Midwifery is a health care profession in which providers offer care to childbearing women during their pregnancy, labour and birth, and during the postpartum period. They also care for the newborn through to six weeks of age, including assisting with breastfeeding.
A practitioner of midwifery is known as a midwife, a term used in reference to both women and men, although the majority of midwives are female.
Midwives strive to help women to have a healthy pregnancy and natural birth experience. Midwives are trained to recognise and deal with deviations from the normal. Obstetricians, in contrast, are specialists in illness related to childbearing and in surgery. The two professions can be complementary, but often are at odds because obstetricians are taught to “actively manage” labour, while midwives are taught to only intervene when necessary.
Midwives refer women to a medical practitioner with qualifications in obstetrics when a pregnant woman requires care beyond the midwives’ area of expertise. In most cases, midwives and medical practitioners work together to provide care to childbearing women. Midwives are clinically trained to handle certain situations that may be described as normal variations or may even be considered abnormal, births where the baby is in a posterior position, does not move down into the pelvis well or where the woman is particularly fearful of giving birth.
The midwife is a responsible and accountable professional who works in partnership with women to give the necessary support, care and advice during pregnancy, labour and the postpartum period, to conduct births on the midwife’s own responsibility and to provide care for the infant. This care includes preventive measures, the promotion of normal birth, the detection of complications in mother and child, accessing of medical or other appropriate assistance and the carrying out of emergency measures.
The midwife has an important task in health counseling and education, not only for the woman, but also within the family and community.
Until fairly recently most midwives in Australia were first trained as nurses before becoming midwives. It is now possible to train as a midwife without becoming a nurse first and this is known as Bachelor of Midwifery. Midwives in the past looked after women in hospital during birth and postpartum in models where the women don’t have a relationship with a known midwife. If a woman did meet a midwife during her antenatal hospital visits, it was unlikely that this same midwife would be attendant at her birth or in the post natal period.
Now there is a growing recognition amongst women and the wider community that having the same midwife from early pregnancy, through labour and birth until around 6 weeks after birth has significant and lasting health benefits for women, their babies and families. This model is often called “continuity of care” or “continuity of carer” or “caseload” or “midwifery group practice”. There are some models of care – called team midwifery – where a group of midwives provides care to women. This is not the model we are referring to.