Freebirthing trend is dangerous, doctors warn

Freebirthing trend is dangerous, doctors warn

Emb 00.01 schedule for 7am

“Freebirthing” can be dangerous, doctors have warned, amid a rise of women giving birth without medical assistance.

Health leaders have issued a warning after a rising number of free births since the pandemic.

Several NHS hospital leaders have also highlighted their concerns at board meetings, with one hospital trust declaring it would not send a midwife if mothers-to-be changed their minds at the last moment.

While the number of free births is not recorded, the number of births at home, which includes both freebirthing and callouts of a midwife to help, are recorded.

The figures show an increase in home births, from 2.1 per cent of all births between 2016 and 2019, to 2.5 per cent in 2021, as first reported by the Health Service Journal. It equates to about 17,400 of the 694,685 babies born that year.

The pandemic is thought to have exacerbated the freebirthing trend, because midwives were temporarily banned from visiting pregnant women’s homes to deliver babies.

However, there is also a growing number of social media pages, hashtags and influencers giving out advice to expectant mothers on how and why to have a free birth.

It comes after doctors criticised official guidance by the NHS watchdog recommending the use of water injections for pain relief, with critics questioning the “ideologically driven” push for natural births.

The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) said that women should be supported to have the birth they choose but “safety is paramount” and families need to be aware of the risks of going it alone.

Unassisted births are not illegal and women have the right to decline any care during their pregnancy and delivery, however it is illegal not to register the birth of a child.

Prof Asma Khalil, the vice president of RCOG, said that women “have the right to give birth in an environment in which they feel comfortable”.

She added: “However, safety is paramount and, while most births are uncomplicated, advising women about the potential risks is crucial for informed decision-making.

“Women opting for unassisted births need awareness of the potential challenges and delays in accessing medical assistance if complications arise, as emergency intervention may be necessary, even for those at low risk.”

She said that while home births may be suitable for second or subsequent pregnancies following a “straightforward pregnancy”, there was evidence that “a home birth slightly increase[s] the risk of a poor outcome for” a woman’s first baby.

The Nursing and Midwifery Council, the regulator, said that it was in the “early stages of collaboration” with colleagues across the profession, including Royal Colleges and the Department of Health, to understand concerns about freebirthing and what steps organisations may need to take.

The Royal College of Midwives has also confirmed it is looking at the issue.

It said “midwives are understandably concerned about women giving birth at home without assistance, as it brings with it increased risks to both the mother and baby”.

The college added that women need to be informed that a midwife may not be available to be sent to their home during labour if they change their mind and wish to have help.

The Royal Surrey NHS Foundation Trust has recently reviewed its policy on unassisted birth and now tells women that they will need to go to hospital if they need help.

A spokesman for the trust said: “As healthcare professionals we have a duty to provide information about the associated risks and offer them the opportunity to engage with care at any point in their pregnancy journey.

“If we are contacted to help a woman in labour who is not booked for care with us, we will assess the best way for her to come to the hospital and support the process to achieve safe transfer.

“We will provide all care required to the best of our abilities within our maternity service on arrival, ensuring the safest care for mothers and babies.”

Several other hospital trusts, including in Somerset, Rotherham and Derby, have all also raised the subject of freebirthing trends in board papers and meetings.