How Does A Baby Breathe During Water Birth?

How Does A Baby Breathe During Water Birth?

Many expectant mothers desire to have a natural birth.

When you research your birth options and learn more about natural birth, you’re bound to hear about water birth.

As the popularity of water birth grows, you’re likely to hear about it (and even read birth stories) on social media too.

However, many parents-to-be worry about the safety of a water birth.

Added to their worries, some healthcare providers who are not trained in water birth reaffirm that water birth is not safe.

But water birth can be a beautiful experience for all involved.

Water birth has many benefits including:

  • Effective non-medicinal pain relief
  • Buoyancy relieves some of the extra pregnancy weight so mama can easily get into varying positions. Movement in labor can help baby to better navigate the birth canal
  • May reduce blood pressure
  • Many mothers report overall satisfaction with their birth experience
  • A gentle transition for baby
  • Promotes relaxation
  • Provides a safe and private environment for mama to feel comfortable laboring
  • Allows the mother to feel more in control

As you look more into water birth you will likely hear about positive and even relaxing labors. It sounds peaceful and an ideal way to cope with contractions. As you continue to learn about your options, you start to develop your birth preference list. Then it hits you…How will your baby breath under water? Is water birth even safe for your baby?

In short, yes, water birth is a safe option for many mama baby pairs. Established in 1989, Waterbirth International has helped to spread information and help facilities offer safe water birth options to families. While water birth is newer when compared to other birth practices, it has been around long enough to produce sound research.

When you make birth decisions, safety is always a top priority. You want to have a positive experience but you also want to ensure your baby is safe. If you’ve ever watched a water birth video you might have nervously held your breath waiting to see if baby comes out of the water safely. While it might seem that simply exiting the womb would trigger baby to breathe, there is a little more to it.

Exiting the womb isn’t what triggers a baby to breathe.

How Does A Baby Breathe During Water Birth?

To answer the question, ‘how does a baby breath during water birth?’ we need to understand what causes babies to take their first breath. Exiting the womb is not what triggers baby to breathe. Your body is a comfortable 37 degrees Celsius. Generally, our air is not 37 degrees.

When a baby is born and then feels the change in temperature it begins to take its first breath. In a traditional birth this temperature change is felt immediately after birth. In a water birth the temperature change is not felt until baby is lifted from the water.

During your water birth your healthcare provider will frequently check the water temperature. Keeping the water as close to body temperature as possible helps ensure a safe transition for baby so they are not triggered to take a breath. Providers will ensure the water is 35-37 degrees.

Will Baby Inhale Water?

You might be relieved to know that baby isn’t triggered to breath while underwater.

But you might still have concerns about baby accidentally inhaling water if she opens her mouth.

Babies are born with a dive reflex. This causes babies to swallow any liquid rather than inhale it. Babies will not inhale water during a water birth. This same reflex aids in feeding as it prevents babies from accidentally inhaling milk. This reflex lasts for six to eight months.

Will Baby Experience Oxygen Deprivation During A Water Birth?

If baby is not triggered to breathe, you might wonder how baby is able to get adequate oxygen. During pregnancy, baby practices using her lungs from about 10 weeks on. However, it’s simply practice breathing. Baby receives all of his or her oxygen needs via the umbilical cord.

During pregnancy, your body sends a pint (approx 473 ml) of blood per minute to the uterus. The placenta then exchanges nutrients and oxygen from your blood into baby’s umbilical cord. The umbilical cord sends all of baby’s oxygen needs into baby’s blood stream.

Baby remains attached to the umbilical cord at the time of birth until it is clamped or cut. During a water birth baby will continue to receive all of its oxygen via the umbilical cord. Once baby is lifted out of the water and feels the temperature her body will be triggered to breathe.

What If Something Happens During A Water Birth?

Birth might be unpredictable, but it’s a normal body process. In most instances, mama and baby tolerate physiological birth just fine. That said, unexpected complications can occur in any birth. This is where provider choice becomes important. Choosing a provider you trust, one familiar with water birth, can help reduce your concerns about complications.

A provider skilled in water birth will know what signs of distress to look for. They will also assess your risk prior to birth. Some women are more at risk for postpartum hemorrhage (PPH) or placental concerns (induction of labour also increases the risk of PPH). Water birth is a safe option for low risk mothers and babies.

Planning For A Water Birth

Now that you understand how baby safely manages a water birth, you might be considering planning for one. The first step to planning a water birth is finding a skilled care provider who is comfortable with attending a water birth. Discuss your birth plan and preferences with your care provider to find out if water birth is a safe option for you.

Many birthing facilities are equipped with a birthing pool or have pools available for rent. If you are planning a home birth you can ask your midwife if she or another professional have pools available. Some women are even creative and use infant pools filled with warmed water.

If you are not sure about giving birth in the tub, some women opt to use the tub for laboring while getting out to actually give birth. When thinking about your birth options and preferences remember that you have the option to change your plans.

Listen to your body and make the decisions that feel best and safest for you and baby.

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Maria Silver Pyanov is a mama of four energetic boys and one unique little girl. She is also a doula and childbirth educator. She's an advocate for birth options, and adequate prenatal care and support. She believes in the importance of rebuilding the village so no parent feels unsupported.


  1. Just FYI, Many times, in a waterbirth, I’ve seen placentas continue to pulse, doing its job, giving O2 & nutrients to baby, while eliminating waste for up to an hour after delivery of the placenta. On land, tyhe cooler air temp causes the umbilical cord to contract soon after detachment. But because of this gentle, gradual transition, baby is often slower to turn from purple to pink.
    Waterbirth is also great for breech babies, as the cooler air temp. (or being grabbed by unseen hands) can stimulate the baby to try to breathe, with its head still inside. Being in the warm, body temp water helps prevent this.

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