What is a midwife?

If you are wondering 'what is a midwife?', read this article to find out more about midwifery and the role of midwives in providing antenatal care.

The word ‘midwife’ means ‘with woman’, but what does a midwife do? Midwives are specialists in normal pregnancy and birth, and their role is to look after a pregnant woman and her baby throughout a phase of antenatal care, during labour and birth, and for up to 28 days after the baby has been born.

The role of a midwife

Midwifery covers many aspects of support during pregnancy. As long as everything is normal in pregnancy, a midwife can generally provide all of your antenatal care. If complications arise, a midwife will refer you to a doctor who is trained to deal with special situations.
Within the NHS there are hospital and community midwives. 

  • Hospital midwives are midwives who are based in a hospital obstetric, or consultant unit, a birth centre or midwife led unit, and they staff the antenatal clinic, labour ward, and postnatal wards.
  • Community midwives often work in teams and provide a degree of continuity of care. In pregnancy they see you either at home or at a clinic. When you go into labour they are available for a home birth, or in a few places, they may come into the labour ward in the hospital to be with you. Once your baby is born, they’ll visit you at home for up to ten days afterwards. Community midwives also provide postnatal care for women who have been looked after during labour by hospital midwives.

There are also private independent midwives who work independently of the NHS and mainly work with women planning a home birthDoulas and birth companions are not midwives, but women who are trained to support you before, during and after your child is born. 

Your relationship with a midwife

It is important that you and your midwife have a good relationship. You need to work together and she needs to support you in all your choices. In order to help you give birth, your midwife needs to be respectful, responsive, unintrusive, and accepting. This will help to make you feel safe and enable you to relax, which in turn allows the labour hormones to work.

Childbirth may be the most powerful life experience you undergo. With a midwife’s full support, you can tap into enormous reserves of strength during the birth process and learn that you are capable of so much more than you realised – a valuable discovery as you become a mother.

What training has my midwife had?

Some midwives have trained as nurses before becoming midwives, but it’s now possible to qualify as a midwife without qualifying as a nurse first by specifically studying midwifery. Student midwives are based at university, and are studying for a degree in midwifery. The course contains a mixture of theory and practice. Courses vary across the country, but are designed to prepare a student for the responsibilities of being a midwife.

Once qualified, a midwife must be able to care for women throughout pregnancy, birth, and during the postnatal period too, as well as care for newborn babies. She must be able to detect problems and summon medical help if needed, and be trained in emergency procedures herself. She also has a role in health education and preparation for parenthood, such as teaching antenatal classes.

Midwives also have to stay up to date in order to keep their registration. This includes having to work a minimum number of hours as a midwife and attend study events. Midwifery is considered to be engaging and rewarding, and suits individuals who are looking for the opportunity to provide support and care.

NCT works closely with the Royal College of Midwives, which is the professional body that oversees the training and practice of all midwives in the UK. We were part of the team which produced the latest guidance for midwives relating to their care of women during labour, when their child is born, and the immediate postnatal period. Read these guidelines about current good practice in midwifery here.

Contacting a midwife

You can go directly to a midwife for antenatal care. If you don’t know how to contact your midwife, ask your health centre, or the Supervisor of Midwives at the local hospital. You do not need to see an obstetrician (a doctor who specialises in childbirth) while you are pregnant or giving birth, if all is well. 

Further information

NCT's helpline offers practical and emotional support in all areas of pregnancy, the child being born and early parenthood: 0300 330 0700.  We also offer antenatal courses which are a great way to find out more about labour and life with a new baby.

The Nursing and Midwifery Council website gives more information about the role of the midwife as well as a leaflet called Raising concerns about a nurse or midwife, which explains how patients, carers and the public can raise a concern about a nurse or midwife.

You can also get an insight into what midwives do at the Royal College of Midwives website.

The organisation Independent Midwives UK represents the majority of independent midwives in the UK.  

NHS Choices gives a list of questions to ask your midwife or GP.