Contrary to the opinion of many, labouring in water has been used by women for millennia. This is supported by Janet Balaskas, a writer on water births. She describes the oral histories of South Pacific Islanders giving birth in shallow seawater and the descriptions of Egyptian pharaohs born in water. Even today in places such as Guyana, in South America, women go to a special place at the local river to give birth.
Giving birth in water (rather than labouring in it) is a relatively recent development in the Western world. The first water birth that we know about in Europe was in 1803 in France. A mother whose labour had been extremely long and difficult was finally helped to give birth in a tub of warm water.
During the 1960s, Soviet researcher Igor Charkovsky undertook considerable research into the safety and possible benefits of water birth in the Soviet Union. In the late 1960s, French obstetrician Frederick Leboyer developed the practice of immersing newborn infants in warm water to help ease the transition from the womb to the outside world, and to mitigate the effects of any possible birth trauma.
Another French obstetrician, Michel Odent, built upon Leboyer's work. He began using the warm-water birth pool for pain relief for the mother, and as a way to normalise the birth process. During these trials, some of the women refused to get out of the water to actually give birth, which led Odent to research the possible benefits for the baby of being born under water, as well as the potential problems in such births. By the late 1990s, thousands of women had given birth at Odent's birthing centre at Pithiviers, and this assisted in the diffusion of water births throughout the rest of the Western world.
Water birth was introduced to the United States by individuals who pioneered birthing in water through the home birth movement. This quickly led to the introduction into the medical environment of hospitals and free-standing birth centres by midwives and obstetricians. In the UK today, it is estimated that more than three-quarters of all National Health Service hospitals in the UK provide this option for labouring women.