Bravo to the home birth mums

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The look on our faces - a mix of incredulity and horror - probably said it all. Our new friend was telling us her birth plans.

"We're having our baby at home," she said, without a hint of self-doubt.

What, without a doctor? "We'll have a midwife. She delivered my sister's babies and she's just amazing. So calm."

That's, er, handy. What about pain relief? "My husband will massage my back and I'll have the pool."

The what? "The wading pool - the water makes it easier. We'll set it up in the lounge room so everyone's comfortable."

Everyone? "Well, Mary (her two-year-old) and my mum, and my sister, and possibly my mother-in-law, although she's a bit unsure about the whole thing."

Bravo for the mother-in-law, we thought, trying not to roll our eyes. The woman was a fairly new member of our mothers' group and we didn't want to seem judgmental.

We were, of course, being just that, even though we had all vowed not to criticise each other's parenting techniques - dummy or no dummy, breast versus bottle, to smack or not.

It was our choice, we'd just support one another through our first foray into the somewhat scary world of motherhood.

Here, though, in this apparent latter-day hippie we had found someone whose choices were more than a little confronting.

Why did she want the whole family watching? Why would she choose to endure pain? And, most importantly, why would she risk it?

As we got to know her, however, we discovered a strong and sensible woman who had good reasons for her choice.

She had followed the modern medicine route the first time and hated every minute of it.

An obstetrician with an appalling bedside manner who turned up twice for about 10 minutes each, but still managed to charge a small fortune, an ever-changing roster of midwives - she was in labour for 20 hours - and an epidural that didn't take.

Mother and baby emerged physically unscathed, but she found the whole thing cold, clinical and totally lacking in joy. She blamed it in part for her inability to bond with her daughter initially. This time she was "going natural".

I lost touch with her when we moved back here but was told she "absolutely loved" the water birth and her son arrived in six hours with the minimum of fuss in a candlelit lounge room (minus the still unconvinced mother-in-law and Mary, who fell asleep).

However, knowing someone who had chosen a home birth didn't affect my own decision the second time around. The idea of giving birth at home in bed, let alone a pool in the lounge, still makes me go weak at the knees. And not with pleasure.

I don't like pain. I love the anaesthetist and his trusty weapon, the epidural. I would have been more likely to eat my own toenails than "go natural".

... And while I'm not fond of hospitals, I was privileged enough on both occasions to give birth in a private one, where the atmosphere was a notch up from cold and clinical and the staff weren't as stretched.

Finally, call me a pessimist, but I wanted to be surrounded by experts in the event anything went wrong.

But having known someone who chose another path did give me pause for thought.

With the Australian Medical Association up in arms about the Health Department's website link to the Community Midwifery Program last week, I wondered again why we were so quick to judge our new friend. She had done her research. She chose a professional midwife with years of experience. She wanted to be surrounded by her family in the comfort of her own home, not by strangers in a brightly lit delivery ward. She was only a few kilometres from the nearest hospital if necessary.

And, in the end, she had a birth experience that was borderline euphoric. She made an informed choice.

An independent review last year found that home births - about 200 a year, less than one per cent of all births - are generally no riskier than hospital births if well supported.

The report, conducted by an obstetrician and a professor of midwifery, wanted the government to expand the Community Midwifery Program, so that home births were not pushed outside the mainstream system, increasing the risks.

It also recommended that WA hospitals offer services such as water births to encourage a more home-like experience. Women, in short, want options.

It's not surprising that medical specialists would get hot under the collar about home births.

They have a genuine concern for the health and wellbeing of the public. And they believe that is best served in the medical system.

But such an attitude ignores the fact that things can and do go wrong even in hospital.

Just recently I heard a story about a hospital birth that would make your hair stand on end. The young woman thought she had chosen the safest path and it turned into a traumatic experience for all.

Would she have been better off at home? Certainly, she would have been paid a lot more attention.

There are risks no matter what your choice.

Besides, even if government websites trumpeted the benefits of home birth from the rooftops, it is unlikely to lead to a stampede for wading pools and scented candles any time soon.

We live in an age in which we're increasingly too posh to push, where the bottle is often favoured over breastfeeding simply for cosmetic reasons, and where most of us would, yes, rather, pull our own toenails than forgo pain relief.

Home birth is likely to remain the domain of the hardy few. And more power to them.

A fantastic article! I believe that if homebirth should become a more "mainstream" option, more women would choose it. It does need the support of the wider community to be and feel more acceptable to women; currently there is a "need" to make "acceptable" choices and once society becomes more accepting of homebirths, more families will feel comfortable making the decision to plan a homebirth.

Melissa Maimann, Essential Birth Consulting 0400 418 448