Open Access Research article

Duration and urgency of transfer in births planned at home and in freestanding midwifery units in England: secondary analysis of the Birthplace national prospective cohort study

Rachel E Rowe1*, John Townend1, Peter Brocklehurst12, Marian Knight1, Alison Macfarlane3, Christine McCourt3, Mary Newburn4, Maggie Redshaw1, Jane Sandall5, Louise Silverton6 and Jennifer Hollowell1

Author Affiliations

1 National Perinatal Epidemiology Unit, University of Oxford, Old Road Campus, Oxford OX3 7LF, UK

2 Institute for Women’s Health, University College London, London, UK

3 Department of Midwifery and Child Health, City University London, London, UK

4 The National Childbirth Trust, London, UK

5 Division of Women’s Health, King’s College London, London, UK

6 The Royal College of Midwives, London, UK

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BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth 2013, 13:224  doi:10.1186/1471-2393-13-224

Published: 5 December 2013



In England, there is a policy of offering healthy women with straightforward pregnancies a choice of birth setting. Options may include home or a freestanding midwifery unit (FMU). Transfer rates from these settings are around 20%, and higher for nulliparous women. The duration of transfer is of interest because of the potential for delay in access to specialist care and is also of concern to women. We aimed to estimate the duration of transfer in births planned at home and in FMUs and explore the effects of distance and urgency on duration.


This was a secondary analysis of data collected in a national prospective cohort study including 27,842 ‘low risk’ women with singleton, term, ‘booked’ pregnancies, planning birth in FMUs or at home in England from April 2008 to April 2010. We described transfer duration using the median and interquartile range, for all transfers and those for reasons defined as potentially urgent or non-urgent, and used cumulative distribution curves to compare transfer duration by urgency. We explored the effect of distance for transfers from FMUs and described outcomes in women giving birth within 60 minutes of transfer.


The median overall transfer time, from decision to transfer to first OU assessment, was shorter in transfers from home compared with transfers from FMUs (49 vs 60 minutes; p < 0.001). The median duration of transfers before birth for potentially urgent reasons (home 42 minutes, FMU 50 minutes) was 8–10 minutes shorter compared with transfers for non-urgent reasons. In transfers for potentially urgent reasons, the median overall transfer time from FMUs within 20 km of an OU was 47 minutes, increasing to 55 minutes from FMUs 20-40 km away and 61 minutes in more remote FMUs. In women who gave birth within 60 minutes after transfer, adverse neonatal outcomes occurred in 1-2% of transfers.


Transfers from home or FMU commonly take up to 60 minutes from decision to transfer, to first assessment in an OU, even for transfers for potentially urgent reasons. Most transfers are not urgent and emergencies and adverse outcomes are uncommon, but urgent transfer is more likely for nulliparous women.

Birthing centres; Home birth; Midwifery; Patient transfer