Diving or Snorkeling while Pregnant – What do you have to consider?

For the expecting mom who loves to dive and snorkel, the lack of clarity on the safety of underwater sports is pretty disappointing. For instance, what exactly are the risks of diving while pregnant? Are they the same as snorkeling? Is there a way to mitigate the risk? Are the risks scientifically proven?

Unfortunately, it can be difficult to answer these questions. For one thing, all of the information we have is either the result of speculation, anecdotes, or surveys. While these methods can be helpful, the reality is that without accounting for context, scientists cannot make definitive conclusions about the effects of scuba diving on the fetus. And, although this problem could be solved in a controlled trial, there is an obvious moral barrier to women participating in a study in which a baby would be put in danger. As a result, we may be able to talk about possibilities of correlations without knowing for sure whether underwater sports cause birth defects.

Diving and Snorkeling during Pregnancy

Given the gaps in our knowledge on the safety of underwater sports for unborn babies, all that experts can really do is suggest that pregnant women steer clear of scuba diving. Still, it can be helpful to look at all of the information and theories available right now, so that your family can make the right decision for you.

The theoretical risks of diving

To understand a bit more about why scientists are hesitant, let’s take a look at some of the predictable risks of diving for pregnant moms.

The first is related to the air that we breathe underwater. On the one hand, pressurized oxygen, or hyperbaric oxygen, poses a threat to humans that is normally addressed by controlling the partial pressure of the mixture. So, while normal diving conditions are safe for most people, any changes in the levels of pressurized oxygen can have disproportionate effects on the fetus.

The second risk has to do with decompression illness, widely known as the bends. Of course, many divers are familiar with how this condition develops: bubbles of nitrogen are absorbed into the tissues during descent. While the body is able to diffuse the bubbles safely while ascending at a slow pace, coming up too quickly causes the bubbles to expand because of the decrease in pressure. The repercussions can be extremely serious, and for an unborn child, it is even more dangerous. The reason for this is that a fetus in the womb receives oxygen through the placenta instead of lungs, so the baby may have trouble diffusing the nitrogen bubbles after they have formed.

Scientific studies on animals.

In order to gain a deeper understanding on the effects of diving on humans, some scientists have headed to the lab. Rats, hamsters, and even sheep have been studied under conditions similar to diving, and even then, the results have been mixed.

In a few studies, for example, pregnant rats and hamsters were exposed to hyperbaric oxygen, which did lead to birth defects like underdeveloped skulls and limbs. It’s important to note, though, that the levels of hyperbaric oxygen used in these studies was significantly larger than anything humans would ever face. When these levels were decreased, the abnormalities also pretty much disappeared.

Of course, the way that rats and hamsters reproduce is different from humans, leading some scientists to focus on sheep, which have a similar placenta. According to one such study, the lambs in the womb did show signs of decompression illness even when the mothers didn’t have the same symptoms. In some cases, the damage was life-threatening. Though these results seem to be the most eye-opening, the study has also been criticized for its methods, with some skeptics blaming the equipment design for the bubbles in the embryos instead of normal diving practices.

Is snorkeling a viable replacement?

So, given the wide body of somewhat concerning if also conflicting scientific and anecdotal evidence, many expecting moms simply forgo the risk. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that moms-to-be have to stay out of the water. In fact, snorkeling is a low-impact, relaxing alternative that can be great for pregnant women, provided that they consider a few safety tips:

  • Avoid holding your breath. Limiting oxygen to the fetus is a huge risk, so pregnant women should never hold their breath to dive down and get a closer look at something below the surface. Also make sure that the breathing tube is comfortable and unblocked to provide a steady flow of air.
  • Limit your sun exposure. Elevated body temperature can have an adverse effect on fetal development, especially early on in the pregnancy, so it’s always a good idea to take frequent breaks, stay hydrated, and avoid the hottest part of the day.
  • Be aware of your surroundings. Even though you may be floating on the surface, it’s crucial to pay attention to anything that may cause injury, such as reef outcroppings or dangerous wildlife like sea anemones.

Ultimately, Moms, the choice is yours. But while the verdict is still out on the safety of diving while pregnant, it’s important to consider all the available data to make sure you can make an informed decision about your diving practices!

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