"Women feel they have no option but to give birth alone": The rise of freebirthing

Suddenly, she felt an urge to get out of the pool. “I stood up and it felt as if the weight of the universe crashed from my head to my toes.” Her waters broke – “all over the carpet, which wasn’t ideal” – and the baby started to crown. “Everyone was there, including both grandmothers on video call,” she says. “Once the baby was out, my eight-year-old son came over and said, ‘I’m so proud of you.’ And that was everything.”

There was no midwife present. Instead Johnson and her husband had hired a doula, who offers emotional support and guidance but is not medically trained. It was only after the placenta was delivered, and carefully placed in a bowl, that a midwife was called to check their baby boy.

For Johnson, a freebirth – typically characterised as a birth without medical assistance, through choice rather than circumstance – was an empowering and positive experience. But it had been preceded by an exhausting battle with health authorities that has been the hallmark of many women’s experience of pregnancy during the pandemic. In March, as the infection rate spiralled, trusts across the UK withdrew home birth services, while others closed midwife-led birth centres. Staff shortages and a high volume of 999 calls had put enormous pressure on the system. Hospitals rushed out new rules on birth partners, who were excluded from scans and sometimes even the birth itself. Between 9 March and 9 April, there were 14 different sets of official national advice for pregnant women in the UK. This year, giving birth in hospital has often felt like a confusing, risky and lonely prospect.