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Mercy Birthing Center

Midwife Jennie Killeen checks out Ben and Laura Labovitz's newborn daughter, Lena, at the Mercy Hospital St. Louis birth center on Friday, April 7, 2017. Lena was born the day before, the 500th baby born at the Mercy Birthing Center Midwifery Care. The Labovitzes are from Clayton. Photo by Bethany Pope, courtesy of Mercy

At Mercy Hospital St. Louis, where more than a third of the region’s babies are born, the new low-tech and natural birthing options with midwives are in demand.

Last month, a record number of babies — 46 — were born at Mercy’s homelike birth center situated within the hospital. Midwives delivered the 500th baby there last week, much sooner than expected after the center’s opening in September 2014.

The care is so popular that the hospital is taking two of its 31 regular labor and delivery rooms — which the hospital a few years ago spent $27 million to revamp — and stripping them down to be like the rooms in the birth center with no visible medical equipment and a queen-size bed.

Patients also want to continue care with their midwives after giving birth, so the midwives at the center recently began offering complete gynecological services to women at all points in their lives, not just during pregnancy.

“We just really work to be in tune with women here in the St. Louis region — we want to make sure we have all the offerings they want,” said Trish Geldbach, vice president of women’s services for the hospital.

Mercy has been jokingly referred to as the “baby factory” because about 9,000 babies are born at the hospital a year. But Geldbach said she hadn’t heard the term in a while. “We’ve obviously attracted new women to Mercy because of the birth center and the midwifery program,” she said.

Birth centers are becoming an increasingly popular choice for healthy women with low-risk pregnancies who want to deliver their babies without anesthesia or other major medical interventions. The centers are typically staffed by midwives, who are trained to support the physiological process of birth and refer women to higher-risk obstetric care when needed.

The St. Louis area also has a free-standing birth center, the Birth and Wellness Center in O’Fallon, Mo., which opened about seven years ago. Midwives there can deliver babies at Missouri Baptist Medical Center.

Women who give birth in birth centers have a much lower chance of delivering a baby by Cesarean section, studies show. The rate of C-section for low-risk women is 6 percent at birth centers, compared with 27 percent for low-risk women in the U.S.

Midwifery care practices have been shown to improve health outcomes in mothers and babies. They include not inducing labor unless medically necessary; not rushing labor or using continuous fetal monitoring; providing continuous labor support; allowing laboring mothers to eat; birthing in upright positions; and delaying umbilical cord clamping.

Geldbach said the hospital turned two of its labor and delivery rooms into the homelike rooms because more obstetricians were supporting women in their desires for low-intervention births.

“We see women who love their OBs who want to stay with their OBs but also want that natural birth experience,” she said. “They can get that experience.”

The rooms also can be used by the birth center midwives for their patients who require closer proximity to an operating room, such as women attempting a vaginal birth after having had a Cesarean, needing to be induced at 42 weeks’ gestation or other concerns that develop during labor.

Changing the rooms “was a clear result of patients telling us what they wanted … they wanted their midwives with them,” Geldbach said.

In 2015, federal data show 98.5 percent of all births in the U.S. were in hospitals, and 8.1 percent of those were attended by certified nurse midwives.

Jessica Ponder, 30, of Florissant, gave birth to her first baby at the birth center in August 2015. Ponder’s obstetrician had retired, and she was looking for a new one when she became pregnant. Her neighbor suggested learning more about midwives, she said. Ponder visited the center at Mercy and immediately felt comfortable there.

She became close to the staff and two midwives (now there are three). “By the time I had my baby there, I felt supported and safe,” Ponder said. “I spent my entire pregnancy developing relationships with everyone.”

After her baby was born, she returned for an appointment six weeks later. Ponder said she remembered asking, “When do I come back?” But because she was done with her pregnancy and postpartum care, she didn’t need to come back. “I remember feeling so saddened by that,” Ponder said, and she dreaded finding a new doctor for her well woman care.

She said she was excited to learn last fall that the birth center began offering gynecological services as well. “I plan to use them for my next baby and stay there for the duration of my childbearing years,” she said.

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