Alongside midwifery units are defined as midwife-led units which are on the same premises as an obstetric unit (OU). They are usually next to the OU and may have come about following restructuring of the OU.
A follow on study from Birthplace 2011 investigated the way that alongside midwifery units are organised, staffed and managed, as well as the experiences of the women who use them and the staff who work in them.
The researchers looked at 4 different alongside midwifery units. They interviewed midwifery staff and service users, and also those in a management and organisational role. What became clear from the study was the fact that midwives working in alongside midwifery units were able to practice more autonomously, using their own clinical judgement. This is how all midwives, who are all autonomous practitioners, should be able to work, but obstetric units often discourage or reject this aspect of the midwifery role. Midwives also reported how they valued the work environment and culture, although the study did acknowledge that there was a need to ensure that midwives were supported to continue to develop their confidence, which is not a surprise as so many would have been trained in a far more repressive environment.
Another challenge for the sustainability of the alongside midwifery units was the fact that of all of the women who were considered to be good candidates to birth there, only a third ended up doing so. This study does not look at why this might be, but we know from feedback from women that very often they are simply not made aware of the midwife led unit in their area, so they did not have the opportunity to consider it for their baby’s birth.
Ultimately, Aquabirths would like to see the facilities which are commonplace within a midwife led unit such as birth pools, birth couches (link to softbirths), mats and birthing balls, as well as the environment which is designed for calm, and to promote oxytocin, available as standard within all types of units, including obstetric units. There is no reason why these facilities could not be used by far more women, and we strongly believe that if a better birth environment was available to all, that more women would birth their babies with fewer unnecessary interventions. We hope that more research like this will encourage designers of all types of maternity units to create spaces which support both women and midwives to work together for better births.