Home Birth After Hospital Birth: Women’s Choices and Reflections – A Research Review by Jessica English
By Jessica English, LCCE, FACCE, CD(DONA), BDT(DONA)
Today’s research examines the factors that influenced women who chose home birth for the subsequent child, after their previous child was born in a hospital. Lamaze Certified Childbirth Educator Jessica English, along with midwifery colleagues just published “Home Birth After Hospital Birth: Women’s Choices and Reflections” in the Journal of Midwifery and Women’s Health. Jessica shares about the research, some of the findings and wraps up speaking about the role that childbirth educators can play in helping women to find satisfaction in their chosen birth location. Are you an LCCE and have published research? Consider writing a review for S&S. I would love to highlight our LCCEs. - Sharon Muza, Science & Sensibility Community Manager.
As a childbirth educator and doula, I have been listening to women’s birth stories for many years. I’m honored that they trust me again and again with the details of their triumphs, frustrations, joys and sometimes outright trauma. When my agency, Birth Kalamazoo, organized a meeting in 2011 to discuss the midwifery model of care, I didn’t think much of it when the attendees introduced themselves and shared a few details about their births. After all, I knew most of them very well (having taught them or in some cases even attended their births), and I knew their stories.
But one of the midwives we’d invited to speak that day took special note of those stories. Ruth Zielinski, PhD, is a hospital-based nurse-midwife, university professor and researcher in my community. She noticed that a handful of the women who spoke mentioned that they had given birth to their first baby in the hospital, then chose home birth for later babies. She approached me after the meeting, curious about why the women might have chosen home birth after their hospital experiences. I shared my perceptions based on my experience listening to women. Intrigued, Ruth wondered if this was something we could research? Neither of us had ever seen academic research on the topic of women who chose home birth after a hospital experience. Soon enough, we had a four-woman research team in place: Ruth; myself; Kelly Ackerson, an academic colleague from Ruth’s department of nursing; and one of Ruth’s undergraduate students, an honors nursing student who was planning a career in midwifery.
Our first task was to identify the structure of the research process. How would we get the information we needed? We settled quickly on focus groups, and wrote a series of open-ended questions that we expected to elicit the participating women’s honest assessments of both their home and hospital experiences, as well as the reasons behind their decision to choose home birth. The next step was to recruit the participants. Through Birth Kalamazoo’s Facebook page, our e-newsletter and via local midwives, we invited women who fit our criteria to participate in a focus group. The primary requirement was that they needed to have had at least one hospital birth followed by at least one home birth within the past 10 years.
Five focus groups followed, each with four participants and two researchers (one who asked the questions and one who took field notes). The focus groups were transcribed verbatim by members of the research team. After each focus group, team members conferred to make sure that we were in agreement about the themes that were starting to emerge. After the fifth focus group, we agreed that no new themes were emerging and we had reached “saturation of the data.” Led by Ruth and her student Casey Bernhard, the research team identified five themes that summarized what the mothers had shared. A sixth focus group of women (one from each prior focus group) provided “member checking” – we shared the themes we’d identified and asked them to verify whether or not they were in keeping with what they had heard during the focus groups.
The resulting research, “Home Birth After Hospital Birth: Women’s Choices and Reflections,” is published in the current issue of the Journal of Midwifery & Women’s Health.
Some Key Findings: Women’s Choices and Reflections
To summarize, five recurring themes were identified from the women’s reflections on both their hospital and home births: choices and empowerment; intervention and interruptions; disrespect and dismissal; birth space; and connection.
Choices and empowerment. The women in our groups reported that with their hospital births they felt they did not actually have much choice in the direction of their care. Although a few women in the study had generally positive hospital experiences, most reported feelings of disempowerment and limited choices associated with their hospital birth and more meaningful choices and feelings of empowerment with their home births.
Interventions and interruptions. During their hospital births, women experienced significantly more interventions compared to their home births. Many of the women in our study perceived these interventions as unnecessary. They commented on timetables, hospital “agendas” and interruptions both during the birth and postpartum period for their hospital births.
Disrespect and dismissal. Many of the women in our study said they felt that their hospital-based providers tended to focus more on anatomical parts and the medical process of birth, rather than on them as whole people. With their home births, they reported a much more holistic model with great respect for their decisions.
Some women who wanted to continue care with both a home birth provider and a hospital-based provider (known as “dual” or “concurrent” care) were dismissed from their hospital-based practice when they revealed that they were planning a home birth.
Birth space. Universally, women reported feeling more comfortable laboring in their own homes, surrounded by only the people they chose to invite into that space. Several women mentioned the appeal of having their older children with them for the birth, or at least having that option.
Connection. When women in our study reported positive hospital births, they also spoke of their positive connections to their providers. For both home and hospital settings, women said that feeling a sense of trust and connection to their doctor or midwife was important and even helped them to feel more comfortable with the process of birth. That theme of connection extended to women’s reflections that during their home births they also generally felt more connected to their bodies, to their babies and to other family members.
Reflections and Implications for Childbirth Educators
As an experienced Lamaze Certified Childbirth Educator and doula, I wasn’t surprised by the findings of our research. The reflections of the women participating were very much in keeping with the stories I have heard for almost a decade from my students, clients and even random women (and men!) who want to share their experiences. It does help me, however, to see the themes identified so clearly. I can envision sharing this research with women who are choosing a home birth for a second, third or fourth baby after a prior hospital birth. It may be validating to them to see many of their own feelings and reflections mirrored in other women’s experiences.
When I think about limitations of this study, I think about the natural differences between first and subsequent births. First births are often longer and more complex, with second and later births often shorter and more straightforward. Could that have influenced women’s feelings of empowerment? As an educator and doula, I also have observed that, after their first baby, many women in general feel more assertive and empowered to take control of their choices for their later birth experiences, whatever the birth setting.
In fairness to the hospital environment, it’s also important to remember that our study was limited to women who felt compelled to make a change for subsequent births. Women who have had very positive, respectful, low-intervention hospital births often choose that same setting for future babies, and their voices were not represented in our focus groups.
Our research may also have been influenced by the specific birth culture in Southwest Michigan. For example, women in our area sometimes want to receive care from both a hospital-based provider and a home birth midwife, but they are typically discharged from their hospital-based practice if they reveal they are planning a home birth. I know this isn’t the case in all areas of the country, and I can’t help but wonder if it’s due in part to the lack of licensing for Certified Professional Midwives (CPMs) in our state. Fellow LCCEs and doulas in states where CPMs are licensed have shared that women in their communities may have easier access to this kind of dual care. I think this issue merits further exploration, with research comparing the home birth experiences of women in various states where CPMs are licensed, unlicensed and specifically outlawed.
As I analyze our results with my childbirth educator hat on, I keep mulling the impact of feelings of safety and comfort on oxytocin. When women feel safe, nurtured, supported and comfortable, we know that the hormones of labor work more efficiently. Did the women in our study have more straightforward births at home in part because the environment allows their bodies to work optimally? I have given talks to labor and delivery nurses on ways they can boost oxytocin in the hospital environment, and as a doula trainer I also address this issue with new doulas. For many women, the home birth setting is inherently designed to maximize oxytocin.
The connection theme that arose in our study is also closely tied to oxytocin. In attending hospital births as a doula, I try to facilitate moments of connection between a woman and her care providers. Penny Simkin’s landmark research on women’s lasting birth memories also points to the importance of such relationships. (Simkin, 1991) Connection comes very naturally between a doula and her client, and often between a home birth midwife and a laboring woman as well. Those connections can be more difficult in a busy hospital environment where a woman is working with a nurse she has likely never met, and often with a provider who is one of many in a busy practice, and who may have several other patients in labor. Can we make more space within our medical system for nurture, if not for the emotional benefits then for the biological effect on the chemical balance in women’s bodies?
In addition to the connection challenges, the themes identified in our research also point to other weaknesses inherent in the medical model of birth. As an educator, I’m already thinking about how I can use these findings to help prepare families for more positive hospital-based experiences. How can they navigate the system to help prevent some of the pitfalls many of these women experienced during their hospital births? I believe so strongly that meaningful change in our system begins with families who speak up for what they need and want for their births. Childbirth educators are on the front lines to help educate families about what a positive, healthy birth experience can look like, and to prepare our students to advocate within the system they’ve chosen to support them.
As leaders in our birth communities, educators can also directly work for change by talking with nurses, midwives and physicians about what women are looking for in their births. Respectfully discussing both the points of dissatisfaction and satisfaction mentioned in this study can help reinforce positive behaviors and change those that may be detrimental to women and to birth. Many of the things women say they want for their births are strongly supported by quality scientific evidence. Take kangaroo care as an example. Ten years ago, a woman in our community might have said in this focus group that she wanted a home birth in part because her hospital providers refused to allow uninterrupted skin-to-skin contact for a few hours after the birth. Today, we have a hospital in our community that is a national leader in kangaroo care for all families and another that is trying to reach that benchmark.
Change is slow, but childbirth educators can help make it happen! Better birth is not just an issue of physical health and emotional well being, it is also financially beneficial to hospitals to flex to provide the compassionate, evidence-based care that will keep families within their system, coming back for subsequent births.
However, the intention of our research was not to dissuade women from home birth. For those who continue to choose that setting for later babies, it may be helpful for educators, doulas, midwives, physicians and others within the maternity care system to understand the factors that motivate them to make that informed choice for their families.
Would you share this research with your childbirth education students and expecting families? How would you use it? Do you think that the conclusions are valid? Do you see things differently? Discuss with us in the comments section. – SM
Bernhard, C., Zielinski, R., Ackerson, K. and English, J. (2014), Home Birth After Hospital Birth: Women’s Choices and Reflections. Journal of Midwifery & Women’s Health. doi: 10.1111/jmwh.12113
Simkin, P. (1991). Just Another Day in a Woman’s Life? Women’s Long‐Term Perceptions of Their First Birth Experience. Part I. Birth, 18(4), 203-210.
About Jessica English
Jessica English, LCCE, FACCE, CD(DONA), BDT(DONA) is a Lamaze Certified Childbirth Educator, birth doula and DONA-approved birth doula trainer. She is the owner of Birth Kalamazoo, which offers birth and postpartum doula services, natural childbirth and breastfeeding classes, birth photography, in-home lactation consulting and renewal groups for mothers. She is currently producing a short film about birth, due out in the fall.