The COVID-19 pandemic forced plenty of aspects of the patient care journey to take place at home, but one potentially risky trend involves “free births,” which have gained traction on TikTok in recent weeks.
These videos feature mothers giving birth, at home, in bathtubs, in bedrooms or living rooms.
“Free births” have been around since the dawn of humanity and entail the delivery of a baby without medical or midwife assistance. While generations of women gave birth in this way, modern medicine provides a more robust support system that reduces the risk of complications or death during childbirth.
The women on TikTok who are touting “free births” are building a movement under the hashtags #freebirth and #crunchymomsoftiktok. This push has spurred concerns from medical professionals who say the practice can be dangerous.
In one video that’s gained more than one million views, a TikTok user going by the name of Kaytlynn lists “controversial things I do during pregnancy that upset people,” including skipping prenatal care and ultrasounds.
“And then I birth them alone in my kitchen,” she wrote in the caption.
“Society has made us fearful of childbirth,” another user, @alexaraebooth, wrote in a video in which she’s giving birth in an inflatable pool in what appears to be her living room. “We have normalized birth trauma. Told that we cannot do the very thing we are biologically designed to do without a surgeon present.”
Another video with nearly 100,000 likes features a user explaining five places they went to during their “free birth” labor — and outlines their supposed benefits.
While the idea of free births has gained popularity on the social media site, experts worry it could encourage people to make potentially dangerous decisions regarding their pregnancy care.
Many of the “free birth” advocates on TikTok cited a distrust of the medical system and maternal health care. However, one expert, OBGYN Dr. Nicole Rankins, told Insider that free births shouldn’t be attempted at all.
“[T]his is the one line where I clearly say, ‘This is not something you should do,’” she said. “This is not based on science or evidence. The risk is too high for something like this.’”
Risks associated with “free births” include bleeding, failure to progress in labor and uterine rupture or infection for the mother. Additionally, there could be abnormal presentation, prematurity, cord compression or cord around the neck for the baby.
“We know that some women who have had traumatic experiences giving birth in hospital find the idea of a free birth, without medical intervention, appealing,” Kim Thomas, CEO of the Birth Trauma Association, told the BBC. “Nevertheless, birth is a risky business and giving birth without a midwife or doctor present endangers the life of both the mother and baby. We strongly urge women not to be taken in by people promoting an ideal view of free birth on social media.”
Even before TikTok, so-called “free birthers” were using social media platforms like Facebook to espouse their beliefs and share their experiences. Memorably, a Facebook page, known as the Free Birth Society, was shut down back in 2018 following controversy and the death of an infant.
It should be noted that planned home births — or at-home births that involve assistance from a midwife or doula – carry a heightened risk of infant death, seizures and nervous system disorders compared to planned hospital births, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Mayo Clinic suggests being aware of serious signs — like labor not progressing, the baby showing signs of distress or the baby being in a position that’s not headfirst — in order to get to the hospital as soon as possible.