From the first minutes after finding out you’re pregnant, you are constantly making decisions. Decision making will be a major part of your life for the next 18 years or so – but before you jump into parenthood, you may want to decide where you’ll give birth. Many pregnant women think they must give birth in a hospital, but there are safe alternatives to hospitals, including birth centers.

What exactly is a birth center?

A birth center is a medical facility that provides prenatal care and labor support for pregnant women. Some birth centers are located within a hospital, but others are located in a completely separate location. Unlike the stark hospital setting of a traditional labor ward birthing centers look more like someone’s home.

What can a pregnant woman expect with birth center care?

The care given at a birth center is similar to traditional forms of obstetric care. Prenatal appointments, emergency appointments and labor support are all taken care of by the birth center. The staff at the birth center may include a doctor, but more often midwives are entrusted with prenatal and labor care.

Is a hospital birth center safer?

Even in the lowest risk patients, unexpected complications can occur during labor and delivery. These include but are not limited to serious complications such as shoulder dystocia, abnormal fetal heart rate, inability to deliver the baby after pushing, as well as complications to the newborn baby after birth. If there is a medical complication during pregnancy, you will receive quick care if the birth center is located within a hospital.

So, medically speaking, a birth center that is located inside of a hospital is safer than a birth center located away from a hospital. If there is a complication away from the hospital, it can take too long to receive proper care.

Birthing centers located outside of a hospital usually do not have neonatologists available, or doctors who specialize in newborn care. If your baby unexpectantly requires specialized neonatal care, that care is usually not available in birthing center located outside of a hospital.

Can all pregnant women choose a birth center for prenatal care and labor support?

There are no laws preventing pregnant women from choosing a birth center for pregnancy care, but there are some things to take into consideration. If you’ve suffered one or more of the following complications during a previous pregnancy it may be safer to choose traditional prenatal care.

This list is not all inclusive. The general rule of thumb is if medical attention was required during your prenatal care or labor, a birth center may not have the best medical staff for your needs. But even in the most normal pregnancies, complications can occur at any time during labor and delivery. If, for example, you require an emergency cesarean delivery, it cannot be done in an out of hospital birthing center and you usually need to be transferred to a hospital.

Will I be offered pain medication during labor at a birth center?

If the birth center is located within a hospital, an anesthesiologist may be available to administer pregnancy pain medications. The epidural, a common pain medicine used during pregnancy, requires a catheter, so a birth center located outside of a hospital cannot usually provide the care needed after an epidural is administered.

The birth center is an alternative birthing option for some women. If you’ve had an unremarkable pregnancy and you feel safe giving birth in a birthing center inside the hospital, then the birth center may be an option, but if you go to a birthing center outside a hospital, and  there are any complications associated with the pregnancy or if complications of any kind are expected during birth, the birth center may not be able to provide the medical care you or your newborn baby need. 

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