Mother and Baby

Should you use a midwife-led labour unit?

The Government is investing in more midwife-led units, designed to help you have a calm, drug-free birth - are they the future of labour?

Midwife-led units are staffed entirely by midwives, unlike traditional obstetric labour wards where doctors and anaesthetists are present.

Almost half of pregnant women should give birth away from traditional labour wards, according to the latest guidance from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) - which  recommends women with low-risk pregnancies have a home birth or use a midwife-led unit.

What is a midwife-led labour unit?

There are two kinds of midwife-led units: stand-alone birth centres and wards attached to hospitals. In both cases, all care is carried out by midwives who are experts in childbirth with all the skills to help you deliver your baby in a low-risk pregnancy. 

There are usually no anaesthetics available on a midwife-led unit, although some may offer pethidine. Pain relief is provided with gas and air and, in many cases, birth pools. The aim is to help women to have a natural labour with no medical intervention, which can lead to less trauma for mother and baby and a shorter recovery period.

There are usually no anaesthetics available on a midwife-led unit, although some may offer pethidine

Midwife-led units could minimise stress

Where you choose to have your baby will influence how relaxed you are in labour. And feeling calm and safe is essential to a labour progressing well. So a labour room that feels like a home from home could help you have a positive birth experience.

When labour starts, your body produces oxytocin, which shapes the frequency, length and strength of your contractions. If you start to feel stressed or anxious, the oxytocin level will drop and your body will produce hormones such as adrenaline, which reduce blood flow to the uterus and slow down the first stage. 

Labouring in a tranquil environment also allows you to focus on your body and the baby. 

‘The ethos is to normalise the location so it is less like the hospital environment you go to when you are ill,’ says Jane Munro of the Royal College of Midwives.

Women who have used midwife-led units describe them as being like a private hospital

You have a room to yourself, usually with a double bed so your partner can stay, along with an ensuite and sometimes a kitchen area. The walls may be painted in pastel colours, gentle mood lighting and surround-sound speakers helping to complete the atmosphere. Women who have used midwife-led units describe them as being like a private hospital, with high levels of midwife support and the chance to stay in the room for a day or two after the delivery.

‘The focus is on comfort, with sofas and beanbags, so you can try different positions during labour,’ adds Jane. ‘They are more hotel-like.’

Offering improved care

There were 152 midwifery-led units in England in 2013, but in March 2014 the Department of Health awarded £10million to hospital trusts to improve maternity care by creating new midwife-led wards. 

Northampton General benefited from an earlier injection of funds by the Department of Health to improve maternity care. It opened a midwife-led ward in December 2013 which, in its first year, handled 530 births.

‘The mums love it,’ says matron and intrapartum care lead midwife Paula Briody. ‘When you first book into the hospital with a midwife she will talk through your choices of where you can labour. If your pregnancy is low risk, using the midwife-led ward is offered as an option. If you’re still low risk by 34 weeks we send the referral. You have to be 37 weeks to deliver here.’

Midwife-led units: home-from-home?

Many women who use Northampton’s midwife-led units are first-time mums-to-be. They are drawn to the home-from-home atmosphere, but value the safety net of the medical staff close by. This means they can quickly transfer to the medical labour ward if they want an epidural or if there is a complication.

‘If you are having a baby at home and there are complications, there’s a delay if you have to travel to hospital,’ says Paula. ‘A true obstetric emergency is rare. There may be a transfer to the labour ward if there’s meconium


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