When she was a little girl, Kristen Walsh loved to hear her mom’s stories about the day she was born.
“My mom had me at home,” says Walsh, 31, of Portland. “It felt so unique. Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve wanted to have that experience for myself.”
Walsh recently got her wish. On Dec. 9, 2012, her son Declan was born at home. It was a long labor and she was exhausted by the end of it, but she never wavered in her determination to stay at home and in her confidence that she could do it.
“I got to do a lot of things that I wanted to do,” she says. “Even up to the last minute he was born, I was eating (an energy bar). In the hospital, I wouldn’t have been able to have the birth I had.”
Walsh is one of a small but growing number of women who are opting to give birth at home. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, 25,000 women give birth at home in the United States each year. A 2009 study showed that home births increased 20 percent in the U.S. between 2004 and 2008, fueled by a 28 percent increase in home births among white women. The overall rate nationally is less than 1 percent of all live births, but the increase reversed a two-decade decline in home births.
Heidi Fillmore of Bridgton, a midwife who has delivered 600 babies at home in Maine since 1987, says women are discovering that home birth can be a more holistic procedure than a hospital birth, where 32 percent of all babies end up being born via C-section.
Some women, Fillmore says, decide to explore home birth after an unpleasant hospital experience with a first child. That was the case with Kristen Walsh’s mother, who had had Kristen’s older sister in the hospital and had to stay three days “even though everyone was doing great,” Kristen says. “So she found the one midwife in the Waterville area and they had a home birth with me.”
A popular 2007 documentary produced by Ricki Lake, called “The Business of Being Born,” has also inspired women to explore alternatives. Seeing home birth depicted as one of many viable alternatives has taken it out of the realm of 1970s “hippie” culture and brought it into the mainstream, at least as an option for healthy women who are having uncomplicated pregnancies.
One reason for the increased interest in home births is the increase in qualified certified professional midwives – not to be confused with certified nurse midwives, who are medically trained to assist at hospital births. Maine, in fact, is a hotbed of midwives because it is home to the only residential training school for certified professional midwives on the East Coast – one of 10 such schools nationwide.
According to Midwives of Maine’s website, there are 20 practicing midwives within a 200-mile radius of Portland.
Fillmore is the director of the Birthwise Midwifery School, which has been operating in Bridgton since 1994. The three-year program graduates about 10 potential midwives a year. They must go on and pass the national exam given by the North American Registry of Midwives to be considered certified professional midwives.
“Home birth is a choice that some women are going to make,” says Fillmore, adding that she and most midwives are passionate about a woman’s right to a safe home birth. “It’s a choice and a right, so let’s make it as safe as possible.”
Walsh, a preschool teacher and also a doula, or a labor support person, says choosing a midwife in Maine was difficult because “they are all so wonderful.”
She interviewed three midwives and settled on Midcoast Midwifery in Falmouth because she clicked personally with Becky Pelchat and her partner Jenna Schmitz., who have been midwives since 2008.
Walsh says that she was very healthy and there were no “red flags” that indicated to the midwives that she might need more specialized care. Walsh didn’t consult with a doctor at all during her pregnancy, but she was confident that “if I needed to transfer, Becky and Jenna had a (medical) practice they could refer me to.”
Schmitz says about half of her clients don’t consult with an obstetrician during their pregnancy. The other half choose to have a routine ultrasound at 20 weeks. She says less than 10 percent of her clients in the last four years have needed to be transferred to a doctor’s care during pregnancy or labor, mainly because she and her partner only take on clients who are very low risk.
“We are very conservative. We definitely consult when we need to,” says Schmitz, adding that clients are evaluated often to make sure the mom and baby are remaining healthy and at low risk of any complications.
“If someone is starting to develop an issue (such as hypertension, a change in the amniotic fluid, or a slowed growth rate of the uterus), we would transport them right away (to a doctor’s care),” Schmitz says.
While moms who need to be transported may be disappointed, Schmitz says that the health of mother and baby are always the first concern.
“They obviously end up where they need to be,” she says.
Walsh describes her home birth as being “totally different” from the story her own mother used to tell her. For one thing, her labor went on for five long nights – during which, luckily, contractions spaced out enough during the day so that she could get some sleep.
Walsh decided to see an acupuncturist on Saturday, which seemed to “kick-start” her labor. She listened to music (George Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass” was a favorite), ate and drank throughout, and felt the warmth and comfort of familiar surroundings.
“It’s a comfort level you can’t get anywhere else,” she says.
Walsh’s husband, her mother, her midwives and a midwifery student were all there from Saturday night into Sunday morning – though Walsh says she didn’t much notice them. Walsh says there was never any discussion of transferring to a hospital as the labor dragged on.
“I was so healthy and everyone was so confident that I could do it,” she says.
“We worry that the mother is getting exhausted or the baby might not be handling the stress of a long labor,” says Schmitz. “But she was able to get some rest between contractions and she continued to progress (throughout the labor.)”
Declan was born a minute past noon on Sunday, Dec. 9. Mom and son are doing well, she reports three weeks later by phone (as Declan in the background makes those soft, intermittent sounds that indicate he’s happily nursing).
“For the most part, it’s been a huge educational experience for the people around me,” says Walsh. “I’m just tickled that I get to educate people about this. I feel really blessed.”