Child Psychology Blogs

Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?

Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?
Alternative Psychotherapies: Evaluating Unconventional Mental Health Treatments

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

What Was the Rationale For Water Births? Or, Pseudoscience Aplenty

A reader commented the other day that water births were sometimes said to be less painful for the mother than ordinary births. If there were any evidence of that advantage, it’s easy to see why women would want to choose the water method--  but in fact there is no evidence. Of course, the water birth guru I.B. Charkovsky and his followers have claimed that women giving birth “his way” experience lengthy orgasms, suggesting painlessness at the very least (as well as suggesting that Charkovsky assumes there is a sucker born every minute who becomes ready as an adult to buy his beliefs).  

My thanks go to Yulia Massino for discovering more information about water births  as approved by the Association for Pre- and Perinatal Psychology and Health (APPPAH). At http://www.birthintobeing.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=category&id=85&Itemid=482, one of Charkovsky’s protégées, Elena Tonetti, speaks of having been welcomed as a speaker at an APPPAH conference, and on another part of the birthintobeing site quotes the praise of Thomas Verney, author of The Secret Life of the Unborn Child, a piece of fantasy following the beliefs of the “wild psychoanalyst” Nandor Fodor, and a founder of APPPAH. (I am emphasizing this APPPAH connection to show that the problems of beliefs about water births and similar practices are a world-wide problem, not just a peculiarity of Russians.)

In a passage written by Tonetti on the birthintobeing website, we see an explanation of Charkovsky’s belief that water births are advantageous for babies: “The idea to place laboring women in the water came to him [Charkovsky] when he was looking for the ways to relieve a baby’s brain from the shock of gravity. He considered this the main reason why the human brain is not fully available for our use. He states that whales and dolphins have a much better use of their brains, on levels unreachable for humans, because they are not exposed to gravity shock at birth. As proof of their higher intelligence and superior use of their brain, Charkovsky points out that these animals are not territorial and do not kill their own. He suggested that the concussion human beings experience as we emerge from the weightless environment is far more devastating than we care to understand. By the time we grow up and the function of understanding is available to us, we have no reference point to compare our brain power to what it could have been if we had not been, literally, smacked on the head by the immense pressure of our earthly gravity.”

Let’s look at this explanation painful line by painful line, because reading the whole thing at once produces the smack-upside-the-head sensation equivalent to what Charkovsky posits for babies:

“… he was looking for the ways to relieve a baby’s brain from the shock of gravity”.

Charkovsky is apparently unaware that gravitational attraction is acting on all objects close enough to a planet, whether or not they are floating in water. He seems to conflate floating in water with floating in space in a zero-gravity environment. If gravity were not at work on all objects, everything including the water would fly off into space. The sense we have of lightness when in water has to do with the water supporting our bodies against the pull of gravity, thus making limbs movable with less muscular effort, but the support of the water is different only in degree from the support offered by the floor or a bed. That gravity is still at work for the unborn baby or one in the birth process is shown by two obvious things--  first, that most unborn babies move into the head-down position, the weight of their heads being a major factor in this movement, and second, that even Charkovsky wants birthing mothers to be upright rather than reclining, so that the baby is helped to move downward by the pull of gravity, rather than “uphill” as would be determined by the slant of the vagina if the woman is lying down. Can even Charkovsky believe that gravity is operating on the body of the infant but not on the brain? Perhaps he has some concept of brain levitation that has not been included here, but otherwise the logic escapes the reader. Gravity is acting on the brain in the same way from conception to birth and after birth as well, therefore there is no “shock of gravity” to be experienced.

“…the main reason why the human brain is not fully available for our use.”

Here we have one of the most common errors of understanding of brain functioning, the old “only 10%” misconception. It may well be true that only 10% of the brain is used for cognitive functioning, but absolutely essential tasks are performed by the remaining 90%. The brain analyzes visual and auditory input with large areas, organizes and sends signals to muscles to create all voluntary movements, and monitors and controls vegetative functions like blood pressure and salt-water balance. The parts of the brain that do those critical jobs are specialized for their own tasks and cannot be recruited to do cognitive work. We humans may not be as clever as we would like to be, but it is not because we do not use our whole brains. We don’t need to look for a reason why we don’t use our whole brains, because there is no truth to this notion.

“… whales and dolphins have a much better use of their brains, on levels unreachable for humans…”

Romanticizing the intelligence, goodness, and benevolence of marine mammals is an interesting residue of the ‘60s and ‘70s, when John Lily claimed to be able to understand and use dolphin languages, and “whale music” for nurseries was much in favor. Swimming with dolphins and even dolphin therapy remain with us as alternative psychotherapies with unsupported claims for treatment of autism and other disorders. That these animals use their brains more effectively, or have cognitive capacities superior to those of humans, has not been demonstrated--  although of course it is true that in their natural environments they do much better than a human being could do, just as we do better than they could in our environment.

“…[they] are not territorial and do not kill their own”

Desirable as such traits may be for human beings, there are two problems here. The first is that differences in aggressive behavior between different species can be very strong, and to make the same claim for all whales and all dolphins is inappropriate. In addition, many claims about the nonaggressive behavior of specific animals, for instance that gorillas and other primates did not kill for food, current in the 1960s, have not turned out to be correct upon further observation. Second, assuming for the sake of argument that whales and dolphins are peaceful, there is no reason to think that human beings can gain this characteristic by imitating one chosen behavior of those species; if such imitation could be helpful, why not imitate eating plankton or fish, or going naked at all times?

“…far more devastating than we care to understand”
Here we have a typical argument of the pseudoscientific ilk. Rather than disagreeing with the logic or facts of Charkovsky’s views, or even simply failing to understand, opponents must be actively choosing their opposition because they do not want to understand. This choice would presumably be made because of their distorted thought processes and lack of intelligence, caused by their birth experiences--  just as those who oppose “attachment therapies” are said to suffer from attachment disorders. I suppose we could call this rhetorical device “proof by diagnosis”.

“… no reference point to compare our brain power to what it could have been…”
This is very true, but omits to say that Charkovsky & Co. also have no reference point except their own unsupported claims.

Well, there you have it--  the incredibly faulty reasoning behind the belief that being born in water is beneficial for infants’ development. And of course this reasoning assumes that the child survives the experience, which according to news reports has not always been the case.



  1. Charkovsky could have a lively exchange with the self-trapanation people who claim drilling a hole in your head improves blood flow, brain function, and consciousness:


    1. this does beat all-- although I guess blood flow OUT of the head would be improved--

  2. First, I would like to thank Prof. Jean Mercer for her articles. I would like to add some details. At 60 – 70 years of XX cent. in USSR there was rather popular, especially among teens, science fiction novel “The Amphibian Man” by soviet writer Alexander Beliaev, as well as the film at the basis of the given novel. It seems that the bizarre ideas underlying Charkovsky’ concepts in part also might be influenced by this novel and film. However in real life, Charkovsky’s transformed his fantasies in sadistic experiments on children, periodically resulting in child deaths in terrible circumstances. In Russian internet there are organized blogs “Charkovsky – No!” and “Fokina – No”, where people understanding the danger of this sadistic cult (including former adepts of this sect which escaped from it) publish the reports about tragic cases happening with Russian families due to engagement in it (http://charkovskiy-net.livejournal.com/; http://fokina-net.livejournal.com/). One also can see at one of such blogs the VIDEO demonstrating the similar awful practice of Charkovsky with children in Israel (http://charkovskiy-net.livejournal.com/483.html). As said in one the comments to this VIDEO-report, “I do not know what to say except swearing”. These wild trainings also are described in English language article published in Israel internet portal (moreover in Israel also there are reports of the death of children due to Charkovsky’s “treatment”):
    Besides, in the cited article there is mentioned that passive attitude of parents fanatically devoted to their Guru makes difficult court analysis of this cruel child abuse practice. Besides, in Russia this “man midwife” and “therapist” used to immediately escape abroad after incidents occurred with his “help” (http://charkovskiy-net.livejournal.com/1226.html). At last, some practices of Charkovsky, namely “baby rebirthing” which makes the child immersed into water to lose conscious (to enter into “trans”, as say his proponents) together with the overall cruelty and unscientific character of this “therapy”, makes to remind Attachment Therapy, in particular, the death of the girl Candace due to “rebirthing”.

    1. Thank you very much, Yulia. In all these situations, the complicity of the parents seems to prevent them from taking their natural role as children's protectors and buffers against social and environmental attacks.

  3. Okay, fine, but laboring in water is relaxing. Everyone I know who has tried it says the birth is far easier, often pleasant. I am not throwing out a lot of statistics or anything, just being anecdotal. I know what hurts and what does not hurt. All the stuff about whether being born into the water, makes things easier for the baby or not, I do not know, or whether or not a baby finds this less jarring, I do not know. I like to watch the British show, One Born Every Minute and especially watch the reactions and facial expressions of the babies. Each facial expression and mood so unique, so very human, so sacred. And nothing is sweeter to my soul then to listen to the newborn infant speech as each child relaxes on the breast of the mother, whether the baby was born into the water, the harsh light of the delivery room, or was even yanked out surgically. Often, one sees in the baby, panic, grasping the air, then on the maternal breast, relaxing, talking, looking for eye contact. So sacred that liminal time. Oh oh. Now I am being woo woo what with the talk of souls and the sacred.

    I hardly think such a thing can go back and be recapitulated. No ideas here, such as rebirthing,to recapture that moment.

    But, I personally experienced giving birth as a peak experience, and why would I want to miss any possible peak experiences. . . Medical centers in Europe and now in the USA offer water births with all the needed medical support so why not have it be pleasant unless an emergency demands reverting to the the now old fashioned birthing approaches developed in the mid twentieth century. e.g. on a bed, lithotomy position. I am the first and the last child in the generations of my family to have been born in a hospital. Anyway, maybe off topic of debunking woo woo speculations about the life of the mind of the unborn child. Although one thing to note is that those who have easier and more pleasant births might provoke a sense of failure in those needing intensive medical intervention. So this competitive attitude, about who can have the most natural peak experience birth, could have deleterioius effects on the confidence of new mothers, who may have adopted their children, or had complicated births etc. If I ever gave birth again, the Pope would have to be notified, but I would definitely be in the water for the eperience if I could!

    1. I don't doubt that being in nice warm water would be pleasant for a birthing woman, and being able to move easily out of the lithotomy position would be a big advantage for her. What I was objecting to was (were?) the exaggerated claims for the great pleasure of giving birth this way, and for the advantages for the baby-- neither of them very likely, and therefore not good reasons to seek a particular birth method. There's big difference between an extended orgasm and a satisfying "peak experience".

      I have to argue against your characterization of babies as seeking eye contact, being jarred, etc. Maybe that is what they feel and do, but maybe it's what we imagine because we adultomorphize them. Why not envision them as thinking, "oh man, I thought I'd never get out of that dark tight place. I've been so bored for the last month" or "what are all these people looking at me for?" Not that I propose that they do think those things, of course-- just sayin' that they seem to me to be just as likely human responses to getting born. But really I doubt very much that much is going on in their experience except basic physical stuff.

  4. I think the take home lesson for me is that I do not know what other human beings think and feel, including neonates. I think we can err in either direction though. Adultmorphizing neonate behavior and by extension older children, and by characterizing the behavior of other humans of any age or condition as merely physiological, instinctual or reflexive. I may have become sensitive to this when working in and old fashioned institution, back in the day, that housed severely disabled persons for their entire lives. The best practice for caregivers was to see the patients as fully human, even those in a vegetative state, that is to interact with those patients, as if they were aware. Romanticizing, perhaps, but leading to the most humane care.

    Full term babies do seem to try to open their eyes and seek a human face, and if I had access to an academic data base I would be inclined to furiously mine through papers to argue my point. Although we can observe this, we cannot actually paint a picture of the neonatal inner world, and thank goodness we cannot intrude entirely into the thoughts and experiences of other people. Although I feel inclined to mischievously invite you to look into the eyes of 100 sixty second old babies and see what you experience on a personal level.

    Let me admit this Obviously, you are a professor. Although I have education at the graduate level to at least temper some of my thinking, I am largely a creature whose thought is based on experiential and cultural superstitions. I try to put my tenets into the light of rational and scientific thought, in arguments such as these and in attempts at writing formal papers. But when we get down to it, even my alleged rational thought is informed by my unique inner experiences and unverifiable fantasies. For example, my humanistic leanings and the Social Work code of ethics that I agreed to on entering the profession, are not really defensible on a rational basis, but are actually articles of faith.

    Even so, attempts at discussing things scientifically, rooted in the diverse personal and cultural experiences of our human minds makes for lively conversation. Take everything I say with a grain of salt. I gotta go now and look for Garden Fairies in the meadow!

    1. As usual, your point is a good one-- if we believe that others have feelings and intentions like ours, we may be inclined to treat them better than if we think there's "nobody in there". Unfortunately, that belief can also lead to mistreatment at times, when someone thinks that because an adult can know or do something, a child can too, and is only behaving as if he can't in order to annoy the adult. And of course having that belief can also distort our understanding of what we think we see somebody doing.

      I certainly acknowledge newborns opening their eyes, and looking longer at a face if they see one-- whether that means they look for a face, or want to see a face, I have no idea.

      As for articles of faith, I've got 'em too, as who doesn't-- I think the issue is just to try to differentiate, if we can, between what we'd like to see and what we do see-- sometimes that's a very tall order. Goodness, look at the "Piagetian reach". Piaget claimed that when starting to reach for objects, babies looked back and forth from the hand to the object as they got the hand closer and closer to the object. This was taught for years as the real deal. When my first child was born, I blamed my own observational skills because I could never catch him doing that. Now, with good recording devices, we're pretty sure that whatever happened in Piaget's day, babies today show no sign whatever of doing it. Must have been some Swiss fairies at work in the Piaget household!

  5. Okay, not to get to anecdotal and personal but painless and pleasureable birth is within my experience and that of many women I know. However, putting that up for an expectation probably is not a good idea. Midwives say every labor is different. It might hurt a lot, in fact likely to, but some have been lucky enough to experience it as described by some of the romantic thinkers being debunked here. Anyway, I am not on this website to discuss midwifery or the intimate experiences of the group of women I run with, so I do not want to distract from your fidelity to science and its relevance to parenting education and responsible psychotherapy!

    1. I don't think I know enough about midwifery to have a reasonable discussion, anyway.

  6. Hi Jean, I don't know if my comments were misunderstood, since they haven't appeared here, and I hope I did not inadvertently offend. What I meant to say is that I am aware that much of my thought, all of my thought, is derived from experiential streams that are subjective, of course, as must be true for all people. Therefore my personal experiences with birth, and my view of the neonate, while meaningful to me and those with shared leanings, ought not form the basis for theory or best practice. I had mentioned that my "vows" on entering the field of Social Work are in a sense articles of faith, and in fact much of Social Work is rooted in various religious movements. My views on the dignity and autonomy of children are informed by a particular faith, one which I was not going to bring up on this website, a faith which may predispose me to subjectively experience or recognize what is referred to as the Light Within, when I contemplate a neonate or any child. As I strive to separate what is personal and subjective and meaningful for me from what is good practice and theory, I attempt to recognize the sources that shape my thought and may obscure rational analysis. Since I read on another of your blogs that your are a Free Thinker with leanings towards the same friendly persuasion, it seems you can probably easily understand what I mean. I am so concerned about these abusive practices that I do not want any of these peripheral dalliances and "notional" matters to obscure the clarity of reason and argument that must be applied full force on the Attachment Therapy movement and its various metastatic manifestations.

    1. Good heavens, no, no offense, and I'm pretty sure I understood-- but I spent all yesterday going somewhere and giving a lecture, so I didn't get to do my blog work.

      Bringing up the Inner Light is a wonderful point. I don't think anyone who genuinely uses that concept could systematically use coercion of a child (although goodness knows we all have done dumb things from time to time).