While the term Unassisted Childbirth (or UC – coined by Laura Kaplan-Shanley in the book entitled Unassisted Childbirth) is commonly used these days to refer to a birth that is planned and occurs without medical assistance, the term ‘freebirth’ seems to be generally preferred by those choosing this option themselves, as they consider their experience to be one that is ‘free’ or ‘freeing’, whereas the term Unassisted Childbirth implies that childbirth ought to be assisted by someone, and that the mother cannot or should not be doing it by herself.
Also the idea and term of ‘assistance’ is further muddied by differing opinions on what constitutes ‘assistance’ and the legalities of birthing without a medically trained person present. The desire for a birth that is not medically assisted does not necessarily mean that the birthing mother does not want support of any kind. Many freebirthers do desire support, either from family, friends, or a doula, to help support them both practically and emotionally through the intense experience of birth.
The Medical Management of Birth
Many women choose to freebirth as a direct response to the mass assumption and experience of birth as a medical event while others cite trauma from previous medically managed births as the catalyst for choosing to freebirth. While initially this may be seen as a choice that comes from a place of fear, many women who choose to freebirth after previously traumatic medicalised births find the freebirthing experience to be incredibly healing and empowering. Often the trauma that may still have been present from a previous birth is greatly healed by a subsequently empowering birth.
Freebirthers understand that they are taking full responsibility for their own health and safety, as well as that of their child, and so are often incredibly thorough in their research and preparation for birth.
The importance of environment
Many freebirthers do not wish to give birth in a medical setting, as it does not feel safe or comfortable for them. This may be the clinical setting of a hospital labour ward, or it may even include the use of medical equipment brought with, laid out and used by midwives in a homebirth setting. The mother may also desire total privacy whilst birthing, even to the extent of wishing to birth completely on her own, in order to ensure an undisturbed birth process which is known to be best aligned with normal, physiological birth.
Often a freebirthing mother will only want those present whom she loves and trusts. This may include her partner, members of her family, her children, close friends, and sometimes a doula. She will have taken the time to consider carefully whether the presence of any or all of these people will be of help or hindrance to her in her birth. Fear and adrenaline are well known to interfere with the birth process – be it coming from the birthing woman or anyone in her birth space. She may feel that birthing totally on her own is preferred for this reason too.
Not all doulas will feel comfortable supporting a freebirth; however, a woman has the legal right to choose the circumstances of her birth, including where it takes place and who is present. The family and doula will have spent a great deal of time ensuring they both fully understand her role and boundaries as a doula can not, and will not, perform any clinical or midwifery tasks. Her role is a practical, emotional and spiritual one only. When having a doula present for practical and emotional help during birth, she and the mother will have taken the time during pregnancy to get to know one another, to come to a place of deep understanding and mutual trust and respect in supporting the birthing mother to have the type of birth she desires.
No birth can ever be 100% guaranteed to have a safe outcome. With that said, it is then up to every individual mother-to-be to weigh up the risks of all the various options she has to choose from. This choice is an incredibly personal one, and will be greatly influenced by the beliefs and experiences of the individual. Within this context, there is no one-size-fits-all birth that will be the perfect birth for every woman. The best birth will be the one where she feels safest. For some women, this will be under the care of health care professionals or in a formal setting. But for others, the very presence of these individuals is enough to totally shut down the labour process.
Birth as a Personal and Family Journey of Natural Process, Trust, Belief and Empowerment
Freebirthers may have differing opinions on birth to the mainstream medical perspective, based upon their own personal political, ideological, social and spiritual beliefs, choices, lifestyles and philosophies of life. Many freebirthers plan this type of birth as they wish to allow the journey of pregnancy, labour and birth to be a natural and intuitive one. A journey where a mother can totally tune into herself and her baby, in order to fully experience the beauty, joy and power of undisturbed natural birth. Where she can listen to her body and trust its signals, allowing labour to unfold at its own pace. Where she can be the one fully in control of her body and her birth. Where she can bring her baby Earthside, without the distractions of other peoples ‘expertise’, opinions and agendas.
Unassisted Pregnancy and your choices for antenatal care
Unassisted Pregnancy (UP) is where a woman opts out of antenatal care either partially or completely, declining blood tests, scans and other ‘standard’ antenatal procedures. Some women choose to freebirth without informing maternity services of their pregnancy and birth until after the birth, others choose to interact with maternity care to varying degrees to suit their particular needs and desires. You may wish only to inform the Head of Midwifery of your pregnancy and intention to freebirth. Even though it should not be the case as you should feel supported in your informed choice to birth without midwives present, some women have chosen to plan an assisted homebirth and then do not call the midwives until after the baby is born. This is sometimes known as a planned BBA (Born Before Arrival). You may choose to take up antenatal and/or postnatal care with NHS maternity services and indeed, you are perfectly entitled to openly plan to freebirth with NHS midwives’ knowledge, in case you wish to call them in the event of the feeling that you would like a midwife present.
Official Obstacles to Freebirthing
While freebirthing is not illegal, because it is a less common approach, women may find midwives are either unsupportive of their choice or in some cases, judgemental. They may even be misinformed by health care professionals that their plans are illegal or ‘not allowed’ when this is not the case. By the Nursing & Midwifery Council’s own definition, ‘A midwife has no right to be at a baby’s birth and if a woman chooses not to contact or engage a midwife it is her right to do so.’ It also states that a ‘midwife must respect the woman’s choice to have an unassisted birth and if called prior to, during or after completion of the birth.’ In short, you should not feel judged, unsupported or persecuted in any way should you choose to birth ‘unassisted’.
If you do find that your midwife is not adhering to her own guidelines as laid out by the NMC, then consider contacting a Supervisor of Midwives or your Head of Midwifery, copying AIMS into any correspondence.
Just as every woman’s needs and desires for birth are different, so every freebirther comes to her birth with different experiences and expectations for her birth. It is up to each woman to choose which path to take, to decide how much or how little care she wants or needs.
Unassisted Childbirth by Laura Kaplan-Shanley
The Birthkeepers – Reclaiming an Ancient Tradition by Veronika Sophia Robinson and Andri Thwaites
Birthing from Within by Pam England and Rob Horowitz
Gentle Birth, Gentle Mothering by Dr. Sarah Buckley
Other websites and online groups
Birthrights.org.uk – Factsheet on Unassisted Childbirth
Human Rights – Article 8: Right to Respect for Private and Family Life
Written by Jo who freebirthed her first baby