Monday, 17 November 2014

BIRTH WEEK: Childbirth is a "social, not a medical, event" Sheena Byrom OBE, Midwife

In the first instalment of BIRTH WEEK, we hear from inspirational midwife, Sheena Byrom OBE, on her role as a midwife, supporting women in childbirth and the current state of maternity services in the UK.

1. What first inspired you to train as a midwife?

Well, my aunt was a midwife and frequently told me stories of how she loved her job. I suppose the real inspiration came when I was working as a student nurse, doing maternity experience as part of my training. I was invited to actually help with the birth of baby, to actually catch the baby, with the midwife’s hands covering mine. I couldn’t believe it…the woman was so powerful. That moment changed my career pathway!

2. How do you think the rewards and challenges have changed in the last three decades?

The rewards always outweigh the challenges. To be any part of a woman’s journey to motherhood is a huge privilege. For me personally, the rewards have been in the ability to encourage and support students and midwives to provide the best possible maternity care, woman and family focused care. Midwives in the UK have more autonomy than ever, and in the main are able to support women in their choices, even though there is much work to do!

The challenges are the ever increasing medicalisation of childbirth, and the unrelenting need to make financial savings in already under-resourced, over-stretched maternity services. In addition, fear in maternity services prevails, maternity care workers are fearful of recrimination and litigation, and women sense the fear in addition to absorbing negative stories via the media. This results in defensive practice, and women not feeling safe unless they give birth in hospital.

3. How do you feel about the first midwife strike in 133 years? Do you feel that it was inevitable or something to be avoided at all costs?

Yes I feel midwives need to make their voices heard. They are working under enormous pressure, in sometimes intolerably stressful situations. All areas of the NHS feel their service is important, but if we don’t get it right at the beginning of life, the potential harm can last a lifetime. Apart from the human cost to families, this means more expense for the NHS. We have been asking for help for decades, and enough is enough.

4. NICE are now recommending a home birth for women from their second pregnancy. Do you think this is a positive step?

Yes I do! This is an incredibly positive step as there is robust evidence telling us home birth for second time mums with low risk pregnancies is not only as safe as going in hospital, but there is less chance of the mother having unnecessary medical intervention. When the Peel Report (1970) dictated that all births should be in hospital, it was based on NO evidence at all. The negative consequences of this directive are continuing today. Childbirth should be viewed as a social, not medical, event. Hospitals are places for sick people, and for pregnant women who need or may need a doctor. I think it will take a long time for society to reverse the culture of fear, and over-reliance (and mis-guided trust) in hospital birth for all.

5. It is very common for women to find birth a difficult experience, at times feeling vulnerable, confused or out of control. What do you think is the most important thing a woman can do to prepare herself for a positive birthing experience?

To find out as much as she can about the physiology of her body, and to try as much as she is able to stay close to those processes. Connecting with like-minded people who will give her confidence, such as groups on the internet or in her locality. Keeping a diary, documenting her birth preferences, and making a 'wellbeing plan’ . Consider using hyponobirthing or natal therapy, and hiring a doula. I think Milli Hill’s Positive Birth Movement is excellent for support both on and offline!

Sheena Byrom is a practising midwife, and worked within the NHS for more than 35 years. Sheena was one of the UK’s first consultant midwives, and successfully helped to lead the development of three birth centres in East Lancashire. Sheena is a member of the Royal College of Midwives Better Births initiative, and lectures nationally on midwifery and childbirth related topics. Sheena is the Patron of StudentMidwife.Net and Chair of the Iolanthe Midwifery Trust. Her midwifery memoirs, Catching Babies, is a Sunday Times bestseller, and her absolute passion is promoting normal birth, and a positive childbirth experience for all women. Sheena was awarded an OBE in 2011, for services to midwifery, and she actively lobbies for maternity service improvements through several social media channels. Sheena is currently an Independent Midwifery Advisor, and her personal and midwifery related website is

Do you have any thoughts on this? Have you  been tempted by a home birth? Have you found midwives sympathetic to complementary therapies in your experience? What did you think about the midwives strike? Let us know your views!


  1. Thanks so much for your input Sheena. Really interesting to hear what midwives have to cope with and how pregnant women can empower themselves to make informed decisions. I for one really appreciate having midwives, rather than highly medicalised care, and hopefully we can work on developing continuity of midwifery care for all pregnant women.

  2. Fantastic advice for mums to be who are anxious about birth. The online support you gave me during this last pregnancy was amazing and I will always be grateful for that. And although I didn't get the birth I wanted I do actually have confidence in my body now and I really feel had circumstances been different, I would've done it! Wonderful interview, thank you! x x