What is a freestanding birth center?
A birth center is a freestanding building, not connected to a hospital, where women go to receive maternity care (prenatal and postpartum) and give birth. Birth centers cater to women desiring a natural birth, without medications or medical interventions. Birth centers only care for healthy mothers and babies. High-risk pregnancies are not appropriate for birth center care.
What is the difference between a hospital and a freestanding birth center?
A freestanding birth center is a home-like environment. Many birth centers have luxurious queen beds, dimmable lighting, and a warm and cozy interior. At a birth center, you are free to move around, to eat and drink in labor, and to birth in whatever position feels right to you. Medical equipment is often hidden in cupboards, easily accessible, but out of sight, so it doesn't detract from the environment. Intermittent monitoring of the baby's heart rate is done with a handheld doppler, as opposed to a continuous fetal monitor. Interruptions and medical interventions are kept to a minimum so as not to disturb the laboring person and the natural process of birth.
But not only do birth centers offer a different kind of environment, they offer a completely different kind of care than hospitals.
Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life illustrates the problem birth centers solve in a typically comical and dramatic fashion…
Birth centers, in contrast, provide care according to what’s called the “Midwifery Model of Care.” In the Midwifery Model, care is delivered by midwives, not doctors. Here’s what a family can expect at a birth center:
- Personal attention
- Time with their care provider
- In-depth education around pregnancy, birth, nutrition, tests, options, etc.
- Individualized care tailored to their specific needs
- A care provider who will stay with them throughout their labor and birth
- They will know who will be at their birth
- The freedom to move, eat, make noise, and do as they choose in labor
- A peaceful, private environment in which to give birth
- Overall, high-touch, low-tech care
98.8% of women using a freestanding birth center would recommend it to a friend and/or return to the birth center for a subsequent birth.
If birth centers are so great, why aren’t more women choosing them?
Good question — because there aren’t enough of them.
But why would women desire a birth without medication and/or interventions?
Pregnancy and birth happen by a complex chain of events triggered by hormonal and other physiological changes. Every time we introduce something, like a medication or another type of intervention, we run the risk of upsetting this very fragile biological process. When the process of labor is interrupted, it causes problems which necessitate other interventions to stay on track and keep everyone safe. This phenomenon is called the “Cascade of Interventions.” It can be thought of like a snowball — one intervention leads to another, and then another, and another. The ultimate intervention, where the baby is removed by surgery to the abdomen, is called a Cesarean Section. In the US, 1 in 3 women is having a C-section. This is SO HIGH! And it has grown considerably over the last several years.
The World Health Organization believes we should aim for a maximum of 10–15% of women receiving C-sections. The US is currently at about 32.4%. Most women don’t want a C-section and one of the best ways to avoid getting one is to have your baby at home or at a birth center. Out-of-hospital births end up with a transfer to the hospital and a C-section rate of only 5.2%.
More Than Half Of C-Sections Performed In U.S. Aren’t ‘Medically Necessary’
Pregnant American women give birth via caesarean section at more than double the rate the World Health Organization…www.huffingtonpost.com
What’s so bad about C-Sections?
“Like any other major surgery, c-sections can have complications, like damage to other organs, internal bleeding, blood clots or infection. Recovery after a c-section is typically longer than that of a vaginal birth. Moms who have c-sections may experience as much as six weeks of post-operation pain and bleeding, versus bleeding and vaginal discharge for two to four weeks after a vaginal birth. Finally, women who have a c-section for their first baby will face risks for subsequent pregnancies, like a higher chance of the placenta implanting or growing abnormally, or uterine rupture along the site of the scar.” Huffington Post
There is also substantial lifelong risk to the baby, as found by a recent study published in the British Medical Journal and reported by CBS News (among others).
What about pain?
Birth centers specialize in unmedicated birth. They educate women and their families prenatally about what to expect in labor and how to cope with the intensity of birth. Most women do just fine. I have heard women say that labor was not nearly as painful as expected, and that having a spider bite incised was far more painful!
That is not everyone’s experience, however. So birth centers do offer tools like massage, hydrotherapy (water is very relaxing in labor), TENS units (electro-stimulation), and other natural measures to help women cope.
That being said, there are some pain medications that pose minimal risk and can be used safely in a birth center. Those medications are nitrous oxide (laughing gas) and some types of narcotics.
How much does birth center care cost?
Not only do birth centers provide more personalized, attentive care with fewer interventions, but they are also far less expensive than hospitals. The New York Times did a great job of summing up the incredible costs of having a baby in their 2013 article, American Way of Birth, Costliest in the World. Here’s an excerpt:
“When she became pregnant, Ms. Martin called her local hospital inquiring about the price of maternity care; the finance office at first said it did not know, and then gave her a range of $4,000 to $45,000. “It was unreal,” Ms. Martin said. “I was like, How could you not know this? You’re a hospital.”
[…] Add up the bills, and the total is startling. “We’ve created incentives that encourage more expensive care, rather than care that is good for the mother,” said Maureen Corry, the executive director of Childbirth Connection.”
By comparison, cost of care in a birth center is usually a flat fee and varies by cost of living in that part of the country. Ranges are from about $4000 in Austin, TX to $9000 in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Does health insurance cover birth center care?
YES! Most PPO plans cover some portion of birth center and midwifery care. The amount varies considerably by plan, but many plans cover between 1/3 to the full amount of the fees.
Are birth centers licensed?
In California, licensing of birth centers is optional, and there are a number of reasons a birth center might choose to forego licensure. All midwives, however, are licensed. Licensed midwives are licensed by the Medical Board of California. Many other states also have legislation for licensing midwives and birth centers.
Is birth center care safe?
Yes, it is. Midwives that work in birth centers are fully licensed and have followed a course of study that prepares them to safely care for families in a birth center setting. Birth centers stock a variety of tools to handle potential emergencies, including medications to stop bleeding, resuscitation equipment for both the baby and the mother, and oxygen. All staff are trained in Neonatal Resuscitation, CPR and Advanced Life Support in Obstetrics. Statistics for nearly 17,000 out-of-hospital births and their outcomes can be found here.
Do birth centers carry malpractice insurance?
Yes, birth centers and the midwives who work in them are required to carry malpractice insurance.
Where can I learn more about the maternity care industry in the US?
Ricki Lake did a fantastic documentary called The Business of Being Born that gives an enlightening look at the issues surrounding maternity care in the US. Here’s the trailer…
So in summary…
- are safe
- are consumer friendly
- have extremely high customer satisfaction
- provide more personalized care
- offer a peaceful, luxurious environment
- and are cheaper than the competitor (hospitals).