Birthing Centers vs. Hospitals: How to Know What’s Right for You

You have options regarding where you’ll labor and deliver, mainly deciding between birthing centers vs. hospitals. Keep reading to learn more about the differences between the two birthing locations.

Choosing where to give birth may seem like a no-brainer – many assume they’ll give birth in the hospital. After all, it’s been the social norm for the better part of a century.

But you do have options.

No setting is perfect, so you’ll want to weigh birthing center pros and cons against hospitals to determine which feels right. The most crucial part is that you’re comfortable and your specific needs are met in your chosen location.

birthing center suite

Birthing center: a look at the pros and cons

Birthing centers are becoming more popular for those who long for a more relaxed atmosphere and a natural birthing experience but don’t feel comfortable with home birth.

With this option, midwives take care of all your prenatal appointments, labor, and delivery. However, they only take on low-risk pregnancies.

Birthing center benefits

If you choose to labor and deliver at a birthing center, you can expect the following:

  • Relaxed setting
  • Knowledgeable staff
  • Natural birth options
  • Fewer interventions

Relaxed Setting

Rooms in a birthing center are typically individual, so you don’t have to share space with other laboring or recovering moms. The atmosphere also feels more like a home, lacking most of the machinery most people have come to expect.

You can bring pictures or other comforting items from home to surround you. You’ll also be able to dim the lights, play music, and do anything else to the room to make yourself feel comfortable. Most birthing centers will also have tubs you can use to relax or give birth in.

Knowledgeable Staff

Birthing centers are staffed by a team of certified midwives and sometimes nurses. They’ve had to undergo a lot of training and hands-on experience to get where they are, so you’ll be in skillful hands.

mom kissing newborn baby after water birth

Natural Birthing Options

You’ll have a wealth of natural birthing knowledge and options available at a birthing center. They can help you into multiple positions to find one that feels right for you. You’ll also have access to natural pain therapies like massage, water birth, and acupuncture.

Like with any other setting, it’s important to discuss your birth plan with the midwife so they know your preferences and you can find out what resources your center has available.

Fewer Interventions

Unlike in most hospital settings, you won’t have constant fetal monitoring or be hooked up to an IV at a birthing center. You’ll be able to move around freely, doing what comes naturally to you during labor.

Medical interventions, in general, are far fewer at a birthing center than at a hospital, with 94% of moms with low-risk pregnancies achieving a vaginal birth, compared with 73% in the hospital setting.

mom laboring in a birthing tub

Birthing center drawbacks

Despite the wealth of options when laboring at birthing centers vs. hospitals, they still have some potential pitfalls.

  • Hard to find
  • Inability to perform procedures
  • Quick discharge
  • Not always covered by insurance

Hard to Find

Birthing centers are rising in popularity but aren’t yet able to compete with hospitals. You may have to travel quite a distance to reach your nearest location.

Inability to Perform Procedures

The main reason midwives at birthing centers only take on moms with low-risk pregnancies is they can’t perform medical procedures outside a standard delivery. If you want an epidural, need a c-section, or require a more emergent procedure for yourself or the baby, you’ll be transferred by ambulance to the nearest hospital.

Quick Discharge

The turnaround time at a birthing center is much faster. After giving birth, you’ll only remain for 4-8 hours. Some women see this as a benefit, but others would prefer to have the overnight monitoring of themselves and their babies the hospital offers.

Not Always Covered

Depending on your insurance, you might not have coverage for using a birthing center. Their expenses are much lower, but you’ll have to pay them all out of pocket.

How does a birthing center differ from a hospital?

Take a closer look to see how a birthing center differs from a hospital in this side-by-side comparison.

Birthing CenterHospital
Home-like atmosphereX
Quick dischargeX
Suitable for high-risk patientsX
Lower rates of interventionsX
Can administer an epiduralX
More natural birthing optionsX
Has a variety of medical professionalsX
Often offers massage, acupuncture, etc.X
Always accepts insuranceX

Hospitals: a look at the pros and cons

Hospital settings are a social standard for a reason. They provide the highest level of medical care, so they’re a perfect choice for those with high-risk pregnancies.

However, in most hospitals, you lose the more relaxed atmosphere.

Hospital benefits

If you choose to labor and deliver at a hospital, you can expect the following:

  • Medical pain relief options
  • Variety of medical professionals
  • Prepared for emergencies
  • Covered by most health insurance

Medical Pain Relief Options

It’s good to have options, even if you think your birth plan is set in stone. Hospitals are the only labor and delivery setting where you can have an epidural to help with the pain.

Trained anesthesiologists are on-site to administer one if you decide you want it. However, you must be early enough in your labor – once the baby starts to crown, it’s too late.

Variety of Medical Professionals

In addition to the anesthesiologists, you’ll have a variety of hospital staff available if the need arises. For starters, a team of nurses will help you with most of your labor, and an OB will be there for delivery.

After you deliver, you’ll be able to meet with a lactation consultant to work on breastfeeding, and the nurses can help care for your baby so you can get some well-deserved sleep.

mom giving birth in a hospital bed holding husbands hand

Prepared for Emergencies

Surgery and the NICU are also right at hand in case of an emergency. At the hospital, the staff will watch and monitor you and your baby for any potential signs of danger and are prepared to handle the situation if one occurs.

Covered by Most Health Insurance

Health insurance is required to cover at least a portion of pregnancy-related expenses. You’ll need to check with your provider to see what you can expect from your policy.

Typically, they cover between 25% and 90% of the costs. Remember that if you have a deductible you haven’t met yet, you’ll have to pay out of pocket up until your insurance kicks in.

mom in labor at hospital

Hospital drawbacks

Hospitals are ideal for high-risk pregnancies and provide an added measure of safety. However, they still have some potential drawbacks worth considering.

  • Clinical setting
  • Limited freedom of choice
  • Rotating staff

Clinical Setting

While some hospitals have cozy birthing rooms, they’re the exception.

In most cases, you’ll give birth in a regular hospital room outfitted with the proper equipment. You can bring some things from home to help you be more comfortable, but the room will probably feel somewhat sterile.

Many hospitals also have separate locations for delivery and recovery. After birth, you’ll either have to pay for an individual room or share with another recovering mom.

Limited Freedom of Choice

Unlike in a birthing center, you aren’t allowed to eat anything during labor. They aren’t as highly equipped to support a natural birth – your options will be more limited. You’ll probably have to give birth lying down on your back as opposed to alternative positions.

Generally, hospitals use constant fetal monitoring, so you’ll be hooked up to an IV and a fetal heart monitor, making moving around much more difficult. You’ll also have a limit on the number of people who can be with you in the room.

Rotating Staff

During your stay at the hospital, many nurses and doctors will rotate in and out. The nursing staff who helps with your intake may not be the ones who help you deliver or take care of you in recovery.

In addition, the OB you met with during your prenatal appointments might not be on call or available on the day you’re ready to give birth.

mom having a cesarean birth

Deciding on a Birth Center vs. Hospital

While this may seem like one more difficult decision you’ve faced during your pregnancy, the odds are good.

After reading through these two options, listen to your gut about what you want.

Yes, weighing the hospital and birthing center’s pros and cons is essential, but as a parent-to-be, you can’t deny your intuition.

If neither of these options speaks to you, you could even research a home birth to see if that feels right. Luckily, in this area, at least, you have a few highly varied options.

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Beth Rush

Managing Editor

Beth, the Managing Editor and content manager at Body+Mind, is well-respected in the nutrition, parenting, mental health and fitness spaces. In her spare time, Beth enjoys cooking and trying out new exercise routines.

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