What Is a Midwife? You Might Be Surprised by All They Do

Historically, midwives have helped birth babies, but did you know they provide patient-centered care beyond postpartum?

Before we enter the life stage of childbearing, we may never hear the word “midwife.” And, in many cases, we may not learn about what midwives offer, even when it’s relevant to our lives. What is a midwife and what does a midwife do, exactly?

Director of Midwifery Services Karie Stewart, a Certified Nurse Midwife and Advanced Practice Nurse with the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology with the University of Chicago Medicine.

“A midwife is a trained health care provider that specializes in reproductive, maternity and newborn care,” explains Director of Midwifery Services Karie Stewart, a Certified Nurse Midwife and Advanced Practice Nurse with the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology with the University of Chicago Medicine.

Midwives can do all the things you might encounter during a routine gynecological visit, too. “A midwife can provide physical exams, collect pap smears, administer well-woman care, catch babies, prescribe medication and provide referral services.”

The training required to become a midwife varies from state to state, and there are a variety of types of midwives, including Certified Professional Midwives (CPM) and Certified Midwives (CM), which “tend to focus on providing care in the home or a birth center,” Stewart explains.

Certified Nurse Midwives (CNM) are advanced practice nurses and also have training as registered nurses. A new law passed in Illinois in 2021 allows professional midwives to be certified by the North American Registry of Midwives, licensed by the state after completing an accredited midwifery education program.

A midwife’s approach

If you’re seeking a patient-centered approach to your pregnancy and birth experience, you may consider a UChicago Medicine midwife. A midwife’s patient-centered approach “makes the patient’s voice, desires, wishes and experience the priority,” Stewart says, adding that working with a midwife is truly a partnership in care during pregnancy, birth and after.

“This approach encompasses developing a trusting relationship, includes shared decision making and establishing a hands-on approach that involves the patient’s partner, family, doula or labor and postpartum support team,” she explains.

A key component of a UChicago Medicine midwife’s approach is the support of the body’s own natural and intuitive process during labor, and providing “judicious use” of intervention only when appropriate. Midwives know how to support a natural labor and unmedicated birth, and they also know how to provide appropriate comfort techniques as needed and desired.

Whatever your circumstances, you may be looking to benefit from a warm, caring approach with a care provider who really understands you and your needs. A UChicago midwife can support you in your care, regardless of where you are in your childbearing and childrearing years. At UChicago Medicine, midwives are integral members of their OB/GYN care team, which means you can benefit from working with a midwife, in some cases, even if you have a medical condition that requires more specialized care.

Of course, this varies from patient to patient, but a midwife can even help you make decisions about when to involve more specialized care.

“A midwife can be a huge asset to an OB/GYN practice,” Stewart says. “If a pregnant patient desires to have more individualized hands-on care, this can be provided within such a setting. If a midwife patient has a medical condition that requires collaboration with a physician, pregnant patients can still continue their midwifery care and experience depending on their condition. This allows for prenatal care via an interdisciplinary team.”

For childbirth and beyond

It’s comforting to know that you can continue a warm, caring relationship beyond having your baby, or even if you haven’t had a baby but want the patient-centered attention of a midwife for routine gynecological visits — even when things aren’t always routine.

“A midwife can play a very instrumental part in a woman’s gynecological care. A midwife is trained to educate, diagnose, manage and treat many normal and abnormal gynecological conditions,” says Stewart. “For example, midwives can collect pap smears, obtain vaginal specimens for biopsies, cultures for the treatment of infections, perform preventative care exams, prescribe medications and refer women for more specialized gynecological care.”

Important to know

As midwifery care continues to be part of the many options you have available for prenatal care, Stewart says she hopes that the profession can become more diverse.

While patients seek a provider who “listens, advocates, is inclusive and practices patient-centered care,” Stewart says that “the diversification of the midwifery profession is necessary for patients to have the option to choose a midwife that they can relate to and that identifies with them.”

Stewart adds, “Many pregnant patients are having a hard time finding midwives they can identify with and have been requesting this for some time now.”

Learn about UChicago Medicine and Comer Children’s unique approach to the care of women and children. Discover uchicagomedicine.org.

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