Scuba Diving While Pregnant

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Jon Milnes

Pregnancy is a no-go for diving with all major organisations.

But what’s the problem?

Consult the standards of many of the dive organisations (in fact, all the major ones), and you’ll find that they list pregnancy among their contraindicators, the factors that determine that a person is not allowed to dive or receive dive training.

Of course, pregnancy, by its very nature, is a temporary contraindication, as so far, no one has been pregnant permanently.

But for some highly enthusiastic female divers, the prospect of a nine month surface interval may seem quite monumental.

Especially if these nine months happen to coincide with the local dive season, or a trip to a particularly scuba-worthy travel destination, such as Thailand, the Bahamas, or Hawaii.

It is only natural, then, to ask the question: what’s the problem with scuba diving while pregnant?

The Science of Diving While Pregnant

The challenge comes from the pressure.

While being submerged in water is something that many expecting women find very pleasurable, and even to be a relief from some the strains of pregnancy (science actually backs this up, and many medical professionals encourage pregnant women to swim during their pregnancy), scuba diving is different from surface swimming.

While at the surface, the pressure increase is close to non-existent.

Swimming is encouraged during pregnancy as the pressure increase is close to non-existent – Credit: Public Domain

For a woman 5’5 tall, the uterus would be at a depth of only a few feet even when that woman is standing vertically in the water, meaning the pressure increase the uterus, and thus the unborn baby, is subjected to is a fraction of a bar.

Not so with diving, where even diving to some 33 feet will double the pressure compared to on the surface.

Here is a video showing, what some would consider, a risky behavior of free diving while pregnant:

Baby under pressure

But is this pressure a problem? After all, an unborn child is suspended in liquids, and as we all know, liquids are incompressible, no problem, right?

Well, first of all, just because liquid is incompressible doesn’t mean that the liquid, and whatever is in it, isn’t influenced by the pressure.

And while studies of the effects of pressure on unborn children are limited, there have been some studies that point to a possible, negative effect.

One study, which compared 69 women who had not dived during their pregnancy to 109  women who had, showed a small, but statistically significant increase in birth defects.

The non-diving mothers reported no birth defects, while there was an occurrence in birth defects of 5.5 percent among the diving women.

The study was done as a survey, which in itself has its limitations, and the sample was relatively small, so solid conclusions are a bit difficult to make.

Using hyperbaric chambers, a range of experiments using animals have been conducted, and these have also pointed to an increase in the risk of birth defects and complications during pregnancy, which seem to be caused by the increased pressure.

However, actual, human trials are few and far between, for obvious ethical reasons, so again, most of the evidence is somewhat circumstantial.

Hyperbaric chambers have been used to test the effects of pressure in relation to birth defects – Credit: imageshunter

To dive or not to dive?

Dive organisations list pregnancy as a contraindicator for good reason.

The evidence may not be overwhelming, but there are indications that diving does create slight increases in risks of birth defects and pregnancy complications.

Read more about the risks of scuba diving while pregnant here.

While the increased risks are determined to be quite low, the severity of the consequences means that most dive professionals, and most medical researchers, adopt a “better safe than sorry” policy, especially considering that once the baby is delivered, the mothers will be perfectly able to dive.

As the Divers Alert Network themselves conclude:

The overall picture of the literature indicates that, while the effect may be small, diving during pregnancy does increase the risk to the fetus, and the consequences could be devastating to all involved.

Would you dive while pregnant?

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