March 27th 2019
Home birth: risky choice or better birth experience?
April 10th 2019 / 3 comments
Susannah Taylor had two fuss-free hospital births and mulled over a home birth for her third, as Meghan Markle is rumoured to be doing. She asked 4 women who've been there, what it was really like
A year ago, I gave birth to baby number three and during my antenatal appointment at around 19 weeks, the midwives told me that because I’d had two straightforward labours, I should really consider a home birth. The Duchess of Sussex is rumoured to be thinking about - it's said she wants to avoid the media glare of having to pose on the hospital steps within hours of giving birth. She's also said to be breaking with tradition by hiring a doula.
When the midwife suggested a home birth to me, I think I said something along the lines of, “Are you kidding? My husband would freak out if I told him he has to roll out the tarpaulin.” I’ve always been of the mindset that it’s far more sensible to be in a hospital with everything on hand in case anything were to go wrong. We all know people with birth horror stories to tell, so why risk it?
However, the more I looked into it, a home birth didn't seem like such a strange or scary proposition. Stats show that if you happen to go into labour on a weekend in the UK it’s becoming more and more difficult to get a hospital bed than during the week because of staff shortages and the chances of a maternity ward shutting on a Saturday are 59 per cent higher than on a Wednesday. In 2016, NHS maternity units were forced to close their doors 382 times throughout the year due to lack of staff or beds and cots. I can’t imagine how traumatic it must be to feel you’re going to have to give birth unassisted because you’re driving around looking for a hospital to take you.
I pondered how incredible it would be to welcome the miracle of a new life in a comfortable home environment with my Earl Grey tea, my food, my bath and my bed. For advice, I turned to Nicole Page-Croft, antenatal yoga teacher, former doula, and author of The Good Birth Companion, £10.29 who has had two home births. “I’m not an ardent, ‘home-birth-at-all-costs’ person at all,” she says, “But it’s so important that we recognise the emotional side of giving birth. In order to give birth well, we need to be able to switch off the front cortex of the brain and allow our bodies to do what they are designed to do. If you’re in familiar surroundings this can help reduce the fear and empower you.”
Nicole also believes the reason we are seeing an increase in midwife-led units is that women are crying out for better birth experiences. “Twenty years ago, women were made to give birth the way we were directed to give birth, and women are now saying they want more choice, that they don’t want to be treated like a number.”
Is it not more dangerous to give birth at home? “If you live five hours from a hospital, you may want to rethink the idea,” she says. “But midwives don’t wait until the last possible minute to transfer someone to hospital; if a midwife has an inkling that a baby is getting tired, she will transfer you well in advance. Also, you have to remember that if you’re in a hospital you won’t necessarily get a Caesarean any quicker than if you were rushed in by ambulance as an emergency.”
Other home birth positives? “You get one dedicated midwife who doesn’t leave you - normally two. This isn’t always the case in a hospital.”
Nicole had her first child, Skye, at home when she was 24 with a private midwife. “I always thought giving birth was something to endure, but I found it the most monumental, glorious, empowering thing I have ever done.”
While I’m sure the Duchess of Cambridge won’t have a problem getting a bed at the private Lindo Wing at St Mary’s Hospital, where she gave birth to Prince George and Princess Charlotte, I think most of us would give birth in Kensington Palace, given the chance. So what did I choose in the end? I seriously considered a home birth, however, my husband really wasn't keen - he wanted me to be in hospital, "in case anything were to go wrong". He said he'd never forgive himself if anything happened to me or the baby (he also said he didn't fancy placenta stuck to the kitchen floor!).
Although I was confident I'd be OK, I understood his thinking and I don't think it's a decision that was just up to me - we both had to agree. In the end, we went to the Spires midwife-led unit at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford as a compromise. Ironically, the birth was so fast and the contractions so strong, that I gave birth within five minutes of making it to the birthing suite no drugs or intervention required. My waters burst in reception and I only had time to take my clothes off before Willow came shooting out. The midwives literally caught her.
Susannah and Willow
But what was it like for other women had their babies at home? Four women tell me their stories of home births planned and unplanned.
Fashion and bridal wear designer Savannah Miller's fear of hospitals led her to having all three babies at home.
“There are quite a lot of people who have given me flack about having home births, but fear of hospitals is way stronger than my fear of giving birth at home. When I was about 10 years old, my mother had breast cancer, my parents were separating and I was sent to boarding school all at the same time. As a result, I associated hospitals with something really awful, which is why when it came to pregnancy I started exploring the home birth idea. I was also only 26 when I had my first child so was a bit naïve - I didn’t come to the idea of a home birth with any fear whatsoever.
“I have had three home births [one boy and two girls] and think that the key to keeping calm and serene in birth is to keep your mind calm and super focused. I also think it’s so important to feel 100 per cent safe and comfortable. If you were trying to go to the loo, for example, with 10 doctors watching and shouting at you, then you would never be able to go - right?! You have to feel relaxed.
I did some amazing hynobirthing sessions with a [hypnobirthing practitioner] Olivia Seck beforehand and we put together three home birth plans: the ideal birth at home and then two other less ideal options. It was great to know that I had it all sorted in my head. I was very lucky in that all three were at home as I had wanted them, in a water bath in our sitting room.
“With my first birth, I ordered an amazing pool that had filters and heaters and I would practise getting in every night for a few weeks beforehand and being in the right mental space. I found hypnobirthing to be an amazing tool for helping me keep my calm – so much so that with my third child, the midwife couldn’t actually tell that I was in established labour.
"With home birth teams, there are normally two midwives that come out to you – one to focus on the baby and one to focus on you, although my third birth was so fast that my baby flew out before the second midwife could arrive.
"Have there been any scary moments? Well, my third one came out with the cord wrapped around her neck and knotted a few times which freaked me out a bit. I understand home births have their risks but I think there’s nothing like getting into your own bed with a cup of tea with your own kids around afterwards. Were they there at the birth of the second and third? Absolutely not, that was never in the birth plan!”
Victoria Abbott, co-founder of Gloucestershire bakery The Sourdough Revolution gave birth to her son, Nelson (three months) at home following a traumatic hospital birth with her daughter, Margot two years earlier.
“After five years of IVF, we were told that my daughter (my first child) should be born in hospital. Not wanting to take any risks, we agreed but I wanted the birth to be as natural as possible. What followed, however, was a very traumatic birth that included a 40-hour labour, a lot of unnecessary, excruciating pain leaving me feeling as though I was losing my mind. After a spinal block [anaesthetic], I then had to stay in hospital, as I couldn’t feel my legs for 24 hours.
"With my second pregnancy, we knew we wanted to do things very differently. We liked the idea of a home birth but we were concerned we may not get to hospital in time amongst many things. My friend [the food writer] Nastaha Corrett put me in touch with her doula Emma Glover. She put us totally at ease and explained that it was entirely possible to have a great home birth experience. Over the coming months, I listened to the hynobirthing CD she gave me which helped me visualise giving birth, feeling in control and remaining calm.
"As expected, I was overdue, as I was with my daughter, but I told the doctors I didn’t want to be induced. I got to 42 weeks and went for a hospital checkup where the doctor told me horror stories about what would happen if I waited any longer. I left panicked that we were damaging the baby and so I did lots of things to try to induce labour – crab walks, eating spicy food, sex, you name it! Unbelievably, I started having contractions.
"Emma was brilliant and I didn’t realise how far into labour I was. By the time the midwife arrived, I just had time to get in the pool and my waters broke with a bang (literally, it was like a cannonball – very painful) just as I was getting in. The pool was instantly soothing and calming and three contractions later my son arrived. I’d had no time for gas and air. I realised afterwards that my daughter had been there at the birth – she’d also been splashing on the edge of the pool with the midwife just before the birth – it all felt very natural and untraumatic. To be honest, my husband was really anti the idea of having a baby at home to begin with, but he now feels it’s the best thing we ever did. As for me, I feel super happy and seriously proud to have had such an amazing experience. In fact, it’s probably one of the proudest moment of my life.”
Eleonore Crompton, a writer and blogger, has two daughters aged 11 and seven and a son, two. She has had two home births.
“My husband comes from a really hippy family - his parents are Chinese herbalists and he actually lived in a mud hut when he was little. So when it came to the birth of our first child no one was anti the idea of giving birth at home. I was also 29 and one of the first to give birth out of all my friends so we didn’t have anything to compare it to.
“Another factor was that the hospital near where I lived wasn’t that lovely. I had met an incredible team of about six midwives and when I spoke to them about home births they were so enthusiastic and warm and they inspired me to think anything was possible. Over the course of my pregnancy I got to meet all of them, but most of all I just really liked the idea of giving birth in my own space.
“A few weeks before the birth, we bought a birth pool and had it in the living room. It was hilarious because we would sit in it and watch the TV. I went into labour in the night and the midwives came straight away when I called them; they were a team of two that stayed with me the entire time. In the lead up to the birth, I had listened to Dr Gowri Mothra’s relaxation download The Gentle Birth Method and found the breathing to be really helpful. I would breathe out through my teeth during contractions.
“Beatrix was born in the morning in the water; it didn’t take away the pain but it was a huge relief to get in. Afterwards, it was so lovely to then be at home in my dressing gown, in my shower, my bed and in my own sheets. My husband then laid out a massive buffet and it felt like a big celebration.
“Thinking back, I could see the opportunities for things to go wrong but it didn’t sway me for the birth of our next child four years later. We were also really near the hospital, so it would be super quick to get there if anything was to go wrong. Those first two births were almost carbon copies of each other – although my waters broke on my husband’s feet with the second one! Unfortunately for the birth of our son (five years after that) the midwife team had been disbanded and I ended up giving birth in hospital. It felt so different and I was a bit shocked when they told me I wasn’t allowed to stand up during labour due to health and safety reasons (their backs).
The one downside to having a home birth is you have to clean the pool afterwards – or my husband did – but I thought that was a small price to pay for such a wonderful experience.”
Phillippa Rose is a service designer and innovation consultant. When her waters broke with her second child Nancy, she didn’t have time to get to hospital.
“My first child Alice was five days late and born in hospital. It was a fairly straightforward birth, with no major issues. When I was pregnant with our second child and craving more space, we made the big decision to uproot and move to Devon before the birth. However, we couldn’t find a tenant for our house in London until two weeks before the baby was due and so we ended up moving very last minute.
“I had phoned ahead to let the midwives know I was moving from London and the first few days I was there, I had a visit from midwife, which was amazing. She did say to me “A higher percentage of people have homebirths down here you know.” However, someone very close to me had recently had an awful tragedy with a small baby and I wasn’t prepared to take any risks.
“I‘d been sleeping on a mattress on a floor for a week as we hadn’t bought a new bed yet. Then, about nine days before the baby was due I remember going to about five huge DIY stores in one day and my mother-in-law kept saying I looked like I was ‘hanging low’! That night the baby was kicking like mad and at about 11 or 12pm I decided to start doing yoga cat stretches beside the bed. Suddenly my waters broke which was a real shock as with my first baby they hadn’t broken until the last minute. Not expecting me to go into labour, my husband had drunk too much whiskey to drink to drive me to hospital (!), but the midwife came round and told me to ring in the morning and to get some sleep.
“At about 6am the next morning the contractions were two minutes apart and the midwife came back. Examining me she told me the baby was on its way and that I would need to decide whether to get in an ambulance or stay put. I decided I didn’t want to be giving birth in an ambulance over speed bumps at rush hour so decided to stay at home.
“At about bout 9am my daughter’s head emerged but the midwife told me she needed to turn her around. Unbeknown to me, Nancy had ‘shoulder dystocia’ where the baby’s shoulder becomes stuck under the pubic bone. This can be really dangerous and you don’t have much time to get them out. She helped me to get on the bed and managed to turn her around but when Nancy came out she was unconscious. However, as soon as the midwife gave her gas and air she immediately started crying. The midwife was so calm and amazing but I realised afterwards that she was really shaking.
“That afternoon, a friend was due to give us a ‘welcome to the area’ tea party, never for a minute thinking that our baby would have arrived by then. In the end, we went to the tea party with a two-hours old baby in our arms.”
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