SOUTHEAST Asia's first water baby will be born in Hong Kong any day now. Matilda Hospital on The Peak has installed the territory's first underwater birthing tub. It arrived from Britain just days ago and is ready and waiting for its first baby. Hong Kong gynaecologist and obstetrician Dr Lucy Lord is delighted with the hospital's new arrival - about the size of a child's wading pool. 'After two years of trying, it's finally here - it's brilliant news for mothers. 'It's primary use is for pain relief, but it has also been shown that labouring in water reduces the need for intervention like forceps delivery and epidurals [a spinal injection which numbs the lower half of the body].' Its arrival is especially good news for STAR TV design director, Bethany Bunnell, who is largely responsible for its installation and who expects to be the first to use it. She heard about the pain relief benefits of water births from a friend who had her baby in an Australian birthing tub. 'My obstetrician was enthusiastic so there was no real reason why it couldn't be done here. I researched it thoroughly, found out where to get the bath, how much it would cost, and then approached Matilda Hospital, whichwas responsive to the idea. 'There were initial reservations, the strength of the floor for one thing, but once Matilda's structural engineer was happy the floor was strong enough and other practicalities had been worked out, they agreed,' Ms Bunnell said. Water births are becoming more popular in Britain where National Health Service (NHS) hospitals have found them to be safe, effective and also cheaper. Giving birth in Hong Kong is notoriously expensive with an epidural at Matilda Hospital costing between $9,000 and $15,000. At about $4,000 - $2,500 plus an hourly charge for nursing staff - the birthing tub will be significantly cheaper than a conventional hospital birth, and gets the thumbs-up from prospective users who are paying their own maternity bills. However, there will be strict rules about who can use the new facility. 'We will be adhering to the NHS guidelines. For a start only women who have absolutely normal pregnancies and birth prospects can be considered. Those with problems are excluded at theoutset. Women who need stronger pain relief than gas and oxygen [Entonox] are also not suited to a water birth,' said Dr Lord. Even though the mother is underwater, the baby is still closely monitored. 'The mother floats to the surface now and then so we can listen to the baby's heart rate with a stethoscope. If there are problems she can easily get out. It doesn't matter whether the baby is born in the water or whether most of the labour is in the tub and the baby is then born out of water. Labouring in water can still be very beneficial.' With the water supporting her, the mother is both more comfortable and more mobile. She is also able to divert more of her energy to cope with contractions. The reduction in abdominal pressure caused by buoyancy promotes more efficient uterine contractionsand better blood circulation. This results in better oxygenation in the uterine muscles, less pain for the mother and more oxygen for the baby, which in turn reduces the risk of foetal distress. The greater mobility, feeling of weightlessness, warmth and tactile stimulation, hormone secretion (enhanced by warm water) and relaxation all combine to reduce pain. There is also a lower incidence of tearing and injury to soft tissues because of the softening effects of warm water. From a baby's point of view a water birth is ideal. In their book Water Birth, Janet Balaskas and Yehudi Gordon write: 'A baby is aquatic during pregnancy while at birth a dramatic change occurs when the newborn enters the world of gravity, breathes air and feels changing temperatures. Water birthing provides a familiar medium of water and offers a gentle and gradual entry into world.' Since its conception in the 1960s by Soviet researcher and swimming instructor, Igor Tjarkovsky, giving birth underwater is appealing to more and more women. The popularity of water births can be dated from a 1982 BBC documentary about an innovative birthing room at a hospital in Pithiviers, France. Obstetrician Michel Odent had pioneered the technique and delivered 100 babies underwater since it was established in the 1970s. By 1987, 3,000 babies had been delivered in birthing tubs as demand spread throughout Europe, the United States and Australasia. Although this will be the first water baby Dr Lord has delivered, she is confident the procedure is 'technically straightforward'. Matilda Hospital's medical superintendent, Dr Tim Dawbarn, said: 'I am happy that we have thoroughly looked at the safety aspects of the bath. Water samples will be taken every hour while the mother is in the tub to check the bacterial content and to make sure it stays clean and safe for mother and baby.' There is little chance of doctors, midwives and husbands joining the mother in the tub - even though they are shown getting wet in a video of European water births available at the hospital. 'Long gloves will be quite adequate,' said Dr Lord. 'I don't think a swimsuit is necessary for me.'