Expert Commentary

What do the latest data reveal about the safety of home birth in the United States?

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Planned home birth was associated with a significantly greater likelihood of a 5-minute Apgar score less than 4, compared with hospital birth (0.37% vs 0.24%, respectively; adjusted odds ratio [aOR], 3.08; 95% confidence interval [CI], 1.36–2.58), as well as a greater likelihood of neonatal seizures (0.06% vs 0.02%, respectively; aOR, 3.08; 95% CI, 1.44–6.58), according to this retrospective cohort study. The investigators note that an Apgar score of 0 to 3 at 5 minutes is a valid predictor of neonatal death.

Admission to a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) was lower among infants born at home, compared with hospital delivery (aOR, 0.23%; 95% CI, 0.18–0.30).

Cheng YW, Snowden JM, King TL, Caughey AB. Selected perinatal outcomes associated with planned home births in the United States. Am J Obstet Gynecol. 2013;209(4):325.e1–e8. doi: 10.1016/j.ajog.2013.06.022.

Why are well-educated women more likely to choose home birth?
Errol R. Norwitz, MD, PhD (November 2013)



Every morning before I leave for work, I kiss my three children goodbye and tell them, “I love you. Make good choices today.”

This has become my mantra—so much so that, on her way out the door to join her friends at the movies recently, my daughter turned to me and said, “I know, Dad. I know. I’ll make good decisions tonight.”

And what decision is more important than where to deliver your child and who to have in attendance at the birth?

It is said that the passage from the uterus to the outside world that each one of us was forced to negotiate at birth is the most treacherous journey we will ever undertake. Any unnecessary delay or complication can have profound, lifelong consequences.

There is no question that the past few centuries have seen a significant “medicalization” of childbirth, including the relocation of deliveries from the community to a hospital setting, the introduction of male obstetricians, the unfortunate marginalization of midwives and support personnel (doulas), the development of uterotonic drugs, and the evolution of operative vaginal (forceps, vacuum) and cesarean deliveries.

Many of the practices initially introduced by obstetric care providers (including multiple vaginal examinations in labor, induction of labor for a large baby, and active management of labor protocols) have since been shown to be unhelpful in improving pregnancy outcomes, and some practices (such as episiotomy) have even been shown to be harmful.

Related article: Difficult fetal extraction at cesarean delivery: What should you do? Robert L. Barbieri, MD (Editorial, January 2012)

In the midst of this confusion, the one voice that has been lost is that of the patient herself.

Whose birth is it anyway?
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), and the American College of Nurse-Midwives (ACNM) all agree that patient autonomy is paramount, and that the final decision of where to deliver and who to have in attendance should be made by the patient herself, ideally in conjunction with her family and her obstetric care provider.1–3 But an informed decision is only as good as the available data. Regrettably, the literature on how planned home birth compares with hospital delivery in terms of pregnancy outcomes in the United States are sparse.

Related article: Lay midwives the the ObGyn: Is collaboration risky? Lucia DiVenere, MA (May 2012)

How safe is home birth in the United States?
Cheng and colleagues attempt to answer this question by reviewing newborn and maternal outcomes among planned home births versus hospital deliveries in a contemporary low-risk birth cohort. Their retrospective study included low-risk women at term with a singleton vertex live birth in 2008 in 27 of the 50 states using information from the Vital Statistics Natality Data provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Of these 2,081,753 women, 0.58% (n = 12,039) had planned home births, and the remainder delivered in a hospital setting. Women who had an “accidental” (unintended) home birth or who delivered in a freestanding birthing center were excluded. The primary outcome was the risk of a 5-minute Apgar score less than 4. Secondary outcomes included the risk of a 5-minute Apgar score less than 7, assisted ventilation for more than 6 hours, neonatal seizures, admission to the NICU, and a series of maternal outcome measures.

Besides the outcomes listed previously (top of page 24), women with a planned home birth had fewer obstetric interventions, including operative vaginal delivery and labor induction or augmentation. They also were less likely to be given antibiotics during labor (although the authors did not distinguish between antibiotics administered for prophylaxis against group B strep or surgical-site infection versus antibiotics to treat infections such as urinary tract infections or chorioamnionitis).

Of special interest is the fact that neither a prior vaginal delivery (multiparity) nor the absence of a prior cesarean delivery was protective against these adverse events.

The women at highest risk of an adverse event were those who delivered at home under the supervision of “other midwives.” Although these providers were not well defined, this term typically refers to community-based lay midwives whose only “training” consists of an unofficial apprenticeship of variable length. Despite the absence of formal training, the lack of certification and standardization of care, and the existence of legislation in many states banning their activity, such lay midwives continue to encourage and support home birth for both low- and high-risk women in the United States.

Related article: Update on Obstetrics John T. Repke, MD, and Jaimey M. Pauli, MD (January 2012)

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