Are midwives a dying breed?

by Andrea Robertson Enabling a woman to give birth physiologically must surely be every midwife’s aim. The whole philosophy of midwifery rests on the knowledge that birth is a normal bodily function for a woman. It requires a conducive environment and an experienced companion to watch for problems that may occasionally develop. This “experienced companion” has traditionally been the midwife.

The encroachments of the medical model in the birth process have deskilled many midwives. It led to many becoming “obstetric nurses” who watch over the technical equipment. The one who will carry out the doctor’s instructions (i.e. the protocols). They often interact as little as possible with the labouring woman herself. Our hospitals are full of “obstetric nurses”, though some of them would call themselves “midwives”. This situation may be a major factor in the rising rates of intervention in birth. Where are the midwives who understand normal birth and are comfortable working with women to achieve a natural, normal birth without the need for drugs and technology? Are midwives disappearing?

The “active birth” concept grew out of a response to the “active management of labour” protocol. Obstetricians enamoured with the Dublin model of birth1 promoted it. Although unproven as a means of keeping birth normal, the inclusion of a supportive role by a midwife has been shown to be the one factor in the protocol that kept the caesarean section rate down2.

The central involvement of the midwife in carrying out this protocol may have been one factor in their medicalisation as a profession and their loss of confidence in facilitating normal birth without drips, drugs and close monitoring. What are the characteristics of an “active birth”? This approach to birth was originally based on a training program that women underwent in pregnancy that revolved around yoga3. As the fundamental concepts evolved through practical application and experience, a broader definition has emerged. We can summarise it into these basic principles:

Enable normal physiology during birth.

This principle relies on the caregivers having a sound understanding of normal physiology. The understanding includes the role of pain in labour. Including the interaction of the hormones during birth and the wide range of natural responses that women may exhibit as they react to the natural forces inherent in the birth process. Midwives whose education and experience have been based in hospital settings will have a limited understanding of normal physiology. This is due to the influence of the institutional environment on a woman during labour. This could be rectified by requiring midwifery students to have experience with home births during their education. Also, it qualified midwives to include participating in home birth as part of their registration requirement.

Do not disturb normal physiology

Birth is a normal body process for a woman. It is most effectively carried out in settings where she carries out her other normal bodily functions, i.e in her own home or appropriate community-based settings. We don’t go to the hospital to eat or sleep and especially not for our other reproductive activities! Disturbing the birth process can occur through the use of learned behaviours and also by direct intervention. Either the woman herself or caregivers can initiate this learned behaviour.

Women sometimes believe that using “the breathing” ( a prime example of a learned behaviour) will enable them to labour more effectively and reduce the pain. Applying an unnatural breathing pattern is an intervention that carries the risk of disturbing blood chemistry and it has not been proven to improve birth outcomes or reduce labour pain. Promoting “the breathing” also suggests that women’s bodies will not be able to manage this function automatically during labour, potentially undermining her confidence in her own body’s ability to give birth. People can see it as an insult to nature.

The fact that many writers still incorporate strategies for “learning how to breathe during birth” into their books for expectant parents feeds into the notion that women are incapable of giving birth instinctively.

Learned behaviours applied by caregivers involve the use of the many protocols and routines that surround birth in hospital settings.

When midwives routinely apply birth management protocols to every woman in their care, they are not only disturbing the unique nature of birth for each woman but failing to carry out the most basic premise of their duty; to first do no harm. Woman-centred care, revolving around her unique needs is the best way to ensure safety and positive outcomes.

The blanket application of inappropriate protocols is not only potentially dangerous for mother and baby. It is the hallmark of the obstetric nurse carrying out the doctor’s orders, rather than the midwife acting in her own professional capacity. Interventions of all kinds carry the potential to disturb the natural flow of labour. These can take the familiar form of drips, drugs, ARMs and monitors, but also encompass less often considered social interventions. These include: requiring births to take place in a hospital; restricting the number of chosen birth companions; limiting food and drink during labour; encouraging women to wear hospital clothes; even the application of wrist band identification carries messages that underline the institutionalisation of birth.

When intervention is necessary, there must be a clear medical indication.

Almost all women (85 – 90%) have the capacity to give birth safely without the need for outside help. Nature has provided women with the necessary instincts and natural talents. It can be said that birth is so safe and easy that almost always, any woman anywhere in the world, with no special education, training or experience, is capable of producing the next generation. There will, however, be some women for whom giving birth will be hazardous. It is for these women and babies that all the obstetric procedures have been developed. Unfortunately, the basic premise of obstetrics is proactivity in seeking out possible problems. This whereas midwifery is grounded in being reactive – waiting until the problems appear before taking the necessary steps to correct the problem.
The conflict between obstetrics and midwifery revolves around this difference in approach. Perhaps the only way to ensure that unnecessary intervention during labour does not occur may be to remove birth from the direct and indirect supervision of doctors. This also includes the re-skilling of midwives to facilitate normal births in community settings. In the meantime, they have a mounting body of evidence to guide practice, all of which says that keeping birth normal through the adoption of midwifery principles is the safest way to approach labour and that all interventions must be justified in terms of risks and benefits.

Normal births rely on good midwifery practice

Defining good midwifery practice is probably as difficult as defining “normal birth”. It is hard given that birth is a high individualistic journey for every woman. However, if midwifery is based on the premise that birth is a wellness condition and not an illness, then good midwifery revolves around enabling and facilitating the individual journey of the woman. The midwife will not impose her own views, needs or expectations. Midwife understands that flexibility and openness are the hallmarks of being “with women”. In simple terms, the easiest way to summarise “good midwifery” is to look at how the midwife behaves towards the woman. A woman centred care and enabling her needs to be met are central concepts. In practice, this translates into understanding that labour pain is normal and important to good birth outcomes.

An understanding that women’s intuition and instincts will be her basic guide to successful birth; that unless there is a clear indication of a problem, then the reactions and responses of women during labour are probably just variations of the wide definition of “normal. Any midwife who uses drugs or other rescue remedies during labour (TENS, Entonox and complementary therapies included) is not practising midwifery but nursing.

Belief and trust in nature

Underpinning the whole profession of midwifery must be the belief that by developing a robust system that almost always works (and works well) nature has evolved a process for ensuring the ongoing success of our species. Millions of years have gone into refining its intricacies. Assuming that we can improve nature through the manipulation and control of birth is arrogant and dangerous. Alongside the need to develop a robust trust in nature. We must develop a strong and abiding belief that women can manage birth themselves. Nature has given women the necessary instincts in a non-discriminatory way. Every woman has the capacity for a safe and easy birth. We must celebrate her innate talents – this is what midwifery is all about.


  1. O’Driscoll, K & Meagher, 1980, D Active Management of Labour, W B Saunders Company, London.
  2. Thornton, J & Lilford, 1994, R Active Management of Labour: current knowledge and research issues, BMJ 309:366-9.
  3. Balaskas, J (1983) Active Birth, Unwin Paperbacks, Sydney
  4. This article first appeared in The Practising Midwife, Vol 5 No 7, August 2002

One thought on “Are midwives a dying breed?

  1. Laura-Jane Marsden says:

    The midwives who attended the homebirth of my third baby sat quietly in the kitchen, out of my eyesight; listening and watching. They didn’t speak to me during my labour. In fact, they introduced themselves to me once my daughter has been born! How disappointingly different this was to the hospital births I have had. I believe my midwives’ quiet, respectful presence helped me to have a smooth, positive birth experience.

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