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Waterbirth: First Impressions

Consider for a moment what a baby goes through on its way into the world. What a difficult thing it is to be born, being squeezed and molded and then drawing a first breath! Probably the most risky and harrowing journey of our lives, it is in fact, our first physical experience. Up to that point, we were warmly and safely encased in water. All our needs were met as we floated weightlessly, listening to the steady rhythm of our mother's heart. When the moment of birth came, all that changed. We had to breathe immediately or we would die; we had to cry out for food and comfort; we had to hold our own against the unfamiliar force of gravity. Coming into this world, we were immediately challenged, and our first impressions of it were of the fight and struggle to survive.

Consider what it's like to be so new and bewildered. All your experiences to date are of being warm and cared for. Imagine the shock of the cold air. It is at this moment that a new baby breathes, taking its first searing breath as its lungs expand and air rushes in. Imagine how that must feel. From the cocoon of the womb, we squeezed down the birth canal, and the first thing we are met with is cold air.

Our next experience is of bright lights. New eyes that have only seen the rosy glow of the sun through the pregnant mother's belly, now open and are blinded by lights. Then there is the noise, the loud, unmuffled, snapping of orders, the issuing of commands; even the happy noises of rejoicing are piercing to the new baby's ears.

Confronted with these realities, babies screw their eyes shut and, opening their mouths to exhale their first breath, they wail. So much fear and pain is heard in that first cry. It is the sound of anguish, the sound our hearts make when everything that we have loved and known has been taken from us. Babies feel this way at birth and they cry out for what they have lost - the warmth and security of the womb and the closeness of their mother. They cry because they are bewildered and scared and because they have no other way of letting us know that they do not understand or like what is happening to them. Nothing touches or melts the heart more than this.

Yet how is their plaintive cry met? Once born, they are whisked away, carried to a hard metal scale, wrapped in a cotton blanket (surely an unfamiliar sensation for them) and laid there to be weighed. Silver nitrate is dropped into their eyes to "burn" off the film that covers them, a film that, having protected the eyes from infection in the womb, is now considered a risk factor for infection. Their limbs are checked, stretched for their ability to move. Finally, the babies are "cleaned up" and eventually returned to their mothers.

Hearing her soothing, familiar voice, feeling the touch of her skin, nonetheless the first impression has been made and the baby soon settles into a suspicious watchfulness.

There is a saying in India, "What is made in the cradle, goes to the cremation ground." We take with us every experience of our lives and carry them as the backdrop against which we view what happens today.

What happens in those first few moments after birth are important. They are moments when amazing things happen. A fetus becomes a person. A woman becomes a mother. And in a phenomenon called bonding, the new mother and the new baby fall in love with each other for life. These moments can never be remade. If they are interrupted, they are lost forever.

Instead of this chaotic entry, imagine how much better it would be if all babies were born into an environment suited to their innocence and newness, like a room filled with soft lights and music, the same sort of room in which they were made. What if after being born, they were allowed to lay quietly in their mother's arms, bare skin against bare skin, heart beat to heart beat, slowly awakening to this new world? We could do this for our newborns, could give this gift of consideration and thus create a generation of souls who never had to know the anguish of being born.

There is a book called Birth Without Violence by Frederick Leboyer. In the first week I was pregnant, I read it and fell in love with its concepts. I was awed and inspired by the care given to newborns, as reported by Leboyer. I fell in love with the babies, their peaceful, dark eyes gazing serenely at me. This book introduced me to what I already knew: babies are miracles. They are tiny celestial beings who have somehow decided to exist within bodies and in whom, if you look deep enough, you can see the secrets of the universe. They deserve the kindest, gentlest entry into this world we can provide.

Waterbirth has expanded Leboyer's concepts. In a traditional natural birth, coming down the birth canal into the waiting world, a child will meet cold air. Coming out into warm water, a child feels only familiarity. Safe and secure, he does not breathe because he has come from water into water and he finds that the world he has entered is not so different from the world he has left behind. When brought up to the surface, his face meets the air and he breathes at last. Nestled in his mother's arms, he feels the security of her skin, and hears the soothing hum of her voice as she speaks words of wonder and love. He awakens gently in this kind of environment. He opens and unfolds.

I watched this phenomenon with my first baby's birth. He was so quiet and wide-eyed; you could feel his curiosity as he looked around. That moment to me was like no other. I felt as though I were looking into the midnight sky, his little eyes were that vast. I couldn't imagine sacrificing that moment for anything, short of something needed to maintain the baby's life. It was too moving, precious, and wonderful.

This is the benefit of waterbirth for a baby - a kind, loving, and gentle entry into this world.

Excerpted with permission of the author from Choosing Waterbirth: Reclaiming the Sacred Power of Birth.

Lakshmi Bertram resides in Yogaville, VA with her husband and six children, all of whom were born in water. She is a Certified Pre-natal Yoga Teacher and Personal Trainer and acted as the model for the Integral Yoga for Pregnancy DVD. Visit Lakshmi's blog.