home birthWe've all seen videos of water birth -- women giving birth while inside a tub of water. The practice is rapidly gaining in popularity. I know moms who tell me laboring in water helped relieve a lot of their pain and made the whole experience more peaceful. So what exactly is water labor, and how do you go about it? Will your insurance even cover it? I talked with midwife nurse practitioner Kristen Mallon of Mindful Midwifery and Hackensack University Medical Center about what's called hydrotherapy and why it's so helpful to laboring women.

The first thing you should know about hydrotherapy is that you don't even have to actually give birth underwater in order to enjoy its benefits. Some women use a tub just to help relieve labor pains, and then they actually deliver their baby outside the tub.

But that gets to the main reason why water labor has become so popular. Mallon says that being submerged in water helps relieve pressure on joints and helps you move about more freely. The sensation of weightlessness helps relieve pain. Women who labor in water are less likely to undergo a C-section as well.

The benefits of water birth for your baby are more theoretical, Mallon says. But the idea is that your baby is entering an environment (warm water) that's more similar to the womb, instead of the harsher entry into a dry, cooler room. This should provide a gentler transition for your baby. Your baby is not going to drown -- babies will naturally hold their breath under water while attached to the umbilical cord just after birth.

But what about the risks? There are a few. Your practitioner should take care that your tub water is not too warm -- body temperature is just right. If you need to be on fetal monitoring, there are water-proof doppler monitors your practitioner can use. As for the risk of infection from the water, that's actually not a problem. Mallon says infections from birth happen from too many vaginal examinations, but you're not at risk if you're laboring and delivering in water.

So far so good -- what do you need, then? Increasing numbers of hospitals (and most birthing centers) have labor tubs, so if you're in a position to choose your hospital do ask if they provide that already. The demand is high, and if your hospital doesn't yet have a labor tub, request that they buy one.

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Otherwise, some hospitals will rent you a tub, and others will at least let you rent a portable one elsewhere and bring it into the hospital. In any case, if you want to try water labor, start talking with the hospital and your practitioner well in advance. If a hospital has water tubs they are required by law to have all of their nurse staff trained in using them.

Tubs vary widely in size and quality. Mallon strongly recommends a tub with rigid walls you can lean your full weight against. A tub and supplies can cost a few hundred for an inflatable to $5,000 for a large tub, but most are in the $1500-$2000 range. See AquaDoula for examples.

If your hospital or birth center already has a birth tub, using it is considered part of regular labor and your insurance should cover it, just like it would cover anything else related to your labor (well, depending on your plan -- ask at any rate). Otherwise, getting insurance to cover your rented water tub might require some negotiation.

So how do you know if you're a good candidate for water labor and birth? Mallon says just about anyone who is also a good candidate for vaginal birth: "Women are surprised at their ability to handle labor using hydrotherapy." There is a risk of having a bowel movement or bleeding during delivery, so if you're squeamish or a germaphobe you may just want to use the tub for labor only, not birth. But otherwise, this is a great labor and birth tool for most healthy pregnant women.

Do you know anyone who delivered or labored in water?