By the time you read this, two Indian women will have given birth to their first child in water. Aged 27 and 30, these two Delhi residents—like an increasing number of women the world over—are choosing to bring their children into the world in conditions easier than those provided by regular nursing homes.
Both the women have been my patients for a while. But they got interested in water-birthing after I supervised the first such birth in India by helping Charlotte Walter, a British national, to deliver her third child in water in April.
While I have nothing against C-sections—both my children were born through Caesareans—I have been interested in ways to make the birthing process gentler for women. I’m open to all options—from aromatherapy to acupressure—that lessen the trauma of giving birth.
I am concerned about the rising number of women whose labour does not progress due to non-dilation of the cervix or because the baby’s head is not in a favourable position, or because the baby’s heart-rate dips—all of which can lead to a C-section after painful labour. It can be terribly disappointing for women who want a normal delivery.
At one time, doctors used epidurals to ease the pain. I still believe epidurals have their place, but I prefer less intrusive methods. I encourage my patients to walk about in the ward while they are in labour, eat and drink what they want, or give birth in the positions they feel comfortable in.
In a way, this concern has been a part of my life. Growing up in Uttar Pradesh as the middle child between two brothers, I was the pampered one. But I often witnessed the imbalance in privileges allowed to boys and girls in the same family. While studying for my MBBS at the Institute of Medical Sciences, BHU, I was the only girl in a class of 60. As a reaction, I joined Lady Hardinge in Delhi for my post-graduation in obstetrics and gynaecology— where there were only girls! I guess I missed the company of women in general and a sister in particular; in fact, I’d attribute the direction my career has taken to this desire to empower women.
By the late 1990s, by which time I had been married nearly a decade, both my husband Deepak, a paediatrician, and I were doing well. Apart from consultancies with Apollo Hospital, we had a clinic in New Delhi’s Greater Kailash-I. We had dreams of setting up our own hospital, but just months ahead of the scheduled opening, my husband suffered an accident which delayed our plans.
Once Phoenix, our hospital, took off, my child-birth educator and I began focusing on ways to ease the birthing experience. I researched water-birthing for almost a year and I suppose word got around of my interest, because Charlotte was referred to us by the local medical fraternity. Seven months pregnant, she had already been to a couple of hospitals in the city and had been told a water-birth would not be possible. She had given birth to her two older children in water and believed in its benefits totally.
The first issue we faced, of course, was the water. The tap water in India is no way clean enough for such a delicate process, so we requisitioned 600 litres of mineral water, which was heated to 37ºC. We also needed to import a birthing pool and a waterproof foetal heart monitor. Through the process, Charlotte would get nervous occasionally, but a dry run in end-March reassured her to a large extent.
The healing and pain-relieving properties of water have been recognized for centuries. In child-birth, the warmth and buoyancy of water eases muscular tension and enhances relaxation during, and between, contractions. Relaxation reduces stress hormones, which inhibit the release of oxytocin, thereby allowing the uterus to contract more efficiently and also stimulating the release of endorphins, the body’s natural pain relievers. Immersion in water helps the cervix to dilate faster, implying shorter labour, increased relaxation and an easier passage for the baby from the womb to the world.
Charlotte’s baby was born on 28 April, a very calm, peaceful child. The mother was in control throughout, no stitches were required. My subsequent encounters with the baby have only reinforced my first impressions of security and calm.
I foresee water-births becoming more popular in India. At Phoenix, we have presentations on the subject every Saturday at 5pm. That is how two of my current patients educated themselves enough to sign up for it. I believe the availability of the option is empowering.
As told to Sumana Mukherjee. Email your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org