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Water births in India gaining popularity

Jul 24, 2009

Already popular in the West, water birth in India is emerging as a promising alternative to painful traditional delivery methods. It’s relatively painless, needs minimal medical intervention, and is an ideal medium to bring a child into the world, writes Tripti Nath, after talking to mothers and doctors.

New Delhi: Childbirth need not be associated with indescribable pain, insists Divya Deswal, a childbirth educator who works in a south Delhi hospital. The reason she says this so confidently is because, of late, she has helped deliver many a bundle of joy with the help of a rather unconventional but relatively painless method – water birth.

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Delhi-based Anjali Swarup, 32, would agree. She opted for water birth in mid-March last year for her second child, Shivantika, after attending Deswal's class on childbirth preparation at a private hospital in the capital.

The labour pains during her first delivery had lasted a full day. "It was very tough. I had epidural anaesthesia. So when I heard about water birth from a friend in America, who had had all her three babies in water, I decided to go for it," says the homemaker.

'Water is soothing and relaxing'

Swarup is convinced that water is soothing and relaxing for childbirth.

"My labour started at 9 am. At noon, they took me to the pool. As soon as I sat in it, the warm water relaxed my body. The doctor was called and the baby was born at five past noon," she elaborates.

Her mother and husband were with her throughout. "At 5 pm, I took a shower. I had no stitches. After an overnight stay in the hospital, I was back home and able to resume my normal routine within a short while," says the happy mother.

So would she suggest water birth to her friends? Replies Swarup: "I do. But my friends fear the possibility that the child may drown or get an ear infection."

That 14-month-old Shivantika is a happy and healthy baby is evidence enough that Swarup's friends' fears are unfounded.

Water birth is popular in the West, where it emerged as a promising alternative to traditional delivery methods.

But, in India, the concept is relatively new and it is not easy to find the right person or institution to help with such a birthing procedure.

Gurgaon-based American, Gary Dolpha Freeman and his Maharashtrian wife, Phalguni, faced this problem.

A big challenge in India

"In India, it's a big challenge. We spoke to a birth centre in Goa but it didn't work out. Fortunately, we were able to get in touch with Divya," says Freeman.

Phalguni, 33, gave birth to Anushka just a few weeks ago. Recounting her experience, she says: "My husband was in the pool all six hours and the doula – a woman who gives physical and emotional support during labour – was by my side."

Freeman adds: "I climbed into the pool with my wife during labour and held her up. Her feet were on my chest. She had a pushing surface. Between contractions, I let her down. I had studied the Bradley Husband Coach Childbirth method and I felt comfortable with an educated doula. It's a great experience to have one in India."

What prompted the couple to opt for a water birth? Freeman reveals: "When I was 10 or 12 years old, water birth was in the news. I found it interesting. It's something I decided to look into for our firstborn. My wife was also interested in it."

But Phalguni clarifies that their objective was not so much to have a water birth as to adopt a procedure that would ease labour. "I was open to a normal delivery if the need arose," she reveals.

Phalguni was admitted to the hospital in the evening and delivered at four the next morning. She was back home two days later. The hospital bill came to Rs 53,000 (US$1=Rs 49.4), but the couple is more than satisfied.

Phalguni, who suffers from lower back and joint pains, explains that it would have been difficult for her to lie on her back during labour.

"The buoyancy of water helped me manage the pain better. For the baby, it was a smooth transition. When she came out, she looked so clean and radiant," she recalls.

More people inquiring

The number of people inquiring about water births has steadily grown. The only facility in the capital to undertake such births, the Phoenix Hospital, has reported nearly 45 women opting for water birth ever since it was introduced about two years ago. Of these, 30 women have delivered babies by this method. "On an average, we handle two water births every month. Since the last two years we are the only centre in Delhi doing this procedure," informs Deswal.

Charlotte Walter, 36, a British woman, was the first to give birth by this method at the hospital. Two months later, Veronica Bertolini, an Italian woman, delivered a baby girl in water. Bertolini's two other children, Meggie and Kabir, were there to welcome their youngest sibling in the pool.

Earlier, Meggie had received her brother Kabir in a birthing pool in Assagao, Goa. Bertolini's husband, Dr Jorge Caravotte, a microbiologist and filmmaker, had said at the time, "I would like to encourage would-be mothers to give birth in water because there is no medical intervention. The woman gives birth in zero gravity."

Dr Urvashi Sehgal, the obstetrician and gynaecologist who runs the Phoenix Hospital, explains that they introduced water birth after a would-be mother approached them.

"We had been looking at this option for a while. We had no doubt that natural birth was a gentle option. Our childbirth educator, Divya, had already observed water birth in the US. So we were more than willing to try it out," she shares.

Deswal, a civil engineer-turned-childbirth educator, has helped several anxious pregnant women by her gentle massage and comforting words. She has even sat through the night holding their hands, suggesting different positions for relieving pain.

"I have been at birth for 40 hours at a stretch. Expectant women are paralysed with fear about giving birth. They need to be reassured that nature has given women everything they need to give birth. The beauty of giving birth in water is that it empowers women to take charge. For this, preparation is very important. The doctor's role is minimal. Birth is totally natural. There is no induction, no pain medication of any kind, no IV lines, no episiotomies," she reveals.

The procedure

The egg-shaped pool used at the Phoenix Hospital has a capacity of 600 litres. Ninety per cent of the pool is filled with packaged drinking water. The water is 26 inches deep so the question of the newborn drowning does not arise.

"I see women step into the inflatable pool and almost instantly feel weightless. The warm water raises the temperature of the body and helps in increased blood circulation. It also eases muscular tension and a relaxed body allows the uterus to contract efficiently. A restful mind stimulates the release of endorphins, natural painkillers in the body," explains Deswal.

Elaborating on the concept she says: "The baby is already in water in the womb and moves from water to water atmosphere, so there is no question of choking as the child is not breathing in water. The umbilical cord is not cut immediately and the baby receives oxygen from the mother's body."

However, not all women who opt for a water birth can successfully go through it. Explains Deswal: "Sometimes normal births end up as C-sections. Sometimes women have chosen to labour in water but have stepped out of the pool and delivered. But it nonetheless always helps speed up labour. There are some who used water but it did not help them."

Deswal has seen and handled all sorts of situations in the labour room, but she endorses water as the ideal medium for bringing a child into the world. And going by the happy experiences of women like Anjali and Phalguni, that certainly seems to be the case. After all, isn't water the elixir of life?

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