When a birth is low risk and a midwife helps, the chances of harm to the baby is about the same as in a hospital birth, a new study suggests.

Published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ), the study carried out by McMaster University researchers looked at 11,493 planned Ontario home births and an equal number of planned hospital births.

It has long been thought that home births are riskier, said Eileen Hutton, one of the researchers in the department of obstetrics and gynecology and the midwifery education program. But the study results suggest giving birth at home is a valid option.

'There's a huge stigma around home birth, but I think that's shifting.' - Eileen Hutton, McMaster University researcher

"You'll never convert those who are the true opponents of home birth," said Hutton, co-author of the study. "But it does provide some credibility for home as a choice of birth place."

The findings are also a victory for midwives, Hutton said. In Ontario, midwives attend about 10 per cent of births, and about 20 per cent of those are at home.

Hutton credits the growing skills of midwives as a reason that home births are safe for low-risk pregnancies. People underestimate what midwives provide.

"There's a huge stigma around home birth, but I think that's shifting," she said. "It's clear that it's still very much misunderstood."

Researchers found that about 75 per cent of the women who planned to give birth at home did, and about 97 per cent of women who planned to give birth at hospitals did so.

In the study group, eight per cent of those giving birth at home needed emergency medical services, as did 1.7 per cent of the hospital group, said a CMAJ media release.

Not surprisingly, women in the hospital group had more obstetrical interventions such as labour augmentation, assisted vaginal births and caesarean deliveries.

The study found little difference in the incidence of stillbirth or neonatal death — 1.15 for every 1,000 babies for home births, and 0.94 in the hospital group.

"Compared with women who planned to birth in hospital, women who planned to birth at home underwent fewer obstetrical interventions, were more likely to have a spontaneous vaginal birth and were more likely to be exclusively breast feeding at three to 10 days after delivery," the authors wrote.