Waterbirth, GBS and Hospital Birth Pools

Can women who are found to be carrying Group B Strep (GBS) still have a waterbirth (in a hospital birth pool or at a home water birth)? Yes!

Hospital birth pool GBS is very common. It’s thought that around 1 in 4 women carry the bacteria in their vagina, but despite this very few babies become affected by it. However those who are affected can become extremely ill, and tragically some will die. Because of this, prophylactic antibiotics given during labour are offered to women who are found to be carrying GBS, which does reduce the number of affected babies.

Our binary maternity labelling (low/high risk) means that any woman with any additional issue in their pregnancy becomes “high risk”, and many trusts’ guidance on waterbirth states that only “low risk” women may use the birth pool. In many cases this leads to women who would hugely benefit from a birth pool, and who would be far more likely to have a straightforward, drug-free birth by using one, being denied access to them.

Is this reasonable, or should women be supported to have a waterbirth if they wish, if they’re a GBS carrier?

What is the evidence?
Cohain1 states that out of 4432 waterbirths, only one incident of GBS was reported, whereas the rate for dry land births was one in 1450. This implies that waterbirth may significantly lower the rates of GBS infection in babies who are born in a birth pool. Research by Zanetti-Dällenbach R2 et al found that even though the levels of GBS in the birth pool were higher when babies were born into the water compared to labouring in water and birthing on land, the levels of GBS infection in the babies born in water was lower. While no large scale RCTs have yet been done, this data does show that birthing in water may in fact be a hugely important way to reduce the numbers of babies who are contracting GBS after birth and perhaps we should be encouraging women to birth in water as a way to reduce the infection rate! Even the Royal College of Obstetrics and Gynaecology (RCOG) states that waterbirth is not contraindicated for women who are carrying GBS3.

Women who are found to be carrying GBS before labour are offered prophylactic antibiotics which, if she chooses to accept them, will be given via a cannula during birth. This is often considered to be a contraindication for labouring and birthing in water, but in fact it is very simply to protect the cannula during a waterbirth. Women can either keep their hand out of the water, or if they feel they might want to put their hand into the birth pool, the midwife can place a close fitting plastic glove over her hand and seal it with an appropriate skin-safe waterproof tape.

In conclusion, the evidence we have – limited as it is – shows that giving birth in water is actually protective against the baby contracting GBS, and as such we shouldn’t be asking whether women should be supported to birth in water if they are carrying GBS. Instead we should be asking why are they so often told that they must birth on dry land?

Further reading:

AIMS: Group B Strep Explained by Sara Wickham https://www.aims.org.uk/shop/item/group-b-strep-explained

References:

1)  Cohain, JS, Midwifery Today, “Waterbirth and GBS”: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21322437

2)  Zanetti-Dällenbach R, “Water birth: is the water an additional reservoir for group B streptococcus?“ https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16208480

3) RCOG on GBS and waterbirth: https://obgyn.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/1471-0528.14821 (point 7.5)

Topic Summary: Hospital birth pools and GBS: what is the evidence and what is best practise?

Organising safe and sustainable care in Alongside Midwifery Units: A Review

Oldham Midwifery Unit with Aquabirths birth poolAlongside midwifery units are defined as midwife-led units which are on the same premises as an obstetric unit (OU). They are usually next to the OU and may have come about following restructuring of the OU.

 

A follow on study from Birthplace 2011 investigated the way that alongside midwifery units are organised, staffed and managed, as well as the experiences of the women who use them and the staff who work in them.

 

The researchers looked at 4 different alongside midwifery units. They interviewed midwifery staff and service users, and also those in a management and organisational role. What became clear from the study was the fact that midwives working in alongside midwifery units were able to practice more autonomously, using their own clinical judgement. This is how all midwives, who are all autonomous practitioners, should be able to work, but obstetric units often discourage or reject this aspect of the midwifery role. Midwives also reported how they valued the work environment and culture, although the study did acknowledge that there was a need to ensure that midwives were supported to continue to develop their confidence, which is not a surprise as so many would have been trained in a far more repressive environment.

 

Another challenge for the sustainability of the alongside midwifery units was the fact that of all of the women who were considered to be good candidates to birth there, only a third ended up doing so. This study does not look at why this might be, but we know from feedback from women that very often they are simply not made aware of the midwife led unit in their area, so they did not have the opportunity to consider it for their baby’s birth.

 

Ultimately, Aquabirths would like to see the facilities which are commonplace within a midwife led unit such as birth pools, birth couches, mats and birthing balls, as well as the environment which is designed for calm, and to promote oxytocin, available as standard within all types of units, including obstetric units. There is no reason why these facilities could not be used by far more women, and we strongly believe that if a better birth environment was available to all, that more women would birth their babies with fewer unnecessary interventions. We hope that more research like this will encourage designers of all types of maternity units to create spaces which support both women and midwives to work together for better births.