'Dolphin-Assisted' Birth: Natural or Dangerous?

Water births and dolphin-assisted births are a popular New Age fad -- but what's behind them, and are they dangerous? Continue reading →

The decision made by expectant couples to have their births in water attended by dolphins has raised eyebrows.

According to a CBS News story, "Dolphin-assisted childbirth is an option that some expectant parents are embracing, claiming it is a more natural, relaxing way to deliver a baby. Adam and Heather Barrington, a North Carolina couple expecting their baby to be delivered in July, have traveled to Hawaii to plan a dolphin-assisted birth at the Sirius Institute, the Charlotte Observer reports. ‘It is about reconnecting as humans with the dolphins so we can coexist in this world together and learn from one another,' Heather Barrington told the Observer."

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Why it is important to Heather Barrington that her newborn connect with dolphins in the first few seconds of his life? The answer can be found in the mission statement of the Sirius Institute, a New Age center dedicated in part to "raising the level of human consciousness to that of the dolphins and integrating the consciousness of the dolphins ... with human consciousness." It's not clear what that means - or why human consciousness needs to be "raised" to dolphin level - but the center provides dolphin-assisted underwater births.

A section on the Sirius website titled "Underwater Birth and Dolphins" states that "underwater birth is ... accepted as part of the British health services and recommended for those who anticipate problems with their pregnancy. Literally thousands of successful underwater births have occurred throughout the world. The initial enthusiasm for this technique has grown and its benefits for the mother and child are increasingly confirmed."

Unfortunately, medical evidence contradicts these statements, and underwater births may in fact be dangerous to newborns. In a 2002 study published in the journal Pediatrics titled "Water birth: A near-drowning experience," researcher Sarah Nguyen questioned the safety of water births and described instances of infants inhaling water and feces during underwater deliveries, which increased the risk of infection and pneumonia, among other complications. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists does not recommend water births, suggesting instead that children born in hospitals are safer - if for no other reason than professional medical help is immediately available in case of complications.

‘Natural' Births Water- and dolphin-assisted birthing is a recent twist on a New Age trend toward "natural births," of which some practices can be dangerous. In a culture that equates "natural" with "good," it's not surprising that a "natural birth" movement would eventually form. Of course not everything natural is safe, good or healthy. Poisons and cancer are completely natural - and deadly. All births are "natural," but some births are safer than others, and birthing a child in seawater next to a wild, carnivorous mammal is not a good idea.

Though dolphins have been widely embraced by New Agers and are much beloved - due to their playful nature, aquarium acrobatics, and TV shows such as "Flipper" - they do attack and kill other animals.

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Going even further into the pseudoscientific rabbit hole, the Sirius Institute claims that "The work of Dr. Stanislav Grof and others have established that the birth experience is the major formative experience for our personality. A good birth results in an imprint of basic trust in the universe while a difficult birth can lead to an imprint of struggle. Whatever the imprint, it tends to be repeated in our later lives."

From a psychological standpoint this is complete nonsense. There is no evidence at all that a baby's birth has any influence on their personality decades later - a person's friendliness, temperament, and "trust in the universe" are not determined during the relatively short trip down the birth canal - and it is certainly not "the major formative experience for our personality."

If expectant mothers choose to have a birth outside of a hospital or medical setting that's certainly their right, but the decision should be based on truth and medical facts, not myths and pseudoscience. Whatever the parents beliefs are about equalizing dolphin and human consciousness, the safety of the child should be the first and only priority.

Photo: Corbis