Expert Commentary

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

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Limitations of the study design
Although this dataset contains more than 2 million births, it includes only low-risk women at term and, therefore, is underpowered to measure outcomes such as fetal or neonatal death or birth injuries.

No data were presented on a number of important variables and outcome measures, such as the rate of or indications for cesarean delivery, the mode and frequency of intrapartum fetal monitoring, birth weight, intrapartum complications (uterine rupture, postpartum hemorrhage), blood transfusions, and infectious morbidity. The study also lacks long-term follow-up data on the infants.

That said, the study was well designed and very well written, and many of the limitations listed above are inherent in all retrospective cohort studies.

Putting these findings in context
These data are not novel, but they are remarkably consistent with other publications that have explored pregnancy outcomes in planned home birth versus hospital delivery from the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Australia, and the United States, all of which show a higher rate of neonatal complications with planned home birth [see Reference 4 for review].4

Moreover, it is likely that the data in the current report significantly underestimate the risks of planned home birth for two reasons:

  • Attempted home births that ended in transfer and, ultimately, delivery in a hospital setting (presumably for some unforeseen event such as excessive hemorrhage or uterine rupture or cord prolapse or nonreassuring fetal testing) were classified as hospital births.
  • Apgar scores at 5 minutes are assigned by the attending care provider, and there is no way to independently verify their accuracy. Because of their limited training and/or concern about efforts to limit the scope of their practice, “other midwives” may be inclined to assign more favorable Apgar scores.

Who is choosing to deliver at home?
The proportion of US women who delivered outside the hospital setting increased by 29% between 2004 and 2009,5 although home births still constitute a minority of low-risk births (0.58% in the current study).

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

One of the more interesting questions raised by this publication is the issue of who is choosing to deliver at home. In this cohort, women who planned home birth were more likely to be older, married, multiparous, white, and well educated. These aren’t exactly the women you would expect to gamble with the lives of their unborn offspring. So why are they choosing to deliver at home?

It could be that they are not well informed about the risks. Alternatively, they may have concluded that, although the relative risk of an adverse event is significantly higher with home birth, the absolute risk is low and acceptable to them. Or it could be that they are frustrated by the lack of autonomy afforded to them in the decisions surrounding antenatal care and the birthing process.

In recent years, more women are asking for minimally invasive births that are physically, emotionally, and socially supported. As hospital-based obstetric care providers, we do not always respect or meet these expectations. We can and should do better.

Women should not have to choose between a good birth experience and medical safety, between social support and hospital resources, between a sense of autonomy and access to life-saving interventions. Although every effort should be taken to make the birthing experience a positive one for the mother and her family as a whole, it should not be done at the expense of safety. I have yet to hear an asphyxiated and brain-damaged child thank his mother’s obstetric care provider for allowing a wonderful birth experience.

What this evidence means for practice
Even in countries where home births are integrated fully into the medical care system and attended by trained and certified nurse-midwives, they are associated with increased risks, including a twofold to threefold increase in the odds of neonatal death.4 In the US, where no such integration exists, home births are dangerous.

Maternity care has come a long way since the 17th Century, when a woman had a 1 in 6 chance of dying in childbirth and only one of every five children lived to enjoy a first birthday. It is appropriate in this era of Obamacare and cost containment that we explore alternative methods. The option of a safe home delivery may well be part of the solution, as it is for many European countries--but until we can be assured that such an approach is safe for both mothers and infants, let's keep home delivery where it belongs...for pizza!

--Errol R. Norwitz, MD, PHD

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