When it comes to selecting prenatal care, should you find an OB or stick with your longtime family practice physician? Would a doula be helpful, or is a midwife all you need? Each type of prenatal provider offers various types of expertise, and deciding on the best person or people to guide you through pregnancy and childbirth often requires that you ask yourself still more questions. For instance: Do you want a home birth or do you prefer a hospital? Is your pregnancy considered high risk? What kind of delivery would you like to have? These answers and more can point you in the right direction. That said, here's a rundown of the basic qualifications of the five types of providers specializing in keeping mother and baby safe, healthy and strong. Get to know them to make an informed decision.
Ob-gyns attend medical school plus four additional years of specialized training in obstetrics (the study of pregnancy care and childbirth) and gynecology (the study of diseases and care of the female reproductive system)—after which they must pass exams to become licensed and board-certified. An ob-gyn can work in a hospital setting, a group practice or private practice, and they usually deliver babies in a hospital.
Maternal-Fetal Medicine Specialist
These specialized ob-gyns typically handle high-risk pregnancies. They've completed four years of ob-gyn training plus two to three years of high-risk obstetric training and certification. If your OB or family physician discovers that your pregnancy may have complications, you might be referred to a maternal-fetal medicine specialist. In this case, baby will almost certainly be delivered in a hospital, so that any extra care or medical emergency can be swiftly handled.
Family Practice Physician
Yes, a family practitioner (aka general practitioner or GP) can handle your pregnancy and delivery. After graduating from med school, family practice physicians go through three years of advanced training in family medicine, which includes training in obstetrics, and, like OBs and maternal-fetal medicine specialists, they must pass exams to be licensed and board certified. This means they’re qualified to care for low-risk pregnancies and deliveries. A family practitioner usually delivers babies in a hospital.
Certified Nurse-Midwife (CNM)
Certified nurse-midwives first undergo an accredited nursing program to become registered nurses. Then they study for a graduate degree in midwifery and receive special training in caring for moms and babies throughout pregnancy, delivery and the first weeks of baby's life. They maintain an active nursing license and earn certification by passing a national exam. CNMs work with a qualified doctor for backup support and consult or refer to a doctor if medical problems arise. CNMs may deliver in a hospital or, in certain states where it’s legal, at a freestanding birth center or your home.
While doulas don’t oversee labor and delivery or provide medical care, they are certified to give women emotional, physical and educational support during pregnancy and childbirth, and sometimes postpartum as well; research suggests that women need fewer interventions when they use a doula. Serving as an advocate to the mother-to-be, they aim to empower by helping her understand the delivery process, and teaching her how to handle labor pains naturally (such as with breathing and relaxation techniques, massage and labor positions). Doulas, who undergo a two-year training program, are also equipped to help you better communicate with your partner and create a birth plan, and they offer guidance on breastfeeding and other areas of caring for baby. Doulas are popular with women who opt to have a natural childbirth, waterbirth or homebirth, though they can be helpful no matter what type of birth you’re planning.
Updated December 2017