What is the role of a Midwife during pregnancy, labour and birth?

Dr Christine Catling
Dr Christine Catling
Dr Christine Catling, a midwife for over 25 years, is the Director of Midwifery Studies at UTS. She believes research, innovation and good quality midwifery are pivotal to the well-being of mothers and young families. Christine has extensive experience in antenatal education, policy development and research, and has published on workforce issues, homebirth, vaginal birth...
Updated on Jun 14, 2024 · 5 mins read

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When you fall pregnant, one of the first decisions you’ll need to make is where to have the baby, and who you will see for your antenatal care: an obstetrician or a midwife. This will also be largely decided by whether you opt to use the public or private system or are planning a home birth. While some women might think of a midwife as playing a supporting role to a doctor, midwives are actually qualified professionals trained to provide prenatal care (during pregnancy and childbirth) as well as postnatal care and play a huge role on the day. Supporting everything from education to the birthing process itself, midwives work in providing extra medical help to patients.

What is a midwife?

Certified nurse midwives are qualified medical professionals who have studied to become midwives (either solely or on top of a nursing degree) and must be registered with the Nursing and Midwifery Board of Australia. In America, need to be registered with the American midwifery certification board.

Nurse midwives predominantly work out of hospitals and birthing centers, but may also work from private practices. If you are choosing a private midwife they must be registered with the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA)

What is the difference between midwives and registered nurses?

Midwives and registered nurses are both essential healthcare professionals, but they differ significantly in their roles, responsibilities, and areas of specialisation. Understanding the distinctions between the two professions is crucial in appreciating their unique contributions to the healthcare system.

Nurse midwives are specialised healthcare provider who primarily focuses on the care and education of pregnant women and the delivery of babies. The role of the midwife is to provide care throughout the pregnancy, labour, and postpartum period, aiming to ensure a safe and positive childbirth experience for both the women and children. A certified nurse midwife is trained to handle pregnancies and births that require little intervention, emphasising natural and non-invasive approaches to childbirth. They often work in various settings, including hospitals, birth centers, and homes.

On the other hand, a registered nurse (RN) is a versatile healthcare professional with a broader scope of practice. RNs are trained to care for patients of all ages and medical conditions, not limited to pregnancy and childbirth. They work in diverse healthcare settings, such as hospitals, clinics, nursing homes, and community health centers. RN’s are involved in a wide range of tasks, including administering medications, assisting in surgeries, conducting patient assessments, providing wound care and educating patients and their families about health conditions and treatment plans.

What is the role of the Midwife?

The role of the midwife is to provide health support, care and advice to women before they conceive, during their pregnancy, labour and birth and in the postnatal period. For many women (especially new mothers) and their families, midwifery care is super important. The midwife’s role is huge for women’s health, and can’t be underestimated when it comes to helping women stay healthy. Education about the birthing process, nursing and potential complications and intervention is a big part of their job. In nurse midwifery, they have training to stay calm in emotionally charged situations, making them a supportive and reassuring presence.

When pregnant women go through the public system with an uncomplicated pregnancy, they will likely see a midwife for the majority of their antenatal care (and sometimes prenatal visits). However, some private obstetricians may also use midwives for some of their medical care visits.

Much like an obstetrician would, if you see a nurse midwife for your pregnancy care, they will monitor your baby’s growth and development, monitor your health and wellbeing, help you organise any tests or scans required, as well as working to provide care and support for your pregnancy, birth plan, actual birth and labour. Most midwives support doctors in the primary care of patients.

What is the role of a midwife during labour and birth?

During your labour and birth, the role of a nurse midwives is to monitor both you and your baby, offer and provide options for pain medication (they cannot administer epidurals however this will be done by an anaesthetist), and provide help and support along the way. The training for nurse midwifery, assessed under a certification exam, ensures they provide expert services based on compassion and guidance. They engage in what’s known as shared decision making, where you, your doctor and your midwife bring your perspectives to labour conversations.

You may not have the same midwife throughout your pregnancy and labour, depending on whether you go public or private – and how long your labour takes. If you are booked into a Midwifery Group Practice in a public hospital, you will have the same small group of midwives (sometimes only two) looking after you throughout your whole pregnancy, labour, birth and the postnatal period.

In the public system, if your labour is uncomplicated (or a “normal” birth) the nurse midwife may go on to help you give birth to your baby, however, if any complications do arise, an obstetrician will be called in to help. If a caesarean section is required, this will be performed by an obstetrician.

In a private hospital, nurse midwives will monitor you and your baby throughout labour, keeping your obstetrician updated with your progress before calling them in for the birth.

What is the role of a midwife after the birth?

Midwives are there to care for both you and your child after birth, they will monitor both of you closely to make sure you are recovering well and carry out newborn tests on your baby. Midwives work to administer any pain relief or organise a doctor if you need any medical treatment or services.

Midwifery care exists to help you care for your newborn throughout the duration of your hospital stay, teaching you things like breastfeeding, changing nappies, bathing your bub as well as emotional support.

Once you take your baby home you will also have a home visit from a nurse midwife from your local Child and Family Health centre, usually within two weeks from giving birth. The nurse midwife will check up on how you and your baby are progressing and recovering and provide any extra support or advice you may need.

For more information on midwives, visit the Australian College Of Midwives 


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