A home waterbirth story – part one

When I knew I was pregnant (with my first child), I told my GP I was planning a home birth. It never even occurred to me that anyone might say I couldn’t. I’m not a strident feminist by any means, just used to saying what I want and getting it – an empowered consumer, you might say!

It was only afterwards, when I read a book about home births that had been published some time before, that I started to realise what so many women went through to get their home births. I was so glad that I was not having to do that.

On the contrary, despite being a medium risk mother-to-be (first child when over thirty), rather than a low risk one, my GP was very supportive. She simply said they would want me to have a hospital birth if there were any complications in the pregnancy, but that a home birth would be fine assuming all proceeded well.

I resisted the urge to tell her it is in fact my right in the UK to have my baby wherever I want, regardless of GP pressure, on the grounds that she was being pretty helpful! Some time later, I told my midwife jokingly that I was planning to have my baby in the garden (due date 27 December) – she told me she would direct operations from behind the French windows, using binoculars and a megaphone. I knew then that Gwyn and I would get on.

Anyway, although almost all UK births are in hospital these days (about 98%), research in the last few years has shown that home is usually safer than hospital for both low and medium risk mothers to give birth. The main reason for this is the protection from infection – you already know your own house bugs pretty well, whether you like it or not. Also, once you are in a maternity unit, you may be subtly pressured to have some form of intervention in order to speed things up, and this may well be to fit their own staff timetables rather than for good medical reasons.

Medical intervention is a slippery slope – once you have one thing (eg waters broken), the chance of you having complications and needing further intervention is increased enormously.

Personally, I wanted to avoid all that, so home seemed a much better option. It wasn’t a question of being brave, as some people seem to think, but precisely the opposite: pregnancy is not an illness, but a natural event. For that reason, I felt I was better in the hands of a competent midwife in the comfort of my own home, where all unnecessary stress was removed.

That is not to say everyone would be the same. Some people are reassured by the presence of doctors and medical equipment. Some are not, and I am one of them.

Actually, when I told my community midwife that I was planning a home birth, the only question she asked was what my partner thought of this. Her reasoning was that I was obviously perfectly relaxed about this idea, but if my partner was not, he would wind me up, and this would then counteract the benefits. In her experience, she said, some men are jittery if anything less than NASA technology is to hand.

Of course, this is not unreasonable: men are powerless during the delivery process, and it must be pretty frightening for them to see their partner in pain without them being able to do anything to help. Luckily, my husband simply accepted that this was what we were going to do (he knows his place!).

We were very lucky here to have a number of community midwives with substantial experience of home births. Also, given that I wanted a waterbirth, which was even more unusual (especially at home), it was very fortunate that Maidstone hospital turns out to be one of the premier waterbirth centres in the country. We didn’t know this beforehand, but it did mean we had a lot of specialist midwife knowledge of this method, and also meant that they were happy for me to deliver in the water, not just use it for pain relief.

My own midwife was there for most of my labour, but went off duty at 5pm. We thought the birth was imminent, so she hung around for an extra hour, but in the end my baby did not turn up until 7.21pm, so she sadly missed the great event. Although she had done waterbirths in hospital, she had never done one at home, and she was really looking forward to it. What with Tom’s arrival 2 years later being a land birth, I feel we have let Gwyn down!

We hired the pool from Splashdown, who hire it out for a 4 week period, two weeks either side of your due date. It was unlikely that the baby would arrive before the due date, and if it was more than 2 weeks after, I was told I should go into hospital because of the risk of placenta deterioration. You can also hire pools from the Active Birth Centre in London.

As it was, we were almost up to our induction deadline – being given the date must have concentrated the mind! I finally went into labour in the early hours of 8 January 1999 – from memory, my induction deadline was the 9th.

I called Gwyn at 9am, as I was pretty sure by then that this was really it. She popped in and out all morning, as I was coping well. I just walked around and did bits and pieces at home to keep myself occupied.

By 1pm, I was really wanting to get into the pool, which was taking up most of the kitchen. My husband had already started filling it about noon, because it takes a couple of hours, as more than one hot tankful of water is needed. I got into the water about 2pm, by which time the contractions were beginning to become painful rather than just uncomfortable. A large element of this is because you tense up in anticipation of the next one.

The water was bliss – it is kept pretty warm, about 38 degrees centigrade, I think, to match your blood temperature, but the exact temperature is not that important until delivery time arrives. It was wonderful, just floating on my back, although the sight of a whale in your kitchen must be pretty unnerving! The thing is, the water makes you weightless, and the warmth also relaxes you so that you don’t tense up. It’s so relaxing that they don’t let you get into the water until labour is well established (4cm dilation?), in case it slows things down.

Everything was exactly as we wanted it, as I lay warm and weightless in the pool, listening to 6 classical CDs playing my favourite music, casually drifting off. I was so relaxed, I kept forgetting to count the contractions, but my midwife said not to bother: she could see clearly from the movement of my tummy and didn’t need my inaccurate observations!

My husband knew he would get a smack in the face if he did any of that massage and “you can do it, darling” stuff (it’s just not me), so he spent the time keeping the pool temperature right (buckets of water in and out every now and then), making tea and showing photographs of our renovation project to the midwife. It wasn’t your typical picture of imminent childbirth, that’s for sure.

Every hour and a half or so, they made me get up and walk around a bit, to make sure my labour didn’t slow down. I didn’t really enjoy being out of the pool, and could easily imagine how painful a whole labour of contractions like that would be. Each time, I couldn’t wait to get back in the water.

Around 5pm, my waters broke, and it got a lot more painful after that. In fact, I chose to use the gas and air the midwife had brought along. I really made good use of that canister – every woman who has used gas and air knows how possessive you get about your entonox. When I had to get out to go to the loo, that canister came with me! By leaving it till quite late, my midwife said I used it much better than some mums who use it too soon, and feel nauseous because they are not using it properly.

When I got to 10cm, we were ready to roll, and it was just before 7pm. I had been moving positions occasionally (so easy in water!), and now I moved into a squatting position alongside the edge of the pool. For the delivery, the water has to be kept at blood temperature. My baby entered the birth canal so fast, the midwife was still putting her gloves on as it happened! We aimed to deliver in water, but the midwife said she would tell me to stand up if anything appeared to be wrong, and I was to do so immediately.

Morag Gaherty

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