I want to draw out a few threads from all this discussion. As someone who's involved with birth at a personal, local level (I've had three NHS home births in the last six years, and work with mothers postnatally as a volunteer breastfeeding peer supporter, often debriefing birth and breastfeeding experiences) and at a wider level as a publisher of birth and breastfeeding books, interacting with our authors and readers, it's fascinating to see how the 'big picture' and real women's lives intersect.
What I hear from the women I meet and talk to about their experiences of birth and breastfeeding is that, although it may seem as though we have choices about our maternity care in this country, the reality is that those choices are constrained. Almost every woman I've ever spoken to has said that at their first antenatal appointment, or 'booking-in', they were asked 'which hospital will you have the baby at?'. Right from the outset there's a presumption that women will birth in hospital, which shuts down further discussion and information-sharing. Just consider how differently that conversation might go if the midwife instead asked 'have you had any thoughts about where you might give birth? If you want to explore some options you could go along to this group that meets monthly, or look through these booklets, then come back to me with any questions'. (Similarly, women might feel differently about discussions of infant feeding at antenatal appointments if instead of being asked 'are you planning to breast or bottle-feed?' they were asked 'have you given any thought to feeding? If you'd like to explore some options you could go along to this group where you'll get plenty of information to help you make a decision.')
Inviting women to share what they already know, and directing them to accessible sources of accurate information and support that can increase their knowledge and help them make their own decisions, is surely at the heart of woman-centred care. This is where Positive Birth and other antenatal groups, both free and paid-for, can really come into their own - by meeting with other mothers, and sharing information and experiences, women can become aware that they do have choices - not just about where to give birth, but about everything to do with their pregnancy, birth and early parenting experiences. It's this same idea that underpins Lonely Scribe's publishing philosophy and our 'stories to inspire and inform' series, which already includes Home Births and Breastfeeding, is expanding next year to include Twin Births and Water Birth.
"Birth isn't something we suffer, but something we actively do and exult in." Sheila Kitzinger, Freedom for Birth.
The question of how you empower ordinary women to own their experiences of birth, feeding and parenting when the prevailing culture is one of deference to a medical model of childbirth and formula feeding is at the heart of all this. I've recently heard a midwife describe how readily women submit to interventions and examinations that may not benefit either them or their babies simply because they are suggested by an authority figure (midwife, doctor, consultant), even when no reasons for the procedure are given. (This was in specific reference to repeated vaginal examinations during labour.) Do women know that they can refuse vaginal examinations if they want to? If they don't know that they can refuse, can they give informed consent?
Another common complaint I hear is about risk and how it is presented. It's not something that is easy to communicate and health professionals struggle along with the rest of us in making sense of the facts and figures of scientific research. However, unless our doctors and midwives are to make our decisions for us - disempowering us in the process - they must learn to talk about risk in a different way. It is not ethical or accurate to tell a mother keen to avoid an induction at 41 weeks that she will end up with a dead baby unless she consents to the induction. Similarly, breastfeeding mothers are routinely misled about the risks of co-sleeping. Many health visitors condemn the practice outright - instead of acknowledging the beneficial effect on breastfeeding - and shut down the debate, leaving mothers unsupported and uninformed (see the UNICEF research on the topic here.)
Home birth is a topic close to my own heart and one that throws up many more ways in which choice can be constrained. I've met and talked to many women who've planned home births, whether they eventually gave birth at home or not. They almost all have stories to tell of how their choice was belittled or overridden and how they had to fight just to be 'allowed' to book the home birth they wanted. And that's within a system that theoretically supports women's choices! I regularly hear of women open to the idea of home birth being discouraged by midwives who say 'well, there might not be a midwife available on the day. If you ring and no one can come out to you, you'll have to go to hospital anyway.' The implication is that it isn't worth booking a home birth because you might not get one! Women understandably don't like the idea of being all set for a home birth only to find that no midwife is available, so they book for a hospital delivery 'just in case'. I find this situation unacceptable. A home birth service needs to be fit for purpose. It's a woman's right to choose to give birth at home and the NHS has a duty to support that. I heard recently of a case where a woman chose a home delivery of a breech baby. The hospital could not provide a midwife with the necessary experience, and in the end paid for an independent midwife to attend the delivery. That's great, and I'd like to hear that sort of story more often, particularly as independent midwifery is under threat (another way in which choice may soon be limited).
Another example that I have direct experience of is to do with access to water birth. I visited the new delivery suite at Derby Royal hospital before the birth of my second child (I went with a pregnant friend, I'd already booked my home birth!). We saw the huge, well-equipped pool room. I admired the filling system that fills the pool from a ceiling tank in minutes. Someone asked what happened if you wanted a water birth and the room was occupied? Our tour guide simply shrugged. I've since met many women who've had water births in Derby Royal, and many who could not, because the room was occupied. You do not really have a choice about whether you use water for pain relief or to give birth in - it's a lottery. And this at a newly-refurbished, flagship baby-friendly hospital.
I blogged recently about the Infant Feeding Survey and what it showed about the influence of place of birth on breastfeeding rates. Women who had home births had the highest rates of breastfeeding, both initially and in the early weeks (women who used birth pools and TENS machines also had higher rates than average of breastfeeding). I've been thinking about why this is. The report's authors suggest that it may be explained by the 'profile of mothers' that fall into these groups and to an extent I agree with this and understand what they mean: not all women have the means or the opportunity to arm themselves with the information and confidence they need to choose home birth, or water birth, or breastfeeding in today's society, and those that do tend to be in certain social groups. However, what really interests me is whether through activism - groups, blogs, discussions, information, support - we can empower more women, across society, to become active participants in their own care during pregnancy, birth and early parenthood.
There are those who will say that it is all very well engaging in this discussion, but the NHS is under strain and there's no way we can justify changes to maternity care. I bring up again a point I made in my blog about the UNICEF report that showed that programmes of breastfeeding support were cost-effective and showed a quick return on investment: a time of financial difficulty is a great time to be examining what the NHS does and where it could improve services, improve health outcomes, and save money. We've seen the report about breastfeeding. I'd love to see what would happen with a modest increase in home birth nationwide, both in terms of cost-effectiveness and longer-term health outcomes (tied in with the increased rates of breastfeeding associated with home birth). This study does some of it, but was published before the UNICEF report. I wonder whether, in time, research will show that Positive Birth groups, the Freedom for Birth movement and other grassroots initiatives will improve the lives of mothers and babies. I think they will.