'Free-birthing' is on the rise... but is it safe?

Maria Lally
Off the grid: “Free-birthing” involves giving birth at home without any medical assistance from midwives or doctors - Posed by models

When Michaela Kalusova found out she was pregnant, she decided she wanted an unassisted pregnancy and birth. “I didn’t have any scans, and gave birth to my daughter at home, with just my partner and seven-year-old son there,” she says.

And the 33-year-old from Croydon is far from alone, as figures released yesterday found that, in London alone, up to 200 women a year are choosing to give birth without any medical assistance.

Not to be confused with home birthing, the practice known as “free-birthing” involves giving birth at home with just family or friends in the place of a trained midwife.

“These births were never captured, until now,” says Kenny Gibson, the NHS England’s head of public health commissioning in London, explaining that the city is the first in the UK to log every birth.

Mr Gibson, who says these women are typically affluent, intelligent and of no obvious cultural or religious demographic, choose not to involve midwives or doctors in their births.

In London alone, up to 200 women a year are choosing to give birth without any medical assistance

Speaking at a London Assembly inquiry, Mr Gibson said he wasn’t unduly concerned by the findings.

However, the Royal College of Midwives released a statement yesterday saying: “While the RCM recognises that every woman has the right to give birth without professional assistance, there are potential risks for both mother and baby, and for that reason the RCM would strongly discourage women from giving birth by themselves.”

“I’m a professional doula [a private birth companion who provides emotional and practical support during birth],” says Michaela. “So I know quite a bit about childbirth. When my son was born, it was very traumatic and ended with a ventouse [a vacuum-like method to help deliver a baby].

“When I became pregnant with my daughter, Katerina, the idea of a free birth just grew on me. I discussed it with my partner, my GP and a midwife, and everybody was very supportive – although the lady at my local hospital didn’t understand when I called to cancel all my pregnancy scans and appointments.

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“I read up on potential risks and had a chat with my midwife about what to do in an emergency, and I agreed my midwife could scan me if I went overdue to 43 weeks. But I birthed at 41 weeks and 3 days.

“I gave birth at home with my partner and my son, who quickly became bored and wandered off to watch TV, telling us to call him when the baby arrived. My daughter’s birth was on my own terms, she was touched by us first, not by medical professionals. I was in control during her birth and knew exactly what she needed. I talked to her and navigated her safely out.”

The lady at my local hospital didn’t understand when I called to cancel all my pregnancy scans and appointments

“When everything goes well, birth is safe,” says Pam Wild, author of The Happy Birth Book (£14.99, Piatkus) and the midwife who Davina McCall credits for her three “amazing” home births. “But labour can change very quickly and you can go from, ‘Oh, everything is fine’, to a serious problem with bleeding or the baby’s heartbeat. So as a midwife I think, really, free births aren’t safe.

“Midwives are very skilled in what they do, and can recognise potential problems arising and have the skills and equipment to deal with them. Even at a home birth, they have equipment that can deal with a problem until more support comes via an ambulance.”

Whether the rise of free-birthing continues remains to be seen, but Pam says these new figures could indicate an underlying growing distrust in the maternity system. “Women used to see the same midwife in pregnancy, labour and beyond, but this continuity of care just doesn’t exist anymore,” she says.

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“And in my experience, many mothers feel out of control during pregnancy and birth. Trust between mothers and hospitals is at an all-time low. However, free-birthing feels like a step too far in the other direction.

“As historical figures of mortality in childbirth show us, giving birth unaided can be dangerous. Things can change in labour very quickly, and if they do, midwives have access to drugs and equipment that can save lives.”

However, Michaela remains confident: “If I became pregnant again, I’d free-birth. I wouldn’t recommend every woman do so – it took me seven years to arrive at this point – but I didn’t want to rely on a midwife. I wanted to tap into my inner strength and rely on myself.”