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What is a Midwife?

Aug 25th, 2010 Paths

The first topic to explore is the meaning of the word “midwife.”  What does it mean to be called to midwifery?

We could take the internationally accepted definition from the International Confederation of Midwives:

A midwife is a person who, having been regularly admitted to a midwifery educational
programme, duly recognised in the country in which it is located, has successfully
completed the prescribed course of studies in midwifery and has acquired the requisite
qualifications to be registered and/or legally licensed to practise midwifery.
The midwife is recognised as 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 newborn and the infant. This care includes preventative measures,
the promotion of normal birth, the detection of complications in mother and child, the
accessing of medical care or other appropriate assistance and the carrying out of
emergency measures.
The midwife has an important task in health counselling and education, not only for the
woman, but also within the family and the community. This work should involve antenatal
education and preparation for parenthood and may extend to women’s health, sexual or
reproductive health and child care.
A midwife may practise in any setting including the home, community, hospitals, clinics or
health units.

This is a very thorough definition that includes all the things a midwife may do, but I am not sure any midwife actually does all the tasks listed.

Logistically speaking, creating a universal definition is a tricky thing. What if midwives in one country are given more responsibility than midwives in another? Or what if the roles are simply different?  Did you pick out the requirement that the midwife complete a program that is recognized in the country in which it is located? I am sure this was an important factor because the definition could not negate any laws that require specific training for midwives. But this does leave us with some issues.  For example, what if the program of study completed by a midwife is not recognized by another country when she crosses borders?

This gets even tricker here in the United States where I live because each state has it’s own Midwifery Practice Act.  This means a person who is legally able to practice as a midwife in one state may not be considered qualified to practice in another.  Sometimes it is not a question of training, but instead a difference in scope of practice. What does that mean?  Well, all states allow Certified Nurse Midwives (CNMs) to practice.  But not all states allow the CNM to practice independently for example, in some places she must have a written practice agreement with a physician.

What this means to you

So here you are, hoping to someday become a midwife and not really knowing where to start.  One place to start is to determine what laws regulate midwifery where you live.  This will help you understand what type of training you will need, and in what capacity you will be able to serve families when you officially offer services as a  midwife. Citizens for Midwifery keeps a great listing of the current laws for the United States.  For other countries check with your midwifery council to learn about laws.  Some links are available within their respective countries in the Natural Childbirth Directory.

Once you know about the laws where you live you need to consider how your ability to practice will be affected if you move to another state or want to do midwifery in another country. Every circumstance is different, only you know what your future is likely to hold for you and the probability that international midwifery is your calling.

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Jennifer Vanderlaan CNM MPH is the author of the BirthingNaturally.net website. She has been working with expectant families since 2000, training doulas, childbirth educators, and midwives. She has worked with midwives in Central America and Sub-Saharan Africa. Her interest in public health grew in 2010, and she is now a PhD student learning to become a producer of knowledge.

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