An excerpt from Michel Odent's Primal Health Research Newsletter Vol17 no3. The obstetrical implications of waterside hypotheses
Learning from birthing pools
In the early 1990s, when we became more familiar with the concept of antagonism between hormones of the adrenaline family (stress hormones) and oxytocin (the key hormone in parturition), I started to investigate the management of a common pathological situation in midwifery and obstetrics. It is the ‘failure to progress’ in the middle of cervical dilation, associated with intense lumbar pain. In this case, the pain appears as an obstacle to cervical dilation. I was considering non-pharmacological methods of pain relief. This is how I introduced the concept of ‘lumbar reflexotherapy’, based on the ‘gate control theory of pain’. Intracutaneous injections of sterile water in a precise zone of the lumbar region innervated by the posterior branch of the twelve dorsal nerve can block the visceral pain coming from the contracting uterus.32 I also proposed immersion in water at body temperature as a way to relieve pain, to reduce the level of stress hormones, and thus achieve more effective uterine contractions.
Taking into account the physiological perspective, and also the strong attraction to water expressed by many labouring women, I eventually bought a blue inflatable garden wading pool. Thus began the history of birthing pools in hospitals.33 As soon as the birthing pool was installed new strategies became possible. When a woman in hard labour was demanding painkillers, we had something else to offer than the injection of an analgesic drug (this was before the age of epidural analgesia). We could introduce the mother-to-be to the aquatic birthing room, so that she could observe and hear beautiful blue water filling the pool. The room was painted blue, with dolphins on the walls. From that time the question was no longer: "When will you give me a pain killer?" It was more often than not: "How long does it take to fill the pool?" The first lesson concerned the importance of the time when the woman in labour is anticipating the bath: the dilation of the cervix can already progress dramatically before water immersion—if the aquatic environment is associated with privacy. It is like the sudden release of brakes . We witnessed one of the many magic effects of water on human beings...a profound power that cannot be easily explained with the language of physiologists.34 At the time of the plastic pool (before we installed a solid pool), women were not influenced by the media or by what they read in books about childbirth. Their behaviour was spontaneous and thus we learned about the genuine effects of a water environment. A the typical scenario (with many possible variations) was the case of a woman entering the pool in hard labour around 5 cm, spending an hour or two in water and then feeling the need to get out of the pool when the contractions were becoming less and less effective. This going back to the dry land often induced a short series of irresistible and powerful contractions so that the baby was born within several minutes.
One day, a mother-to-be had not been in water for long when suddenly she had two irresistible contractions and the baby was born before she felt any need to get out of the pool. While giving birth, this woman was really "on another planet". Clearly, in that altered state of consciousness associated with hard labour, she intuitively knew that her baby could be born safely under water. There was no panic. It is as if a deep-rooted knowing could express itself as soon as the intellect and its knowledge was set aside. Such births happened again.34 From that time many journalists, reporters,and photographers were fascinated by babies being born in water. They were indifferent all other aspects of our unconventional practices. After a short period of surprise and even frustration, I concluded that good journalists are experts in Human Nature. They know how to attract the attention of their readers or their viewers. They have this intuitive knowledge that there is a special relationship between human beings and water. By referring to this historical phase of the use of birthing pools, we offer food for thought in the age of Waterside Hypotheses.