People who have never given birth outside of a hospital may have no idea of the differences between hospital and out-of-hospital birth. What’s the big deal? You can have a natural birth in the hospital. Why would someone want to have their baby at a birth center or (gasp!) at home? The answer is not so black and white.
Can you have a natural birth in the hospital?
Well, that all depends on what you call “natural,” but yes, to varying degrees, you can have a “natural birth” in the hospital. There are many labor & delivery nurses who are excellent at supporting natural hospital births, and there are many doctors and midwives who are supportive as well. Some hospitals have adopted policies that are more tolerant (even encouraging) of birth plans or that allow doulas in the birth room. Those are steps in the right direction. And many women have found creative ways to ensure a natural birth, such as waiting until transition to head to the Labor & Delivery floor, or laboring while roaming the halls of the hospital with a labor coach (a partner or doula or friend). Of course, a birth plan as an avoidance of interventions, rather than as a vision of an ideal birth, seems to really miss the point in a lot of ways. Should birth really be about strategic plans for dodging unwanted interference in your baby’s birth?
Let’s break this down. You’ve hired your care provider because you’ve heard great things about them, they have a great reputation, their statistics are great.. etcetera… Pushing the boundaries within a set system is one thing, but can you ask your care provider to be someone they’re not? A great hospital-based provider is skilled at hospital birth and what hospital birth has to offer you. A great birth center or home birth midwife is skilled at the midwifery model care. The models are not the same. As anyone who has seen birth both in and out of the hospital will tell you, there are a few key differences between the two:
The provider on call attends the birth at the hospital.
If your care provider is part of a group practice, who will actually attend your birth? If it’s a combination of physicians and midwives, are you guaranteed a midwife to attend you? Are all of the providers on board with your birth plan? You may have a favorite midwife or physician in the practice, but what are the chances that your favorite provider will attend the birth?
Most out-of-hospital practices are solo providers, although some are small group practices. In a solo practice, there is a rare possibility that your midwife will be unavailable due to illness or family emergency-after all, we’re only human! If you hired an out-of-hospital provider, do you know who the backup provider is?
All of the above are important questions to ask as you consider your birth options and whether to give birth in the hospital or out. What is most important is that you are comfortable with your decisions and ultimately your birth experience.
In the hospital, it’s the nurses who take care of you, not the doctors.
You spent weeks researching practices, settling on the one practice you think will best support your birth plan. Your doctor is a local superhero. But, who takes care of you at the hospital?
During your time in labor, the nurses will take care of you. Nurses are the amazing unsung heroes in the hospital. They are the ones who do the heavy lifting (literally, as well as figuratively) in patient care. They’re often over-worked and underpaid. We love nurses, yet even though they are awesome, they are also people you’ve never met before. Nurses are the ones who will be with you, almost single-handedly helping you with your labor. What if your philosophies on birth don’t match? Nurses vary in their training in natural labor support techniques. How do you know if you’ll be the lucky mom to get the super nurse who really knows her way around a rebozo or who does her best to be at the bedside as often as possible? Answer: You don’t. It’s a roll of the dice.
Once you get to the hospital, you’ll be checked in by the L&D staff. If you are seen by a doctor or midwife, it might be a provider from your group, or it might be an OB hospitalist, a physician who only sees patients in the hospital and does not have a private practice. If you’re admitted, you’ll most likely be monitored and “treated” per your provider’s standing orders. It’s good to know beforehand what orders are standard for your care provider. Your nurse will keep in contact with your provider and will update and consult with them, as needed, typically by phone. If you have questions about the orders or want to refuse something, you will have to wait until the nurse can reach the provider.
The provider may briefly check in during your labor, but typically they are not continuously present until you are pushing and the head is visible. Their training rests on the ability to take action if something unexpected happens. They are surgeons and the best option for a high risk situation, which happens in a small percentage of births.
Out-of-hospital midwives are the people who take care of you at your home or birth center. Together, with a birth assistant, they provide continuous labor support from beginning to end – and they determine when and if you need someone as highly trained as an OB or a transfer to a hospital. Rather than treat every laboring woman as if they are the minority of women who have complications, out-of-hospital midwives treat laboring women as the if they are the majority, who will not have complications, all the while keeping an eye on whether a complication could occur and when/if to transfer the mother to an OB’s care – much like the maternity models in most of the developed world.
Your nurse is taking care of more than one person at a time.
No matter how awesome your nurse is, she is only one person, and is most likely taking care of multiple women at the same time. It’s not realistic to expect a one-on-one continuous physical presence and support from your labor nurse. The hospital system is set up with floors of patients who are typically divided among the nurses for twelve hour shifts. The care will fluctuate based on caseload, changing shift hours, and the preferences of the nurses in term of hands-on care. There will be no chance to meet the nurses who will attend you before you are admitted. And no choice in terms of which nurse is assigned to you.
On the flip side, hiring a midwife means that you have a chance to interview and pick the right provider for your care, including a back-up midwife. Whether the primary midwife or the back-up midwife, you will have a good sense of exactly who will be providing continuous labor support during your birth.
They work in shifts.
Nurses typically work in 12 hour shifts. Unfortunately, labor doesn’t often fit neatly within one 12 hour shift. Your labor will typically straddle two shifts, or maybe more. While getting through contractions, you may have to shift gears and adapt to a new support person- right before transition, or even right in the middle of pushing.
The typical out-of-hospital provider does not work in shifts. She’s there with you from the beginning to the end.
A different team takes care of your baby.
Every hospital has different protocols and rules about labor and delivery care. The nurses who attend your labor and delivery will likely not be the nurses who take care of your new baby. With the lack of continuity in care for the family, mistakes can be made, such as giving a breastfed baby formula or giving a baby a pacifier when the mom doesn’t want one offered to the baby (in the event it causes nipple confusion and adds stress to the new breastfeeding relationship.)
Usually, the father or another family member can be assigned to accompany the baby whenever he/she leaves the mother, to ensure that no unwanted procedures were carried out despite their wishes to the contrary. Even with this safeguard though, the pediatric team still can’t possibly know the whole picture.
They haven’t been with the family throughout the entirety of prenatal care and birth, so they don’t know you in the same way your midwife would.
Yet another team takes care of you during postpartum.
With midwifery care, the mother’s care, the baby’s care, and the family’s care are all provided by the same team. In fact, the postpartum care is also provided by the midwife who attended the birth.
A different philosophy.
You’re “allowed” to do something, you’re “not allowed” to do something. If your wishes conflict with a physician’s preferences, you might be asked to sign an AMA (Against Medical Advice) form, which can feel intimidating when in the throes of labor. It’s important to remember that hospitals are large institutions with rules and regulations that are applied to every woman, despite the wide differences between them.
Obstetricians handle emergency situations well. In emergencies, the obstetrician is the necessary authority and operates from that perspective.
But in the case of normal birth, the woman is just as important of an authority. When she is able to follow her intuition and pay close attention to her body, with minimal interruption, she can communicate valuable information to her caregiver.
Midwives are trained to respect this authority in normal birth. The philosophy of midwives is that the midwife/client relationship is a partnership and decision-making is shared.
A different outcome.
Hospital and out-of-hospital birth are two very different things. It’s hard for me, as someone who has had it both ways, and who has seen many births both ways, to minimize the difference in outcomes. Personally, my hospital births left me feeling less powerful and capable as a woman and new mother. My home births helped me to feel empowered, intelligent-like I was the expert when it came to my new baby’s needs. There really isn’t a way to quantify that kind of effect, or to easily measure how it impacts your mothering in the long run. Or even to measure how it affects the child long-term. It’s easy to measure the physical benefits of a natural birth. But it can also have an unexpected and very healing impact on a mother’s life, just when she is embarking on new motherhood with a newborn. The unquantifiable effects of home birth may, in some ways, be the very reason that home birth is the optimal birth choice for so many women. And this may be the biggest difference of all.