Evidence on Water Birth Safety – Exclusive Q&A with Rebecca Dekker on her New Research
Evidence Based Birth , a popular blog written by occasional Science & Sensibility contributor Rebecca Dekker, PhD, RN, APRN, has just today published a new article, “Evidence on Water Birth Safety” that looks at the current research on the safety of water birth for mothers and newborns. Rebecca researched and wrote that article in response to the joint Opinion Statement “Immersion in Water During Labor and Delivery” released in March, 2014 by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Academy of Pediatrics. I had the opportunity to ask Rebecca some questions about her research into the evidence available on water birth, her thoughts on the Opinion Statement and her conclusions after writing her review. – Sharon Muza, Science & Sensibility Community Manager.
Sharon Muza: First off, is it waterbirth or water birth?
Rebecca Dekker: That’s actually good question! Research experts tend to use the term “waterbirth.” Google prefers “water birth.” So I used both terms in my article to satisfy everyone!
SM: Have you heard or been told of stories of existing water birth programs shutting down or being modified as a result of the recent AAP/ACOG opinion?
RD: Yes, definitely. There was a mother in my state who contacted me this spring because she was 34 weeks pregnant and her hospital decided not to offer waterbirth anymore. She had given birth to her daughter in a waterbirth at the same hospital two years earlier. With her current pregnancy, she had been planning another hospital waterbirth. She had the support of her nurse midwife, the hospital obstetricians, and hospital policy. However, immediately after the release of the ACOG/AAP opinion, the hospital CEO put an immediate stop to waterbirth. This particular mother ended up switching providers at 36 weeks to a home birth midwife. A few weeks ago, she gave birth to her second baby, at home in the water. This mother told me how disheartening it was that an administrator in an office had decided limit her birth options, even though physicians and midwives at the same hospital were supportive of her informed decision to have a waterbirth.
In another hospital in my hometown, they were gearing up to start a waterbirth program this year—it was going to be the first hospital where waterbirth would be available in our city—and it was put on hold because of the ACOG/AAP Opinion.
Then of course, there were a lot of media reports about various hospital systems that suspended their waterbirth programs. One hospital system in particular, in Minnesota, got a lot of media coverage.
SM: Did you attempt to contact ACOG/AAP with questions and if so, did they respond?
RD: Yes. As soon as I realized that the ACOG/AAP Opinion Statement had so many major scientific errors, I contacted ImprovingBirth.org and together we wrote two letters. I wrote a letter regarding the scientific problems with the Opinion Statement, and ImprovingBirth.org wrote a letter asking ACOG/AAP to suspend the statement until further review. The letters were received by the President and President-Elect of ACOG, and they were forwarded to the Practice Committee. We were told that the Practice Committee would review the contents of our letters at their meeting in mid-June, and that was the last update that we have received.
SM: What is the difference between an “Opinion Statement” and other types of policy recommendations or guidelines that these organizations release? Does it carry as much weight as practice bulletins?
RD: That’s an interesting question. At the very top of the Opinion Statement, there are two sentences that read: “This document reflects emerging clinical and scientific advances as of the date issued and is subject to change. The information should not be construed as dictating an exclusive course of treatment or procedure to be followed.” But, as you will see, some hospitals do see this statement as dictating an exclusive course of treatment, and others don’t.
I have heard that “opinions” do not carry as much weight as “practice bulletins,” but it really depends on who the audience is and who is listening. In other words, some hospitals may take the Opinion Statement word-for-word and feel that they must follow it to the letter, and other hospitals may ignore it. A lot of it probably depends on the advice of their risk management lawyers.
For example, a nurse midwife at a hospital in Illinois sent me a letter that their risk-management attorneys had put together to advise them on this issue. (She had the attorney’s permission to share the letter with me). These lawyers basically said that when a committee of two highly-respected organizations says that the practice of waterbirth should be considered an experimental procedure, both health care providers and hospitals are “charged with a duty to heed that statement,” unless they find research evidence that waterbirth has benefits for the mother or fetus, and that the evidence can override the Committee’s conclusions.
On the other hand, another risk management lawyer for a large hospital system told me that of course hospitals are not under any obligation to follow an ACOG/AAP Opinion Statement. It’s simply just that—an opinion.
So as to how much weight the Opinion Statement carries—I guess it is really dependent on who is reading it!
SM: How would you suggest a well-designed research study be conducted to examine the efficacy and safety of waterbirth? Or would you say that satisfactory research already exists.
RD: First of all, I want to say that I’m really looking forward to the publication of the American Association of Birth Centers (AABC) data on nearly 4,000 waterbirths that occurred in birth centers in the U.S., to see what kind of methods they used. From what I hear, they had really fantastic outcomes.
And it’s also really exciting that anyone can join the AABC research registry, whether you practice in a hospital, birth center, or at home. The more people who join the registry, the bigger the data set will be for future research and analysis. Visit the AABC PDR website to find out more.
I think it’s pretty clear that a randomized trial would be difficult to do, because we would need at least 2,000 women in the overall sample in order to tell differences in rare outcomes. So instead we need well-designed observational studies.
My dream study on waterbirth would be this: A large, prospective, multi-center registry that follows women who are interested in waterbirth and compares three groups: 1) women who have a waterbirth, 2) women who want a waterbirth and are eligible for a waterbirth but the tub is not available—so they had a conventional land birth, 3) women who labored in water but got out of the tub for the birth. The researchers would measure an extensive list of both maternal and fetal outcomes.
It would also be interesting to do an additional analysis to compare women from group 2 who had an epidural with women from group 1 who had a waterbirth. To my knowledge, only one study has specifically compared women who had waterbirths with women who had epidurals. Since these are two very different forms of pain relief, it would be nice to have a side-by-side comparison to help inform mothers’ decision making.
SM: What was the most surprising finding to you in researching your article on the evidence on water birth safety?
RD: I guess I was most surprised by how poorly the ACOG/AAP literature review was done in their Opinion Statement. During my initial read of it, I instantly recognized multiple scientific problems.
A glance at the references they cited was so surprising to me—when discussing the fetal risks of waterbirth, they referenced a laboratory study of pregnant rats that were randomized to exercise swimming in cold or warm water! There weren’t even any rat waterbirths! It was both hilarious and sad, at the same time! And it’s not like you have to read the entire rat article to figure out that they were talking about pregnant rats—it was right there in their list of references, in the title of the article, “Effect of water temperature on exercise-induced maternal hyperthermia on fetal development in rats.”
These kind of mistakes were very surprising, and incredibly disappointing. I expect a lot higher standards from such important professional organizations. These organizations have a huge influence on the care of women in the U.S., and even around the world, as other countries look to their recommendations for guidance. The fact that they were making a sweeping statement about the availability of a pain relief option during labor, based on an ill-researched and substandard literature review—was very surprising indeed.
SM: What was the most interesting fact you discovered during your research?
RD: With all this talk from ACOG and the AAP about how there are “no maternal benefits,” I was fascinated as I dug into the research to almost immediately find that waterbirth has a strong negative effect on the use of episiotomy during childbirth.
Every single study on this topic has shown that waterbirth drastically reduces and in some cases completely eliminates the use of episiotomy. Many women are eager to avoid episiotomies, and to have intact perineums, and waterbirth is associated with both lower episiotomy rates and higher intact perineum rates. That is a substantial maternal benefit. It’s kind of sad to see leading professional organizations not even give the slightest nod to waterbirth’s ability to keep women’s perineums intact.
In fact, I’m puzzled as to why keeping women’s perineums intact and uncut is not perceived as a benefit by anyone other than the women themselves. And here is the heart of declaring waterbirth as “not having enough benefits” to justify its use: Who decides the benefits? Who decides what a benefit is, if not the person benefitting? Who should be weighing the potential harms and the potential benefits of waterbirth, and making an informed decision about their options? Should it be the mother? Or should it be the obstetrician?
SM: What can families do if they want waterbirth to be an option in their local hospital or birth center and it has been taken away or not even ever been offered before?
RD: That’s a hard question. It’s a big problem.
Basically what it boils down to is this—there are a lot of restraining forces that keep waterbirth from being a pain relief option for many women. But there are also some positive driving forces. According to change theory, if you want to see a behavior change at the healthcare organization level, it is a matter of decreasing the restraining forces, while increasing the driving forces. Debunking the ACOG/AAP Opinion Statement is an important piece of decreasing restraining forces. On the other side, increasing consumer pressure can help drive positive change.
SM: Do you think that consumers will be responding with their health dollars in changing providers and facilities in order to have a waterbirth?
RD: I think that if a hospital offered waterbirth as an option to low-risk women, that this could be a huge marketing tool and would put that hospital at an advantage in their community, especially if the other hospitals did not offer waterbirth.
SM: The ACOG/AAP opinion sounded very reactionary, but to what I am not sure. What do you think are the biggest concerns these organizations have and why was this topic even addressed? Weren’t things sailing along smoothly in the many facilities already offering a water birth option?
RD: I don’t know if you saw the interview with Medscape, but one of the authors of the Opinion Statement suggested that they were partially motivated to come out with this statement because of the increase in home birth, and they perceive that women are having a lot of waterbirths at home.
I also wonder if they are hoping to leverage their influence as the FDA considers regulation of birthing pools. You may remember that in 2012, the FDA temporarily prohibited birthing pools from coming into the U.S. Then the FDA held a big meeting with the different midwifery and physician organizations. At that meeting, AAP and ACOG had a united front against waterbirth. So I guess it’s no surprise for them to come out with a joint opinion statement shortly afterwards.
My sincere hope is that the FDA is able to recognize the seriously flawed methods of the literature review in this Opinion Statement, before they come out with any new regulations.
SM: How should childbirth educators be addressing the topic of waterbirth and waterbirth options in our classes in light of the recent ACOG/AAP Opinion Statement and what you have written about in your research review on the Evidence on Water Birth Safety?
RD: It’s not an easy subject. There are both pros and cons to waterbirth, and it’s important for women to discuss waterbirth with their providers so that they can make an informed decision. At the same time, there are a lot of obstetricians who cannot or will not support waterbirth because of ACOG’s position. So if a woman is really interested in waterbirth, she will need to a) find a supportive care provider, b) find a birth setting that encourages and supports waterbirth.
You can’t really have a waterbirth with an unwilling provider or unwilling facility. Well, let me take that back… you can have an “accidental” waterbirth… but unplanned waterbirths have not been included in the research studies on waterbirth, so the evidence on the safety of waterbirth does not generalize to unplanned waterbirths. Also, you have to ask yourself, is your care provider knowledgeable and capable of facilitating a waterbirth? It might not be safe to try to have an “accidental” waterbirth if your care provider and setting have no idea how to handle one. Do they follow infection control policies? Do they know how to handle a shoulder dystocia in the water?
SM: What kind of response do you think there will be from medical organizations and facilities as well as consumers about your research findings?
RD: I hope that it is positive! I would love to see some media coverage of this issue. I hope that the Evidence Based Birth® article inspires discussion among care providers and women, and among colleagues at medical organizations, about the quality of evidence in guidelines, and their role in providing quality information to help guide informed decision-making.
SM: Based on your research, you conclude that the evidence does not support universal bans on waterbirth. Is there anything you would suggest be done or changed to improve waterbirth outcomes for mothers or babies?
RD: The conclusion that I came to in my article—that waterbirth should not be “banned,” is basically what several other respected organization have already said. The American College of Nurse Midwives, the American Association of Birth Centers, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, and the Royal College of Midwives have all said basically the same thing.
How can we improve waterbirth outcomes? I think continuing to be involved in clinical research studies (such as the AABC registry) is an important way to advance the science and provide evidence on which we can base practice and make more informed decisions with. Also, conducting clinical audits (tracking outcomes) in facilities that provide waterbirth would be important for quality control.
SM: Let’s look into the future. What is next on your plate to write about?
RD: I recently had a writing retreat with several amazing clinicians and researchers who flew from across the country to conduct literature reviews with me. We made an awesome team!! The topics that we have started looking at are: induction for post-dates, induction for ruptured membranes, and evidence-based care for women of advanced maternal age. I can’t decide which one we will publish first! The Evidence Based Birth readers have requested AMA next, but the induction for ruptured membranes article is probably further along than that one. We shall see!!
SM: Is there anything else you would like to share with Science & Sensibility readers on this topic?
RD: Thanks for being so patient with me! I know a lot of people were eagerly awaiting this article, and I wish it could have come out sooner, but these kinds of reviews take a lot of time. Time is my most precious commodity right now!
Has the recent Opinion Statement released by ACOG/AAP impacted birth options in your communities? Do you discuss this with your clients, students and patients? What has been the reaction of the families you work with? Let us know below in the comments section! – SM.