When it comes to birth stories, mine are a little unusual as I had my first baby at home and my second in hospital – it’s often the other way round for many people interested in home births. Gabriel was born at home in 2009 and we planned to have Tom at home, but he ended up being born in hospital in 2010. I am fortunate that both births were fairly straightforward and without complications, but they were very different and I would like to share my experiences with you.
It all feels like quite a long time ago now and I’m sure things have changed a bit, but the essentials remain the same. Because there is so much to share, I’ve broken things down into different sections. This has been a long and difficult post to write!
Why did I choose a home birth?
When I was pregnant with my first child, Gabriel, I wasn’t particularly well-informed about the realities of pregnancy and childbirth. I was young – 24 – and I hadn’t spend years reading books on pregnancy and babies. We were lucky as it was all very natural and relaxed. I didn’t have any expectations or prejudices. Some might say I was naive, perhaps, but I wouldn’t necessarily agree.
Our first appointment with our community midwife was a relaxed affair. While we were drinking tea around the table, she mentioned home births. Had we thought about one? The community midwife team were keen that more people tried them. We both filed it away to think about later – after, all labour seems a long way off when you’re only about 9 weeks pregnant. But the seed was sown, and why not? The midwife was so relaxed and encouraging it didn’t seem an unreasonable idea.
What helped me make up my mind?
I’ve never been a big fan of hospitals – who is? The thing that worried me most about giving birth was the fear of being in a clinical, medicalised, environment. Two births later, this bothers me less, but that’s how I felt at the time and I’m sure a lot of new mums feel like that too. I read all of the usual stuff about how birth is natural process and that, providing things were low risk, there was no need for it to be treated as an illness.
Of course, you don’t have to have a home birth to avoid this. Our other option in Cambridgeshire was the midwife-led birthing unit, which is about as non-medical as you can get in a hospital environment. But we were still keen on a homebirth and the more I read about it, the more I wanted to try it. We spent many hours discussing it. Many people assume you aren’t allowed a home birth for your first baby, but this certainly wasn’t the opinion of our midwives. Their positivity was very reassuring. However, the main worry we kept coming back to was that we live 20 miles from the hospital (40 minutes by car – much worse in rush hour). What would happen if we had to transfer? Would we make it in time? Are we being irresponsible?
I can’t answer those questions for you. All you can do is read the facts and statistics, talk to your midwives and decide what’s best for you. I was a textbook pregnancy – no risks, no problems. If there had been any problems, or niggling worries, I would never have chosen a home birth. I couldn’t have made the decision without supportive community midwives. They made it seem a normal choice – something I imagine is not the case in all areas. For us the positives outweighed the negatives. At home we would have two midwives in attendance, and ambulances round the corner.
Getting the house ready
We were given a list of things to get ready. All pretty simple – the midwives would bring the important things with them. As instructed we bought a cheap shower curtain to act as a waterproof sheet, various buckets, a bright lamp and a portable heater. We also prepared a clear surface for checking the baby on – this was the top of our chest of drawers.
By this point I had decided I wanted to give birth in our bedroom, on the bed. I did not fancy a birth pool at all. The hassle of it all (we had two dogs back then) and the thought of the hoses everywhere in a small house did not appeal. And who’d clear it up and drain it afterwards?
Don’t forget to warn your neighbours. Gabriel arrived a day early and we hadn’t got round to it yet. I think they were a bit worried next door.
When it came to Tom’s planned home birth, the preparations were very similar. The only difference was that we had to make the arrangements for my parents (who live 20 minutes away) to be on stand-by to come and collect Gabriel. I had always planned for him to go to them as I didn’t want him to be around for the birth. Again, this is a personal thing – I didn’t want lots of people around.
The early stages of labour
With a first baby, a home birth really comes into its own. There’s no fretting about when to go to hospital. If you go too early you could be sent home again and labour might slow down as a result of the stress and upheaval. So, on the day before my due-date, when contractions started, everything progressed in a very relaxed way. We rang the midwives as the contractions became regular (about 6am I think) and they said someone would call round later in the morning. I spent the next few hours walking up and down the garden, playing cards, bouncing on the yoga ball.
We had our first visit from a midwife at about 10am and she took a look and told me I was 5cm dilated. She then went off again for a bit and left us to it – but obviously we were to ring her if things started progressing more quickly. It was all pretty slow but steady progress – textbook really, at this point.
With Tom’s birth in 2010, the early stages were slightly different. Contractions started ten days early and were strong, but manageable. At about 4am we rang the midwife, who said they’d be round at about 6am. Unfortunately, before this could happen, my waters broke and were stained with meconium – something which needs hospital monitoring. So that was that, and we knew there would be no homebirth for our second child.
Basically, there isn’t any if you choose a home birth.
Technically, there are options you can use – a TENS machine, paracetamol, pethadine or gas and air – but in my experience this didn’t amount to much. In my last few weeks of pregnancy with Gabriel I got a worried and investigated the pethadine. I know pethadine is not a particularly nice drug, but I wanted something in reserve in case I couldn’t cope. After a bit of confusion (there was disagreement about what was allowed) at the GP surgery I managed to get a prescription for a pethadine pessary. This, in the event, didn’t get used. I asked again when I was pregnant with Tom, but my GP told me it absolutely wasn’t allowed– and why on earth would I want to be doing anything so silly? So, I didn’t get any which was the right decision as I most likely wouldn’t have used it.
My TENS machine was useless and went straight in the bin. I really don’t see the point in them. If I’m in excruciating pain, why would I want an irritating buzzing sensation to accompany it?
I was hoping that gas and air would be my saviour. But beware – supplies in a homebirth are very limited (to one tank, I think). In my first labour, my midwives kept saying ‘oh, keep it for later, it’ll run out,’ every time I asked. I think they thought I was fine without it and were clearly reluctant to get it out. So beware of this. In my experience, gas and air at home was not really an option.
So it was paracetamol and nothing else. I should have demanded the gas and air. Why didn’t I?
With Tom’s birth, there unfortunately wasn’t any time for pain relief once we got to the hospital. I still feel quite cheated that I’ve never tried gas and air!
By the time you get to the active, transitional stage of labour it’s my firm belief that you don’t really notice where you are – you just want things to be over. But I was very grateful during my first labour that I’d got to that stage via a relaxed route. I was exhausted, but maybe less so than I would have been had a trip to hospital been involved. My labour progressed smoothly and never slowed down – which I think is quite unusual in a first-time mother, and I’m sure being at home helped.
Pushing took a long time as Gabriel was in a slightly awkward back-to-back position. There was a lot of muttering towards the end between the midwives about needing to transfer to hospital, as you are only allowed to push for a certain amount of time if you are at home. I’m not sure how much of this was in a bid to make me find that extra bit of energy to get him out, but it seemed to work as he was born soon after.
Unfortunately, with Tom, our experiences were rather different. After my waters broke, we asked a neighbour to come in and look after Gabriel (who was asleep) and then set off in our car for the drive to the hospital. Contractions were strong and close together and things were progressing scarily quickly. It was the winter of 2010, when we’d had weeks of snow and ice. The journey there was truly awful and I thought I was going to give birth on the A10 in rush-hour. With hindsight, I now have to wonder what were we thinking? Clearly, we should have called an ambulance and I still mentally kick myself about what might have happened.
Tom was born twenty minutes after we arrived at the delivery unit. There was barely time for the midwives to get their aprons on, and James nearly missed it. Of course, by this point, I didn’t care where I was. All that mattered was that I was somewhere safe.
Everything was fine with Tom, but the whole experience really shook me up and actually proved that living 20 miles from the hospital is actually a very serious matter – something I didn’t really want to think about too much during my home birth with Gabriel.
As you’d expect, this is excellent at home. After giving birth at about 5pm, I was able to have a bath in my own bathroom while James sorted out our bedroom. Then back to bed with my new baby to drink tea and eat toast. All very cosy and we got a pretty good night’s sleep considering.
The midwives stayed for about an hour or so after the birth, and then left us. It was well-timed and felt about right as we were all ok and coping well. We had another visit the next morning, and then all the visits you would normally expect.
With Tom’s birth in hospital, I also cannot fault the after-care. They were very friendly and we still got the tea and toast. Of course, it wasn’t as nice as being at home, but I didn’t give two figs about that when it came to it. I was just happy that he hadn’t been born on the side of the road. I had to stay in overnight, which I didn’t like, but it was all for the best and you can’t criticise the hospital for doing their job properly.
I’m a practical person, and I certainly didn’t approach my home birth in a spiritual sense – it just seemed right for us in our area, with our midwives. It has to be a personal decision.
I’m certainly not planning on giving birth again anytime soon, but if I did, I don’t think I’d feel the same as I did back in 2009. Motherhood has made me an even more cautious and anxious person and I think my calculations of the risks would come out rather differently. I am so incredibly glad that I had such a good experience giving birth at home – but my second pregnancy taught me that actually, being in hospital is sometimes the right decision.
I hope that my different experiences will help others who are considering a home birth. I would love to hear your thoughts, and please ask me if there is anything else you’d like to know.