Last month, expectant parents Adam and Heather Barrington, traveled from South Carolina to Pohoa, Hawaii in the hopes of fulfilling their dream of a dolphin-assisted birth. Hosted by The Sirius Institute, the couple expect to form a connection with a dolphin pod during prenatal and postnatal swims. The couple plans for a water delivery among the dolphins, though they have also made contingency arrangements. In the event a dolphin-assisted birth cannot happen, Heather, accompanied by a midwife, will be removed to a nearby family/community farm. It is unclear what would constitute a reason to change the original plan.

"We are now receiving up to 3-4 requests per week through the Internet from people searching for a place to birth with dolphins," claims The Sirius Institute, which describes itself as "a research consortium with the purpose of 'dolphinizing' the planet."

According to founding partner, Paradise Newland, and research director, Michael T. Hyson, Ph.D., "birthing with the dolphins has been an ancient native practice in Hawaii and in other cultures." Because of a perceived demand, the Sirius Institute has developed the Dolphin Attended, Water, Natural (DAWN) and Gentle Birth Centers in Hawaii. Boasting a mild climate, year-round availability of free dolphins, and supportive cultural milieu, Hawaii is the natural location for DAWN, the partners claim.

It is open to debate whether dolphin-assisted birth is an ancient practice or not, but dolphin-assisted therapy (DAT), as unlikely as that might seem to some, has been around for over 25 years now.

Dr. Dolphin

Generally, DAT involves a patient swimming and playing with dolphins in captivity over several sessions while working on tasks that might include hand-eye coordination or response targets. Due to the dolphins being charismatic, exotic animals, it is an attractive form of therapy for individuals who have mental and physical disabilities, in particular autistic children.

Most scientists immediately invalidate DAT as a therapy, not only because of a lack of empirical support but also because of the fact that most people do not encounter dolphins in their daily lives. To attribute therapeutic change solely to DAT, variables such as swimming in the water, being somewhere warmer, traveling and living some place new while receiving therapy need to be controlled for so that these factors do not confound the results of the research.

Similarly, to make any claim that a dolphin-assisted birth is beneficial to mother and child, a researcher would need to unravel the many factors involved in order to tease out the potential effects of the presence of dolphins. From a scientist's point of view, the potential impact of each element of water birth would need to be looked into as would the potential comfort an animal might bring.

Alternatives to Hospital Births

The theory behind water birth, the process of giving birth in a tub of warm water, is that since the baby has already been in the amniotic fluid sac for nine months, birthing into a similar environment is gentler for the baby and less stressful for the mother.

Commonly, water birth does not necessitate delivering in the water; some women choose to labor in the water and get out for delivery. Among the many potential benefits cited by the American Pregnancy Association is that buoyancy promotes more efficient uterine contractions and improved blood circulation for the mother, resulting in better oxygenation of the uterine muscles, less pain for the mother, and more oxygen for the baby. Water also causes the perineum to become more elastic and relaxed, reducing the incidence and severity of tearing and the need for an episiotomy and stitches. And the effect of buoyancy lessens a mother's body weight, allowing free movement and new positioning.

The Association warns, though, that very little research has been done regarding the risks of water birth. Some studies in Europe have shown similar perinatal mortality rates between water births and conventional births. That said, the British Medical Journal, Royal College of Obstetrician and Gynecologists, suggest there might be a theoretical risk of water embolism, which occurs when water enters the mother's blood stream, as well as a possible risk of water aspiration on the part of the baby. Unusual situations, including toxemia, preeclampsia, pre-term delivery or multiple births, would require discussion with healthcare providers to determine the relative safety of a water birth.

Comfort Animals

Recognition, if any, of the positive influence of the presence of animals at birth is most commonly lumped in with home birth. Advocates of home birth frequently suggest that a mother's ability to remain in a familiar environment and to control her surroundings lead to better outcomes. The potential risks of home birth, as documented in scientific studies, vary by country. In America, slightly greater risk is attributed to home birth as compared to hospital birth, whereas in Canada, research finds no greater risks attend home births. It is important to note that Canadian midwives are highly regulated, require a 4-year degree, undergo rigorous continuing education, and are fully integrated into the health care system. In addition, strict selection criteria ensure that only very low-risk women are considered candidates for home births.

Risks of a home birth, then, would need to be considered before a mother decides to surround herself with family members and friends, even furry ones, during her moment of birth. Is there any benefit to animal comfort during birth? Certainly, the potential influence of pets on general well-being has been documented. Studies by psychologists Karen Allen of the University at Buffalo and James Blascovich of the University of California, Santa Barbara, demonstrate that the presence of a pet during a stressful task, such as performing difficult mental arithmetic, largely prevents spikes in participants' blood pressure. Allen's previous work included stressed-out, hypertensive stockbrokers who were randomly assigned to adopt either a dog or cat. They ended up with lower blood pressure than those who adopted neither animal.

As Heather Barrington's term approaches, she and her husband will make the important decision as to how to proceed with the birth. There may be worse choices than placing your fate in the hands of the Sirius Institute, which promotes 'integration' of the Cetacea (dolphins and whales) into human culture. No matter how attractive they appear, though, dolphins are wild animals; predators that in fact, have been known to kill other animals. Those who study dolphin behavior report that the marine mammals can become aggressive towards humans though reported injuries have been relatively minor, according to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod.

Nevertheless, judge for yourself whether these sea creatures, weighing up to 600 pounds, would be safe companions during childbirth in the video below.

Sources: Fiksdal, B, Houlihan, D, Barnes, AC. Dolphin-Assisted Therapy: Claims versus Evidence. Autism Research and Treatment. 2012

Wax, J, Pinette, MG, Cartin, A. Home Versus Hospital Birth-Process and Outcome. Obstetrical & Gynecological Survey. 2010.