What Is a Midwife and What Do Midwives Do?
The word midwife means “with woman,” and throughout history midwives have been caring for women. The midwifery philosophy is to view pregnancy and birth as normal life events, and their role is to support women during this healthy time in their lives.
But midwives do much more than provide care for pregnancy, labor, and delivery.
The role of midwives
Midwives have expert knowledge and skill in caring for women throughout pregnancy, birth, and the postpartum period. The role of the midwife is to offer care that respects the goals and choices of each individual woman and her family. A midwife will:
- help a woman make decisions regarding on how to cope with labor
- explain pain relief options
- help women develop a birth plan that fits their individual needs and desires
- discuss realistic expectations about labor and delivery
- suggest position changes and movement that will facilitate birth
Depending on their training, midwives may also offer health services to women through all stages of life – from the teenage years through menopause. A certified midwife can provide:
- general health check-ups
- well-woman gynecologic care
- treatment for common infections
- treatment for sexually transmitted infections
- pain control
- birth control
Three types of midwives and midwife training
There are three types of midwives who practice in the United States. There are some differences in their training and what services each type of midwife may offer.
Certified Nurse Midwives
Certified nurse midwives (CNMs) have a college degree in nursing and a master’s degree in nurse-midwifery. CNMs:
- graduate from an accredited nurse-midwifery education program
- pass a national certification exam
- must have a license to practice midwifery in the state where they work and all 50 states license CNMs
- work in all healthcare settings including hospitals, birth centers, offices, and clinics
- provide general women’s healthcare throughout a woman’s lifetime
- can prescribe most medications
- represent most midwives in the U.S.
Certified midwives (CMs) have a bachelor’s degree in a field other than nursing and a master’s degree and:
- have the same midwifery education and pass the same national certification exam as CNMs
- provide the same services and work in the same settings as CNMs
- must have a license to practice in the state where they work but not all states license CMs
Certified Professional Midwives
Certified professional midwives (CPMs) either receive apprenticeship training or graduate from an accredited formal education program, and
- take a national certification exam but not the same exam taken by CNMs or CMs
- provide pregnancy, birth, and postpartum care only
- provide care outside of the hospital setting, often in birth centers or homes
- cannot prescribe most medications
- are not licensed in all states
Facts about midwives you should know
- All three types of midwives provide care to women during pregnancy, labor, birth, and the postpartum period
- CNMs and CMs are also licensed to provide general health services, annual checkups, birth control, menopausal care, and treatment for common infections
- CNMs and CMs care for about one of every ten women who give birth each year in the United States and most of these births are in the hospital
- Each type of midwife can provide care for women who choose to deliver at a birth center or at home
- In the United States midwives provide health services to women of all ages
Midwives collaborate with other specialists
Midwives pride themselves in knowing the difference between normal changes that occur and symptoms that require attention. They work in partnership with physicians who specialize in complications of pregnancy and can be available if needed.
If a woman has a medical problem or complication during labor, the midwife collaborates with the physician to ensure that the woman has the best and safest care for her and her baby. A midwife will also work with other providers, including nurses, social workers, nutritionists, doulas, childbirth educators, physical therapists and other specialists as needed for each individual woman.
The rewards of being a midwife
The most rewarding part of being a midwife is the honor and privilege to be with a woman during one of the most important moments of her life: the birth of her baby. I share in the excitement of hearing the baby’s heartbeat for the first time, the journey through pregnancy, and the magic of childbirth. Every woman’s journey is unique, and it’s the duty of the midwife to guide her safely to her new role as a mother.
Learn more about the individualized services midwives provide at Newport Women’s Health Services.
About the Author:
Karolyn Zambrotta, CNM
Karolyn Zambrotta, CNM, is a board-certified nurse midwife. She received her MS degree in nursing from the University of Rhode Island, and has decades of experience, first as an obstetrics nurse and then as an advanced practice nurse midwife at hospitals in Rhode Island and Massachusetts.
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