The science of birthplace
My work now includes talking to parents-to-be about where they choose to give birth, and so this subject is of increasing interest, particularly since the skeptics I hang out with suck their teeth a little when we get on to the subject. To be quite frank, I suck my own teeth. It’s very hard to weigh up the pros and cons of a subject in which even the most scientifically minded get rather emotionally invested. I will conclude, perhaps, that we all give different weight to different outcomes, and that’s parenting for you, which means that I am as usual chasing my tail and asking “why can’t we all just get along?”
This is a complex and emotive topic, and few people seem able to write about it without their passion leaking through. So let’s state upfront that my passion is to support parents to make their own informed decisions, decisions they will have to live through, and live with, about an event that is in many cases earthshattering in the experience itself, and in its ramifications. Giving birth is a very big deal. Yes, it’s a normal physiological process and women’s bodies are well-adapted to perform it; but let’s bear in mind two very important provisos here:
- It’s 2014. We give birth in very different conditions than those to which our bodies are adapted; and
- Birth is safer in England than it has ever been, and this is down to a range of factors including modern techonology and hygiene.
But giving birth is not simply a physiological process. It is a profound life event affecting our bodies and our view of our bodies, affecting our families and other relationships, affecting us in social, financial and psychological ways that cannot possibly be accounted for in a simple birthplace study. Therefore birthplace studies tend to base their conclusions on measurable outcomes, usually neonatal death, injury, or oxygen deprivation to the baby. Some studies also consider some physical outcomes for the mothers, such as whether she experienced medical interventions or whether she went on to breastfeed. Very few studies consider birth trauma as an outcome.
Which? Birth Choice has a very clear set of tables comparing outcomes for hospital obstetric units, midwife-led birth centres, and homebirth. This is based on the 2011 study Perinatal and maternal outcomes by planned place of birth for healthy women with low risk pregnancies: the Birthplace in England national prospective cohort study BMJ 2011;343:d7400. If you click through to the tables in the report you find risks for ALL births reported as 4.3 adverse outcomes per 1000 births. This is then broken down to show the differences for first births (5.3/1000) compared with second or subsequent births (3.1/1000), and broken down still further to show risks according to place of birth. As has been reported, the risk of an adverse outcome at a planned homebirth for a first baby shoots up to 9.3/1000. As has not been reported, the risk of an adverse outcome at a planned homebirth for second or subsequent baby drops to 2.3/1000. The study concludes that “The incidence of adverse perinatal outcomes was low in all settings.” The headlines, meanwhile, focus on the relative risk: 9.3/1000 is more than twice as high as 4.3/1000, therefore homebirth is twice as dangerous as hospital birth.
Parents need to be given these numbers along with a little bit of information about how to make sense of them, which is where the Which? page is useful. But they also need the opportunity to consider what other outcomes are important to them, given that the absolute risk of adverse outcomes is so low. The Which? page gives information about the likelihood of intervention in various settings, and parents may want to consider this as a factor in their decision making.
Meanwhile, all this pitting of hospital birth against homebirth results in Birth Centres being overlooked. Birth Centres are intended to offer a home-like setting, with midwife-led care. They are often located within hospital settings, so the obstetric facilities are on hand. Our birthplace study referenced above shows that the risk of adverse outcomes is comparable to an obstetric unit, while the likelihood of intervention such as instrumental birth or caesarean birth is lower. A 2012 Cochrane Review of Home-like versus conventional institutional settings for birth by Hodnett et al supports this:
Home-like institutional birth settings reduce the chances of medical interventions and increase maternal satisfaction, but it is important to watch for signs of complications.
One thing that is important to beware of is using data originating in the US, since the model of midwifery care in the US is very different to the UK. This perhaps is a subject for a later post, and probably not by me.
Finally I want to come back to the definition of an adverse outcome, where once again women are reduced to the precious vessels, solely charged with but not entirely trusted to bring this baby to the world unharmed and perfect in every way. What about outcomes for mothers? I have heard Sheila Kitzinger speak on the subject and read some harrowing accounts of childbirth:
one reason why many women have low self-esteem and cannot enjoy their babies is that care in childbirth often denies them honest information, the possibility of choice, and simple human respect…..
Studies from 2003 and 2004 found that up to 6% of women show full PTSD symptoms following an experience of birth where they felt scared, helpless and vulnerable. While all the focus is on outcomes for the baby, women’s lived experience is belittled and ignored as a decision-making factor. This is why parents need to be given all the information, and not frightened into seeing hospital birth as the only safe choice for their babies, regardless of how it will feel for them; and the information given needs to include more than just the risk of adverse outcomes for the baby.