The Midwife Center in the Strip District is accustomed to helping families create milestones. Now, it's celebrating one of its own.
Thursday night, the center recorded its 5,000th birth when Abel Bracken Franks, whose parents, Lindsay and James, live in Richland, arrived at 7 pounds, 9 ounces.
The Midwife Center for Birth & Women's Health -- the only freestanding birth center in Western Pennsylvania -- has grown steadily over its 31-year history and is now on the cusp of a veritable baby boom.
Wednesday morning, for example, the center was humming.
All three birthing suites -- Pottery Barn-esque bedroom settings -- were in use at one point, along with examination rooms featuring fireplaces and rustic benches.
"It's a homelike environment," said Ann McCarthy, clinical director of the Midwife Center. "Women come in, wear their own clothes. We really try to normalize the process of labor and delivery."
The center was founded 31 years ago, shortly after Pennsylvania law changed to allow freestanding birth centers. It was founded on Ellsworth Avenue in Shadyside and subsequently relocated adjacent to Allegheny General Hospital on the North Side. For the past 10 years, it has been located in a rowhouse in the Strip District.
And in those 10 years, the number of births at the center has grown dramatically. Even just since 2010, prenatal and gynecological visits are up more than 48 percent and births are up 30 percent.
"It's really been incredible, especially in the last three years," Ms. McCarthy said. "We're just trying to find a way to take care of all the women who want midwifery care."
In one 56-hour period last month, the center delivered nine babies, Ms. McCarthy said. Now, the center is considering expansion, said Christine Haas, its executive director.
Midwives and staff at the center attribute the growth to an increased interest in wellness, desire to avoid cesarean sections and publicity from documentaries such as Ricki Lake's "The Business of Being Born."
The center's growth "is mirroring a national trend," Ms. Haas said, noting that birthing centers are also often cheaper than hospitals.
The focus is on natural childbirth -- women giving birth there do not have the option to get the epidurals common in hospital births. Each birthing room has a jacuzzi tub in its bathroom where women often spend the majority of labor.
Not all women are eligible to give birth at the Midwife Center. About 15 percent of pregnant women don't qualify for midwifery, Ms. McCarthy said, adding that common reasons women must give birth elsewhere are twin or breech births, high blood pressure or diabetes.
The midwives can do vaginal births for women who have had a previous cesarean section, but those births must take place at UPMC Mercy, which the center is affiliated with. About 20 percent of births that start at the center are transferred to Mercy, Ms. McCarthy said, usually because labor has stalled or a woman's water has been broken for too long.
After giving birth, pregnant women stay at the center an average of four to six hours before going home, Ms. McCarthy said.
They are visited by nurses at their homes on the first and third days after giving birth.
"They're usually ready to go home," Ms. McCarthy said. "They feel good and want to be in their own environment."
Cindy Skalyo of Freedom was at the center Wednesday morning for a prenatal appointment.
Her husband, Jonathan, a pharmacist, "looked at me like I had two heads" when she first told him of plan to have birth outside of a hospital. But once he was given the tour of the center, "I got my pharmacist on board," she laughed.
Ms. Skalyo, 33, gave birth to her first child, 17-month old Nora, at the center during a snowstorm last year, when her normally 45-minute drive to the center turned into an hour and a half.
The drive was well worth it, she said. She used the "Hypnobabies" program while giving birth, she said, and the low lighting and relaxing environment of the rooms helped her focus during labor.
"They are of the opinion that pregnancy is not an illness," she said. "You are allowed to do what you wanted to do -- as long as the birth is going well, you get to make the decisions."
Anya Sostek: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1308.