Concerns coronavirus fears could lead to rise in women free-birthing

Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock 

There are fears limits on the number of support people allowed in birthing suites, and concerns about contracting coronavirus at hospital, will lead to a rise in the number of women free-birthing their babies at home. 

Free-birth, unlike the much safer practice of home-birth, involves delivering a baby without the help of doctors, midwives or any medical professional.

Professor of Midwifery at Western Sydney University Hannah Dahlen says it is difficult for women access home-birth programs later in pregnancy or as a sudden decision, because most midwife providers are completely booked out.

This has lead to an increasing number of women in late pregnancy considering free-birthing, something Professor Dahlen describes as "worrying".

Professor Dahlen warns free-birthing poses a greater risk than getting COVID-19 in hospital.

"Women are really concerned about it (COVID-19) and not wanting to go hospital I am seeing increasing discussion on freebirth which is really worrying for us," Ms Dahlen says.

"I also want to dampen down the fear.  The news for pregnant women is good so far. When they do get COVID-19 they seem to be having it milder than others and their babies seem to be well."

Professor Dahlen advised women not to panic, but to have a conversation with their doctor about the strategies they have in place to protect them.

"We are in extraordinary times at the moment.  There are going to be strategies in place to protect women and staff and reduce the traffic going through the hospital.  

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"Some hospitals are not allowing support people and doulas to avoid exposing people to more potential risk," she said.

"We need to be patient and understanding and a little bit flexible."

Professor Dahlen recommended women birthing in hospital went home as soon as possible, minimised visitors and breastfed.

"We need to see an expansion of more community midwives in the home, so they don't have to sit in hospitals where the risk increases," she said.

"Breastfeeding is a baby's biggest protection.  The breastmilk alters its composition to protect the baby."

One mum, who only wanted to be identified as Naomi, free-birthed her child at her Cairns home three weeks ago.

"I was 37 weeks pregnant when I decided to free-birth.  I felt uncomfortable birthing in the hospital with coronavirus," the 30-year-old mother-of-three says. 

"I didn't know if there would be someone infected. At the time there was little information and I didn't know what my chances or my baby's chances of contracting it were.

"I felt uncertain and I know there are a lot of women now uncomfortable birthing in a hospital with what is going at the moment."

Naomi, who had her two other children in a hospital, looked into home-birth but couldn't afford a midwife.  Instead she chose to have the support of a doula.  

"It was thousands of dollars difference between having a midwife and a doula.  It (a homebirth midwife) is unattainable to most women," she says.

"I was more comfortable with free-birthing than being in a hospital."

One mum, who does not want to be named, says she is in a Facebook group for high risk birth women and many of them are now looking at free-birthing because they have been warned they will only be allowed one support person, which would prevent them having a doula and birth photographer.

Sydney obstetrician, Dr Talat Uppal, says women could find it quite confronting being told they can only have one support person, especially those with mental health issues.  

"We have to be mindful we are not leaving them vulnerable," she says.

"Women should not free-birth. Hospitals are putting in solid strategies.

"They should discuss their concerns with professionals. Free-birthing has significant risk both for mum and baby and the risk would outweigh any potential risk for COVID-19.

"Women need to feel reassured the outcomes in pregnancy are not shown to be worse than non-pregnant women."

Alecia Marie Staines director of the Maternity Consumer Network, has campaigned for homebirth to be covered on Medicare and said she's concerned women are having to free-birth because they can't pay for a home-birth.

The Medicare Benefits Schedule report was due to be finalised in December which would create item numbers for homebirth midwives, but it is still with bureaucrats.

"There is an inability to access midwives because there are so few of them.  There are tweaks that need to be made to the system to increase number of available midwives.  Each midwife can only take on 40 women a year, Ms Staines said."

"Those women who would prefer a homebirth feel like they are being forced to free-birth because there are none (midwives) available in the area, they can't afford it or the midwife is booked out.

Amelia Parkinson, who runs Wonderbirthing doula service and childbirth education in Sydney says she has lots of women contacting her asking about home-birth.  

"Pregnant women are really stressed about going to the hospital even to have a test or scan and are trying to contact hospitals to get more information out of them but not having much success," she says. 

Ms Parkinson says women are finding it very difficult not being able to have a doula with them.  

"They are having to choose between a doula and a birth partner," she says.

"If you have a doula built and have built up that relationship start talking to their care providers and let them know they have a doula booked in.  With early discharge a doula is very important.

"This level of anxiety for pregnant women going into and then birthing in environments that feel so overwhelming will impact their birth experience and definitely impact their post-partum."