Pregnancy guide > Labour and birth > Pain relief > Pain relief in labour: Water

Pain relief in labour: Water

Advice on the advantages and disadvantages of waterbirth as a method of pain relief during labour with information on the availability of birthing pools.
A form of pain relief during labour, which is growing in popularity, is a waterbirth. Many maternity units now have a birthing pool, however this may not mean that it is available for your use when you are in labour. This might be because, as there is only one pool, someone is already using it, or it may be that there are not enough skilled staff available.

Midwife-led birth centres and units for 'low risk' women are more likely to have both a pool and enough staff. A few units allow you to bring your own hired pool into the hospital or to use this in your own home.

Your maternity unit will have guidelines about those women who can safely use a pool for their labour and guidance for women whose circumstances make this inadvisable. You may find that the advice will be that only women who have had a straightforward pregnancy and normal labour should consider labour and/or birth in water. Where you have received drugs such as Pethadine and where your waters (membranes) have broken for longer than 24 hours, the guidance would be that immersion in water is not advisable.

Some studies suggest that a waterbirth shortens labour and makes the experience more enjoyable, decreases the need for pain relieving drugs, lessens the chance of trauma to your perineum (the area between your vagina and back passage) and makes it more likely that you will achieve a natural birth. On the other hand, other studies have highlighted that there are risks to the baby, including overheating and infection, and a very small number of babies born under water have died (but it is difficult to be sure about the reason for this and its association with the waterbirth).

Before you give birth talk to your midwife about waterbirth and ask her if there are any women who have had a waterbirth to whom you could talk. If you are keen to have a waterbirth it would be a good idea to plan how you want to write this into your birth plan.

The following tips might help:
  • find out if your maternity unit has a birthing pool;
  • ask how often it is used. This will show whether staff are enthusiastic about waterbirth. It will also show if there are enough trained staff. Evidence suggests that you need one midwife throughout labour and two for the delivery;
  • ask who is allowed to use the pool. Anyone, or only 'low risk' women? Ask what problems in pregnancy or labour could prevent you from using the pool;
  • ask for how long you're allowed to stay in the pool. As long as you want, or are you expected to get out before your baby is born?
  • ask what happens if another woman is using the pool;
  • ask if you can use a pool you have hired yourself.
If your unit does not have a pool or can't guarantee to have staff available, you could try to find another unit that can.

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