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Alternative Birthing: Is It Safe?
Today, most women give birth in hospitals, under the care of obstetricians. But more and more women are considering alternative birthing methods, including midwifery, water birth, and birth at home or in birthing centers. Are these alternatives safe and, if so, who can consider using them?
Using a Midwife
A midwife is a healthcare professional who has been trained and has expertise in managing low-risk pregnancies and deliveries. A midwife’s philosophy about childbirth is that it can occur naturally until proven otherwise.
A midwife may carry one of several subtitles:
- Certified nurse-midwives (CNMs) have at least a bachelor’s degree, have completed both nursing and midwifery training, and have taken licensing exams to become certified.
- Certified midwives (CMs) have the same qualifications as CNMs, but are not registered nurses.
- Direct-entry midwives may or may not have college degrees or certifications. They are trained through apprenticeship, workshops, and/or formal instruction.
- Certified professional midwives (CPMs) are certified by the North American Registry of Midwives after passing written examinations and skill evaluations. CPMs are required to have out-of-hospital experience.
While midwives are trained to recognize the signs of trouble in pregnancy and labor, they cannot perform surgical interventions in case of emergency. Therefore, midwives are not advised for higher-risk pregnancies, including multiple births, pregnancy-related complications, diabetes, high blood pressure, or pre-existing health problems. Even if you have a low-risk pregnancy, talk to your midwife to find out what would be done in case of a complication.
In a water birth, the woman will go through labor and/or delivery in a warm tub of water. Since the baby lives in the fluid-filled amniotic sac for 9 months, some people believe that being delivered into a similar environment is less stressful for the baby. There are also other potential benefits to a water birth:
- A soothing, relaxing environment for the mother
- Buoyancy, which lessens body weight and increases comfort
- A sense of privacy, which can be calming
- Less pain and use of pain medication during the first stage of labor
Until recently, little research had been done to determine the risks associated with water births. A 2005 study compared 737 water births with 549 "land" deliveries. The researchers found that water births were associated with significantly shorter first stages of labor, lower episiotomy (cutting the skin between the vagina and anus) rates, and reduced need for pain medications.
A water birth is not appropriate if you:
- Have herpes , since it can be transmitted through the water
- Have physical limitations
- Have a baby in the breech position
- Have excessive bleeding, an infection, or high blood pressure
- Are having more than one child (multiples)
- Are in preterm labor
Your doctor can help you determine whether water birth is a safe option for you. Many hospitals and birthing centers are equipped for water births, or you can rent a birthing tub.
Home Births and Birthing Centers
Before the 20th century, almost all births occurred at home. But today, most women give birth in hospitals. Recently, however, more women are considering giving birth at home.
If you choose the home birthing option, work with an experienced, licensed midwife and develop a plan to quickly reach a hospital at the first sign of trouble. You should also be aware that it is not always possible to reach the hospital in time to avoid problems related to attempted home births.
If you have diabetes, high blood pressure, preterm delivery, or any other complications, have your baby in the hospital.
Birthing centers can be freestanding, located on hospital grounds, or inside a hospital building. They provide women with access to a medical team, which may include midwives or nurses who work with physicians.
In true birthing centers, there is no labor induction, no fetal monitoring other than ultrasound, no pain medications, few episiotomies, no operative deliveries or cesarean sections, and limited equipment. For these reasons, women who are expecting multiples, have diabetes, high blood pressure, or other complications of pregnancy should not consider birthing centers.
Your Birthing Plan
If you are considering an alternative birthing method, it is especially important that you and your partner create a birthing plan. Discuss it with your doctor or midwife a few months before you expect to deliver. This plan is a list of preferences that to help minimize the number of decisions that you need to make while you are in labor.
In this plan, you can specify your preferences for options such as pain control and timing of umbilical cord clamping. You also can discuss your preferences in the case of a complication or abnormal situation during childbirth. For instance, if you are giving birth at home, you may plan to transfer to a hospital after being in labor for a specified amount of time. Your doctor or midwife can help you determine the situations that may arise and how you can safely handle them.
American Pregnancy Association
Women's Health—US Department of Health and Human Services
The Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada
Women's Health Matters
Birth plans. Nemours Foundation website. Available at: http://www.kidshealth.org/parent/pregnancy%5Fnewborn/pregnancy/birth%5Fplans.html. Updated July 2015. Accessed February 16, 2016.
Birthing center. American Pregnancy Association website. Available at: http://www.americanpregnancy.org/labornbirth/birthingcenter.html. Updated August 2015. Accessed February 16, 2016.
Home birth. American Pregnancy Association website. Available at: http://www.americanpregnancy.org/labornbirth/homebirth.html. Updated August 2015. Accessed February 16, 2016.
Midwives. Kids Health—Nemours Foundation website. Available at: http://www.kidshealth.org/parent/pregnancy/birth/midwives.html. Updated July 2014. Accessed February 16, 2016.
Thoeni A, Zech N, Moroder L, et al. Review of 1600 births: does water birth increase the risk of neonatal infection? J Matern Fetal Neonatal Med. 2005;17:357-361.
Water birth. American Pregnancy Association website. Available at: http://www.americanpregnancy.org/labornbirth/waterbirth.html. Updated August 2015. Accessed February 16, 2016.
6/5/2009 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed: de Johnge, van der Goes B, Ravelli A, et al. Perinatal mortality and morbidity in a nationwide cohort of 529 688 low-risk planned home and hospital births. BJOG. 2009 Apr 15 early online.
7/6/2009 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed: Cluett ER, Burns E. Immersion in water in labour and birth. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2009;(2):CD000111.
9/18/2009 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed: de Jonge A, van der Goes B, Ravelli A, et al. Perinatal mortality and morbidity in a nationwide cohort of 529,688 low-risk planned home and hospital births. BJOG. 2009;116:1177-1184.
- Reviewer: Andrea Chisholm, MD
- Review Date: 02/2016
- Update Date: 03/15/2015