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When Lizzy Blanchard was pregnant for the first time five years ago, everyone assumed she would give birth in her local hospital. She wasn't so sure.
"I always had an instinctive feeling that a home birth was right for me," she says. "Everyone said: 'You're very brave!' but there was nothing brave about it. I was simply more frightened by the idea of spending time in hospital than of giving birth."
Her feelings were compounded after a tour of the maternity unit of her local teaching hospital.
"It looked like a Hammer horror film - old-fashioned, with poky little rooms, full of terrifying instruments like the ventouse [a vacuum device to help with delivery], the bed that goes up and down, the kidney shaped thing to puke in. I thought I'd much rather puke in my own bucket."
Despite the misgivings of her GP and her husband, Blanchard, from Surrey, who is now 35, went ahead with her plan.
"The labour wasn't easy but I felt relaxed because I was in my own environment," she says. "I could walk up and down the stairs, eat a plate of pasta from my own kitchen rather than be told I'd have to go hungry because the hospital canteen was closed."
It was a long labour because the baby was in the wrong position. "In hospital they would have used a ventouse to turn it and if that hadn't worked I'd have had an emergency C-section."
Without that option, the midwife turned the baby herself. Connie, now five, was born on the living-room floor.
Three years later, Blanchard's son, Roscoe, was born in a birthing pool in the same room.
Not so long ago, the kind of women who opted for home births also liked to bathe in streams at full moon with daisies in their hair. But Blanchard is a literary agent, more at ease breakfasting contacts than communing with her inner child.
With horror stories abounding about overstretched NHS maternity services, filthy labour wards and MRSA, growing numbers of women like her are foregoing an epidural in favour of plastic sheets over their Conran sofas.
At the beginning of the 20th century, 99 per cent of British women gave birth at home. By the 1980s, it was one per cent.
Since then, the figure has slowly risen, to a little over two per cent. Some 18,100 babies were born at home in 2006, the most recent year for which figures are available, up from 15,198 in 2004.
The statistics may appear insignificant, but in fashionable circles home birth is as of the moment as the Toyota Prius and the organic vegetable box. Last year, US Vogue dedicated five pages to the subject.
The former talk-show host and actress Ricki Lake has released a campaigning documentary, The Business of Being Born, containing graphic footage of her giving birth to her second son at home in the bath.
In Britain, Charlotte Church gave birth to her first child, Ruby Megan, at home in South Wales last year - while watching Wales play Japan in the Rugby World Cup.
The TV presenter Davina McCall has presented a DVD for the National Childbirth Trust describing the births of her three children, all at home. And the home-birth industry is flourishing.
Dozens of small businesses offer kits including inflatable birthing pools, floor sheets, rubbish sacks and hot water bottles (for pain relief), all for less than £100.
This is all excellent news, according to Angela Horn, who runs the website homebirth.org.uk and gave birth to all five of her children at home.
"Home birth is never going to be for everyone," she says. "But the more women know other women who've done it, the more it's going to grow in popularity."
To Horn, the advantages of home births are "a no brainer". "I don't want to romanticise it, to make out my labours were pain-free and carefree, because they weren't.
"But home births are the best way to ensure the baby gets a straightforward, unmedicated birth, which means a healthy mum and baby, both emotionally well and primed to start their new lives together."
Horn's enthusiasm is backed by a 1994 study by the National Birthday Trust Fund. It looked at 6,000 planned home births, matching each woman for risk level and obstetric history with another who planned a hospital birth.
It found the home birth group had roughly half the risk of ending up with an assisted delivery or a C-section, and the babies born at home were significantly less likely to need resuscitation.
Yet some still need more persuading. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists recently released a statement opposing home births.
"Childbirth decisions should not be dictated or influenced by what's fashionable, trendy, or the latest cause célèbre," it said.
"Despite the rosy picture painted by home birth advocates, a seemingly normal labour and delivery can quickly become life-threatening for both the mother and baby."
Its British equivalent, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, takes a less forbidding approach.
"For women who are low risk, we support home births," says its spokesman, the consultant obstetrician Pat O'Brien. "But we have to be completely open about what it involves.
"Although it's unusual, things can go wrong in childbirth. The risk of a situation where someone needs hospital assistance straight away is small - about one per cent - but it's a risk that needs to be evaluated.
"Women also need to realise that about 30 per cent of cases will end up being transferred to hospital. It's no joke having to get into an ambulance when you're in the middle of a labour that's already not going well."
Medical arguments aside, many more healthy women may be denied a home birth for reasons of cold, hard cash. Some local authorities have suspended home birth services because of a shortage of midwives.
Others leave women in limbo throughout their pregnancies by saying that they can only have a home birth if midwives are available on the day.
Yet the Government is still promising that all women will be able to choose a home birth by the end of 2009, a promise generally regarded as impossible to fulfil in view of the chronic shortage of midwives in this country; another 5,000 are due to retire in the next two years.
This lack of resources is, in fact, the reason why many well-informed women are choosing to avoid hospitals. They reason that they will be allocated the most experienced midwives - with an ambulance always available in an emergency.
"If you have your baby in hospital the midwives may go off shift," argues Blanchard. "If you have it at home, they have to stay with you until the end of the labour.
"You get to use the birthing pool, which a hospital obviously can't promise, and you'll have got to know the midwives during your pregnancy, while on the NHS you never see the same person twice."
Yet expert care is not guaranteed. Helen Sharpe, 37, tried to give birth to her first child at home in 2005. "The midwife I had was terrible, she says. "She told me to get in the birthing pool far too early and kept popping out to her car where people were waiting for her."
After 24 hours of labour, Sharpe was transferred to a north London hospital. "It was mayhem, absolutely Third World. Women were giving birth in the corridors, my husband had to clean my room before I could use it, the midwives were incredibly rough with me. After the birth
I was being stitched up but someone kept hurrying us up because they needed the room, so I was stitched badly and couldn't walk for ages. I had a high temperature and ended up having to have corrective surgery."
Traumatised, Sharpe was even more adamant she wanted a home birth for a second child in November. This time she hired a private midwife at a cost of £2,800 and all went well.
"The freedom was amazing. The cord was wrapped five times round the baby's neck and in a hospital it would have been panic stations but at home it was all calm. I didn't tear and I recovered so quickly. In fact, I didn't realise you could recover so quickly from childbirth."