A birthing center
is a healthcare facility, staffed by nurse-midwives
, for mothers in labor
, who may be assisted by doulas
and coaches. By attending the laboring mother, the doulas can assist the midwives and make the birth easier. The midwives monitor the labor, and well-being of the mother and foetus during birth. Should additional medical assistance be required the mother can be transferred to a hospital. Some hospitals are now adding birth centers to their facilities as an alternative to the high tech maternity wards commonly found at most hospitals.
A birth center presents a more home-like environment than a hospital labor ward, typically with more options during labor: food/drink, music, and the attendance of family and friends if desired. Other characteristics can also include non-institutional furniture such as queen-sized beds, large enough for both mother and father and perhaps birthing tubs or showers for water births. The decor is meant to emphasize the normality of birth. In a birth center, women are free to act more spontaneously during their birth, such as squatting, walking or performing other postures that assist in labour. Active birth is encouraged. The length of stay after a birth is shorter at a birth center; sometimes just 6 hours after birth the mother and infant can go home.
Hospital birth comparison
Good quality randomised controlled trials comparing hospital birth with "home-like" birth centres have been completed and provide excellent evidence about the difference between birth centre and hospital birth. There is an increase of 3% in normal birth, a 14% increase in satisfaction, a 5-6% increase in breast feeding, and a 15% reduction in episiotomy (replaced by a 8% increase in tears). All of these results were statistically significant.
There was a strong trend towards an increase in perinatal mortality. There was an 83% increase in the risk of death in the birth centres, despite all being located in the same location as an obstetric unit. Statistical significance was just missed, making this estimate of the difference in deaths between hospital & birth centre slightly less reliable than the figures in the preceding paragraph.
Birth centers in the United States
Like clinics, birth centers arose on the coasts of the U.S. in the 1970s, as alternatives to heavily institutionalized health care. Today, use of birthing center facilities is generally covered by health insurance. Several of the practices which were innovated in birth centers are beginning to enter the mainstream hospital labor and delivery floors including:
- Bathtubs or whirlpools for labor and/or birthing
- Showers for mothers to labor in
- Hospital acceptance of the mother choosing to walk during labor, use a labor/birthing ball, not use pain medication during labor and rooming in of the infant after birth
- Beds for family members to stay with the mother during labor and birth
There are certain requirements that a woman needs to meet in order to be able to birth at a birth center. First, she must have an uncomplicated, low-risk pregnancy. Twins, vaginal births after cesarean section, and breech babies are not allowed to be delivered at free-standing birth centers. Free-standing birth centers require hospital backup in case complications arise during labor that require more complex care. However, even if a delivery can not happen at the birth center due to a high-risk pregnancy, birth center midwives might provide prenatal care up to a certain week of gestation or at the hospital alongside an obstetrician.
Amish birth centers in the United States
, known for their great respect for tradition, usually have homebirths or give birth at birthing centers. Only when there is risk to mother or child, do Amish women go to hospitals for the birth of their children. Two books have been written about Amish medical issues including their birthing practices: Dr. Frau: A Woman Doctor among the Amish
by Dr. Grace Kaiser and House calls and hitching posts: stories from Dr. Elton Lehman's career among the Amish by Elton Lehman. Lehman
is known for his work in founding a freestanding Amish birthing center. The Mount Eaton Care Center
's first such center, was established in 1984. In her book, Kaiser
recounts the private nature of birthing among the Amish. She points out the practice of Amish women keeping labor a secret to all except their own husbands and midwife or obstetrician, as well as the practice of women waiting till active labor before summoning a midwife
or OB. Due to the latter practice, fathers occasionally end up delivering their own children before the midwife or OB can arrive if a homebirth is selected. Amish women who choose a homebirth often continue with household duties until they are no longer physically able to continue. If birthing in a birth center, they are free to labor similar to that of homebirths: eating, drinking, visiting with their family members, etc.
Birth centres in Australia
In a response to the National Maternity Action Plan
, State and Territory Governments in 2002 started to respond to consumer demand for an increased number of birth centres to be made available to women. Whilst most birth centres are attached to hospitals, some are being established as free-standing centres much further away from hospital back-up. As long as they are within 90 minutes of a hospital, they are considered 'safe'. Most birth centres are now being run solely by midwives
, with obstetric
back-up only used when there are complications.
Some birth centres in Australia are moving away from the 'low-risk' model and are moving to an All risk model where women with medical complications are accepted into the birth centre but extra care is provided to them where necessary.
Birth centres in Canada
Birthing centres remain a controversial issue in Canada, but it is an options for mothers in country.
Hospitals do offer this options, but it is available at special clinics as well.