Infant dies from infection after water birth

Dec 12, 2014 at 1:00 p.m. ET

A recently released report about a newborn baby who succumbed to Legionnaires' disease after being born in the water has raised the question — is water birth really safe for moms and babies?

A Texas mom suffered a horrible loss in January when her newborn baby died from Legionnaires' disease, a severe type of pneumonia caused by bacteria that thrives in warm water. Her baby had been born in a heated pool, and while the investigation did not find concrete proof that the infection came from the pool, the researchers said that was likely the source. This report has sent the masses reeling — how can water birth be safe if it kills babies?

The truth is, it usually does not. I spoke with Louise Aucott, a midwife who practices at Midwifery Care Associates, in Pennington, New Jersey. She was able to put this tragic case into perspective — a perspective that is sorely lacking. She told me we should remember that thousands of full-term infants get some sort of an infection at the hospital, and some of those unfortunately prove fatal. "Stories like this are often sensationalized in a way that shames mothers and fathers for their alternative birth choices, without placing the death of a full-term infant into context," she said.

Keep in mind that this is the first reported incidence of Legionnaires' disease infection resulting from a water birth in the U.S., and there have been only a couple other reports from outside the country (in the U.K. and France). How likely is it that your baby will perish from this? Very, very unlikely.

Not only is water birth safe in most cases, but moms report the experience is amazing. "The benefits of laboring in warm water are mostly for the mother's pain relief, which seems to result from the buoyancy, warmth and relief of pressure," says Aucott. Sara, mom of six, has experienced water birth, and she agrees. "Water birth gave me privacy, control and a calming environment to labor," she told me. "The pain relief was incredible! This was my sixth baby, and after having other labor helpers with my other babies, this blew them all away."

This hasn't kept people from voicing their negative opinions. "Why would you chance it?" one commenter asks. "After carrying this precious baby for nine months and preparing for its arrival, fixing the nursery, buying the car seat and stroller and etc etc, why would you chance this precious life to some stupid water birth?"

Tragedy happens, and you cannot lay the blame for this particular event on these grieving parents any more than you can blame a mother whose baby perishes after a hospital birth. "We all need to remember that such things do occur, even under 'ideal' circumstances," Aucott said. And I couldn't agree more.

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