Many people describe birth centers as "a compromise" between hospital birth and homebirth; a "home-like environment". But that description is often inaccurate. There are several types of birth centers, and the way in which they are run varies greatly. Most are staffed exclusively by midwives and their support staff (nurses, for instance), but some work with OB/GYNs as well. Some birth centers are part of a hospital, and can even be located inside a hospital. Others are independent or "free-standing" birth centers. All birth centers tend to have several common characteristics, however. What are they?
- Birth centers are generally regarded to be more comfortable and intimate than hospitals. The care is more personal than in a hospital. Women may have access to large birthing pools, feel like a hotel rather than a medical environment, and may have things like birthing stools, balls, and large pillows.
- Birth centers are not equipped to deal with true medical emergencies that require c-sections (like a sudden placental abruption for instance). It will be necessary to transfer to OB care in such situations. If the birth center is actually inside a hospital, the "decision to incision" time might be shorter than if you were transferring from a free-standing birth center or from home. But maybe not. Generally, everything a midwife can do at a birth center, she could also do at your home.
Even these points are not universally true; some birth centers look like Hotel Hyatt, while others look like cheap private plastic surgery clinics. Some have one-on-one midwifery care, while others operate on a shift basis, and whoever is on call when you go into labor will deliver your baby. If you are considering giving birth at a birth center, discovering the pros and cons of your particular birth center is paramount, because they vary so much.