Waterbirth International website. Mothers feel it is the gentlest of gentle births. Warm, luxurious water cradles you and gives you complete freedom to move during the greatest achievement of your life. “The women who have experienced the support and comfort of water for their labors and held their newborns in their arms speak more than any scientific article or paper on the subject.” In other words, “We don’t need no stinkin’ science!” (more…)

Posted in: Obstetrics & gynecology

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Childbirth Without Pain: Are Epidurals the Answer?

Is unmedicated natural childbirth a good idea? The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ACOG) points out that

There is no other circumstance in which it is considered acceptable for a person to experience untreated severe pain, amenable to safe intervention, while under a physician’s care.

It is curious when an effective science-based treatment is rejected. Vaccine rejecters have been extensively discussed on this blog, but I am intrigued by another category of rejecters: those who reject pain relief in childbirth. They seem to fall into 3 general categories:

  1. Religious beliefs
  2. Heroism
  3. Objections based on safety

1. “In pain you will bring forth children” may be a mistranslation, and it certainly is not a justification for rejecting pain relief. Nothing in the Bible or any other religious text says “Thou shalt not accept medical interventions to relieve pain.” Even the Christian Science church takes no official stand on childbirth and its members are free to accept medical intervention if they choose.

2. The natural childbirth movement seems to view childbirth as an extreme sport or a rite of passage that is empowering and somehow enhances women’s worth. Women who “fail” and require pain relief or C-section are often looked down upon and made to feel guilty or at least somehow less worthy.

3. I’m not impressed by religious or heroic arguments, although I support the right of women to reject pain relief on the autonomy principle. What inquiring science-based minds want to know is what the evidence shows. Does avoiding medical treatment for pain produce better outcomes for mother and/or baby? It seems increasingly clear that it doesn’t. A new book, Epidural Without Guilt: Childbirth Without Pain, by Gilbert J. Grant, MD, helps clarify these issues.

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Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Obstetrics & gynecology

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Home Birth Safety

More and more American women (1 in 200) are opting for home birth, and midwife-assisted home birth is common in other developed countries. How safe is it compared to birth in a hospital? A new study sheds some light on the subject. It was recently published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology: Maternal and newborn outcomes in planned home birth vs planned hospital births: a metaanalysis, by Wax et al.

All the existing studies have flaws. It would be ideal to do a study where women were randomly assigned to home or hospital birth; that isn’t possible, so we have to fall back on studies that are possible. Just comparing home births to hospital births isn’t good enough, because high-risk births occur primarily in hospitals, and between 9% and 37% of planned home births end up with transfer to the hospital during labor and are converted into hospital births. Cohort studies comparing planned home with planned hospital births provide the best sources of data by intended delivery location. There have been several such studies, but the numbers were small and the results were inconclusive. This new study is a meta-analysis that combines the data into one large set for better understanding. (more…)

Posted in: Obstetrics & gynecology

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What’s in the water at waterbirth?

Waterbirth has been touted as an alternative form of pain relief in childbirth. Indeed, it is often recommended as the method of choice for pain relief in “natural” childbirth. It’s hardly natural, though. In fact, it is completely unnatural. No primates give birth in water, because primates initiate breathing almost immediately after birth and the entire notion of waterbirth was made up only 200 years ago. Not surprisingly, waterbirth appears to increase the risk of neonatal death.

Perinatal mortality and morbidity among babies delivered in water: surveillance study and postal survey was published in the BMJ in 1999. Out of 4,030 deliveries in water, 35 babies suffered serious problems and 3 subsequently died. It is unclear if any of the deaths can be attributed to delivery in water. However, of the 32 survivors who were admitted to the NICU, 13 had significant respiratory problems including pneumonia, meconium aspiration, water aspiration, and drowning. Other complications attributable to water birth include 5 babies who had significant hemorrhage due to snapped umbilical cord. In all, 18 babies had serious complications directly attributable to waterbirth. The risk of serious complications necessitating prolonged NICU admissions was 4.5/1000.

Hospitals in Ireland suspended the practice of waterbirth after a baby died from freshwater drowning after delivery in a waterbirth pool.

The most nonsensical aspect of waterbirth is that it puts the baby at risk for freshwater drowning. The second nonsensical aspect is that the baby is born into what is essentially toilet water, because the water in the pool is fecally contaminated. In Water birth and the risk of infection; Experience after 1500 water births, Thoeni et al. analyzed the water found in waterbirth pools both before and after birth. The water in a birth pool, conveniently heated to body temperature, the optimum temperature for bacterial growth, is a microbial paradise.
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Posted in: Obstetrics & gynecology, Science and Medicine

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Birth Day

So many of the posts on this blog are critical and deal with examples of poor science or other problems. I’d like to offer a breath of fresh air in the form of a book by Mark Sloan, MD: Birth Day: A Pediatrician Explores the Science, the History, and the Wonder of Childbirth.

It is a very positive book. Sloan has attended over 3000 deliveries but he has not lost his sense of wonder. He tells us what life is like in the womb – how much the fetus can see and hear – and smell! He explains the labor process. He explains how a fetus has to rapidly adapt to life outside the womb with a number of physiologic changes. He reflects the joy of bringing a new life into a family, and the experience of becoming a father. He delves into the history of childbirth, with fascinating anecdotes about “salting” newborns, Queen Victoria’s influence on obstetric analgesia, and the attempt to keep forceps a proprietary secret of one family.

He shows the many contributions science has made to childbirth, some of the mistakes it made along the way, and how it corrected those mistakes. (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews

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Sterile Water Injections for Pain Relief

Before ethical standards changed, doctors used to occasionally fool patients with placebo injections of sterile saline or water. If my obstetrician had tried to give me sterile water instead of an epidural, I probably would have hit him. But apparently women are getting sterile water injections for childbirth and are telling us they work. What’s going on?

A recent study in Sweden compared sterile water injections to acupuncture for relief of labor pain. It found that sterile water produced significantly greater pain relief and relaxation. It concluded, “Women given sterile water injection experience less labor pain compared to women given acupuncture.”

I’m puzzled, because the study also says “there were no significant differences regarding requirements for additional pain relief after treatment between the 2 groups.” 85% and 90% got nitrous oxide, 40% and 47% got epidurals, and other conventional interventions were also used. It seems to me the conclusion could just as well have been “Women given sterile water injections report less labor pain than women given acupuncture, but require just as much additional pain relief.” (more…)

Posted in: Clinical Trials

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The Business of Being Born

One of our readers asked for a critique of the movie “The Business of Being Born.” I guess my sex and specialty make me the best qualified to comment. I delivered over 200 babies as a family physician. I had two babies of my own (at age 37 and 39), one with intervention (forceps) and one 9-pounder who almost “fell” out before the obstetrician was ready.

“The Business of Being Born” is a movie about midwives, home births, and hospital births in America. It’s a sort of kinder, gentler “Sicko” with onscreen births, gooey, bloody newborns and fat naked women. The message of the movie is that for an uncomplicated pregnancy, natural home births with midwives are better and safer than medicalized hospital births with obstetricians. It’s strong on sound bites, emotional appeals, and superficial arguments, but weak on substance, depth, and scientific evidence for its claims.
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Posted in: Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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