New Moms

Don't Trust the Advocates: Waterbirths are Very Dangerous

| by The Skeptical OB

I suppose you can't expect much from someone who admits that her entire career is based on an article she read in the National Enquirer.

My introduction to waterbirth was an article in the National Enquirer of all places! Can you imagine basing two and a half decades of work for mothers and babies on that sensational news rag??

But Barbara Harper asserts the safety of waterbirth with such breathtaking stupidity that even I am shocked. That she believes she can get away with it tells me that she assumes that her followers are gullible fools. Given her popularity, she may just be right.

Harper is surely aware that babies drown at waterbirth. She must be aware that Ireland suspended waterbirths when baby Harry Eccles died of brain damage caused by drowning. She cannot possibly be ignorant of the fact that the waterbirth babies are born directly into the equivalent of toilet water that has been contaminated with fecal material. She must know that the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP)has declared that waterbirth is not safe for babies. She is betting on the fact that her supporters don't know about the waterbirth deaths, don't understand that the water is contaminated with dangerous microorganisms, and aren't aware of the pronouncements of the AAP.

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Harper clearly thinks that keeping her followers ignorant of dangers of waterbirth is justified. But I can't fathom what led her to believe that she could simply make up scientific-sounding gobbledy gook and pass it off as "facts."

Purveyors of pseudoscience take note: when it comes to spewing stupidity, Barbara Harper is in a class by herself. Consider the following, taken from Harper's explanation of Waterbirth FAQs:

What prevents baby from breathing under water?

There are four main factors that prevent the baby from inhaling water at the time of birth:

1. Prostaglandin E2 levels from the placenta which cause a slowing down or stopping of the fetal breathing movements. When the baby is born and the Prostaglandin level is still high, the baby's muscles for breathing simply don't work, thus engaging the first inhibitory response.

2. Babies are born experiencing mild hypoxia or lack of oxygen. Hypoxia causes apnea and swallowing, not breathing or gasping.

3. Water is a hypotonic solution and lung fluids present in the fetus are hypertonic. So, even if water were to travel in past the larynx, they could not pass into the lungs based on the fact that hypertonic solutions are denser and prevent hypotonic solutions from merging or coming into their presence.

4. The last important inhibitory factor is the Dive Reflex and revolves around the larynx. The larynx is covered all over with chemoreceptors or taste buds. The larynx has five times as many as taste buds as the whole surface of the tongue. So, when a solution hits the back of the throat, passing the larynx, the taste buds interprets what substance it is and the glottis automatically closes and the solution is then swallowed, not inhaled.

Every word in that explanation is a lie, with the possible exception of "and" and "the." And it's not merely a collection of lies. It is a collection of striking stupid lies, to boot. Either the woman is an idiot, and she thinks her followers are idiots, or both.

Let's look at each claim individually.

1. Prostaglandin E2 causes a slowing down or stopping of the fetal breathing movements.

This is both a lie and irrelevant. It is a lie because there is not a single study on humans or animals to support it. It's irrelevant because fetal breathing movements (practice breathing in the womb) are NOT the source of a baby's initial drive to breath. Lack of oxygen and build up of carbon dioxide stimulate neonatal breathing.

2. Hypoxia causes apnea and swallowing, not breathing or gasping.

Another bare faced lie. Hypoxia (lack of oxygen) makes it MORE likely that a infant will try to breathe, not less.

3. So, even if water were to travel in past the larynx, it could not pass into the lungs based on the fact that hypertonic solutions are denser and prevent hypotonic solutions from merging or coming into their presence.

Oh, the stupid, it burns!

I guess Harper figured the use of the word "hypertonic" would impress her followers and trip them up. In chemistry, the suffix "tonic" refers to the concentration of electolytes and other dissolve components of cellular fluids. Isotonic is the the same concentration as cellular fluids; hypertonic means higher concentration (such as seawater), hypotonic mean lower concentration (such as freshwater).

The water in the tub at waterbirth is hypotonic; that much is true. All the rest is a giant lie. Lung "fluid" (whatever that is supposed to be) is isotonic, not hypertonic. The tonicity of a fluid has NOTHING to do with what can be mixed with it. Seawater is hypertonic. Fresh water is hypotonic. According to Harper, you couldn't add freshwater to a cup of seawater because the seawater would prevent the solutions from merging. You don't even have to try that experiment for yourself to know that Harper is babbling nonsense.

4. The last important inhibitory factor is the Dive Reflex.

Another lie. Harper is four for four!

The dive reflex exists, but it is not operating during waterbirth. The dive reflex is the reason that people sometimes survive long immersion in icy water. The extreme cold suppress breathing and slows down heart rate, decreasing the body's need for oxygen. The dive reflex works in COLD water, not warm water, and, of course, the water in the birth pool is warm, not icy cold.

The bottom line is very simple. Barbara Harper is a mendacious fraud. She lies and she spreads stupidity. Tragically, many women believe her.