What is a birthing center?

You’re certainly familiar with the idea of giving birth at a hospital, but for many, delivering at a hospital just doesn’t feel right. Birthing centers are facilities separate from, attached to, or within hospitals that specialize in natural childbirth for pregnancies that aren’t affected by serious health concerns. Birthing centers offer some of the calm, non-clinical atmosphere of a home birth that’s absent in the hospital, but alongside some of the emergency equipment and medical expertise that make home births risky.

What do birthing centers offer?

Birthing centers are often run by midwives rather than obstetricians, and follow the model of care that doesn’t see pregnancy as an illness to be treated. In practice, this means that women who deliver at birthing centers have a much lower rate of interventions like pain relief, induction, forceps- or vacuum-assisted delivery, or C-sections. Women who do need these types of interventions are generally transferred to area hospitals first, though accredited birthing centers are equipped with oxygen and infant resuscitation equipment, in case of emergency.

Birthing centers often offer the choice of a water birth or other alternative birthing method. They also tend to have fewer restrictions about what moms-to-be-can do while in labor – women in labor may have the option to eat, move around, and make other choices that may not be offered in hospitals in the same area.

Accredited birthing centers are often staffed by Certified Nurse Midwives (CNMs), and it’s often recommended that women working with midwives during pregnancy should find a CNM, as their medical training and accreditation can be helpful to have around. 

Are there different types of birthing centers?

There are two types of birthing centers: free-standing birthing centers, which are independent of any specific hospital, and hospital birthing centers. Free-standing birthing centers often have close relationships with area hospitals, and with the doctors in them, to make transitions smoother for women who begin labor in the center, but end up needing to be transferred to the hospital. Hospital birthing centers, on the other hand, are often attached to (or within) the hospital, which can make the transfer even easier. However, hospital birthing centers are often more bound by hospital regulations, like who can be in the room, and limitations about eating during or leading up to labor.

Who can give birth in a birthing center?

Only women who are considered to have low-risk pregnancies are considered good candidates to give birth in a birthing center. This is because women who are considered to be higher risk are more likely to need medical intervention that they’ll need to be transferred to a hospital for anyway, and it’s safer if those interventions can happen right away, instead of waiting until after the transfer to the hospital. Health considerations that mean that a hospital birth might be a safer fit for a pregnancy include but aren’t limited to:

  • Preeclampsia/high blood pressure
  • Gestational diabetes
  • Multiples

How should I pick a birthing center?

If you think giving birth in a birthing center might be the right choice for your family, and you live in the US, the website for the Commission for the Accreditation of Birthing Centers is a great place to start in locating a birthing center near you. Birthing centers that are affiliated with hospitals are more likely to be covered by insurance, and are more likely to be accredited, although more free-standing birthing centers may gain accreditation as well.

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