But reports that babies had drowned were emphatically denied. The Bristol babies, one of whom died and the other suffered brain damage, were born in a delivery suite at St Michael's Hospital after labour in a birthing pool.
In Oxford, there has been one death but Elizabeth Stewart, director of patient services at the Churchill John Radcliffe Hospital, said the baby had not drowned. The death had been 'associated with' a birthing pool delivery, she said.
Gordon Stirrat, professor of obstetrics and gynaecology at St Michael's Hospital, said yesterday that in the first case, 18 months ago, the baby died 15 hours after birth. Its mother had been in a pool for two and a half hours. 'An autopsy was carried out on the baby but no cause of death could be found.' In the second case, a few weeks ago, the mother was in water for about four hours.
Sylvia Rosevear, the consultant in charge of the recent case, said the two cases might be 'statistically significant' and the hospital had carried out an analysis of 160 water births since 1991.
Miss Rosevear said: 'Normally we would expect these difficulties in five per 1,000 cases. This works out as 12 1/2 per 1,000. It could be chance. We do not know.' She said it was possible the mother's temperature was an important factor. 'It is quite difficult to maintain water temperature in these pools.' The row over the safety of water births was started by Professor Geoffrey Chamberlain, president of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, who wrote to Dr Kenneth Calman, the Government's chief medical officer, on Monday.
In his letter, Professor Chamberlain asks Dr Calman to set up a working party to investigate water births. 'I think we should look at the rather unusual method for air-breathing mammals to be born.' He points out that, unlike whales and dolphins, humans do not have mechanisms to stop their newborn from breathing until their heads are above water.
Water births are believed to ease the pain of labour and enable the mother to move about more comfortably. There is evidence that babies born in water experience a more gentle birth and are more alert immediately afterwards. Advocates say the method is becoming increasingly popular.
A spokesman for the Department of Health said: 'We have already asked the National Perinatal Epidemiology Unit in Oxford to look into water birth'; pounds 85,161 has been made available for its research.
Janet Balaskas, an author and the founder of the Active Birth Centre which promotes and provides birthing pools for hospital and home use, said there are between 60 and 70 pools available in hospitals and about 300 hired out regularly. She knew of no deaths.
The Oxford study results from Changing Childbirth, the Government's favourable response to a 1992 Select Committee on Health report that called for women to have greater choices in childbirth.
Statistics show still births, and deaths in the first week of life, in England and Wales are at a record low of 7.6 per 1,000 births.Reuse content