From my experience, laboring and giving birth in the water had many benefits. When a pregnancy is low risk and the labor is progressing without complication, water can be a very real pain relief alternative.
When I was in active labor (about 4-5 cm dilated), I entered a warm birthing tub and immediately relaxed. In fact, I hadn’t even realized how tense I had become until I entered the water. The strength of the contractions seemed to change. Not that the pain was taken away for me (although it may be for some women), I was better able to cope with that pain. The stress on my lower back diminished and the speed of my labor picked up a few paces. Often women will dilate to 10 cm within an hour or two of entering the water, when before getting in their labor was long and laborious.
As my stress level decreased and I became more relaxed, I’m sure my yet-to-be-born baby felt similar. The heartbeat, which was taken after each contraction, was strong and steady.
Laboring in the water reduces the need for pain relieving drugs, so there are many benefits there. Having an epidural can often slow down labor as, in part, the women is then immobilized in her hospital bed. In the water, a woman can comfortably move from one position to the next and even float for a given duration if she chooses. When a woman receives an epidural, she often no longer feels her natural urge to push. Therefore the use of forceps, vacuum, suction and so on are increased. Without pain medication, a woman is in tune with her body’s needs, and is able to regulate them accordingly.
When woman give birth in water, the risk of tearing is reduced, and there is little need for an episiotomy. I found myself quite calm during the pushing, and knew when to slow down to prevent tearing. Often in a ‘land’ birth, the midwife will hold a heated cloth on the perineum to help prevent tearing. In the water, I was surrounded by warmth, and even though it was my first labor and delivery, I never tore.
Water also helps to reduce the level of fear, as a woman is more relaxed and less stressed. Fear during labor is definitely counterproductive and can slow labor down. Fear during the delivery can cause a woman to push beyond was she should and lead to some severe tearing.