It might surprise you to find out a midwife’s not just someone who assists women during labor and childbirth; there’s actually much more to it! So, what is a midwife, anyway?

Maybe you’re getting ready to have a baby, and you’re researching what options you have for the birthing process. Or, perhaps the prospect of finding a career assisting pregnant women with their needs is something that appeals to you. For whatever reason, you’ve decided to look into midwifery and what it’s all about.

If that question is on your mind, we’ll help teach you all about midwives, the benefits of having one, and even how to become one.

What Is a Midwife?

The typical view of midwives is that they’re assistants that aid women during labor and childbirth. While that’s certainly part of their job description, midwives also have a lot more to offer.

Midwives are often trained medical professionals, able to support and serve women from the beginning of their pregnancy until long after childbirth. Whether you’re looking for someone to help with prenatal care — or give you advice on what contraceptives to take after the experience is long over — a midwife can give you just what you need.

And, while they can work in conjunction with OBGYNs, they can also be an alternative to conventional medical services focused on childbirth.

The ultimate purpose of a midwife, however, is to help women have the best birth experience possible. They do this by giving them superior support during labor and birth. Sarita Bennett, who is vice president of Midwives Alliance of North America, told that with the “midwifery model,” it’s more about shared decision-making.

Although the midwife gives the client the education and support they need, the client still retains total control over the choices surrounding her, her pregnancy, and her baby.

The Difference Between a Midwife and a Doula

Some people may think this job description is quite similar to that of a doula’s; however, there are some distinct differences between the two practices. A doula is not a trained medical professional.

The board that certifies doulas, known as DONA International, defines a doula as:

“a trained professional who provides continuous physical, emotional and informational support to a mother before, during and shortly after childbirth to help her achieve the healthiest, most satisfying experience possible.”

Basically, that means a doula is sort of like a midwife but does not provide the same care from the beginning of pregnancy to long past childbirth that a midwife does.

The History of Midwives

Midwife of Salome
Giotto di Bondone (1267-1337), Cappella Scrovegni a Padova, Life of Christ, Nativity, Birth of Jesus (detail with midwife Salome)

Those asking “what is a midwife?” might gain some insight by looking at the etymology. The word midwife is actually derived from Old English. In the language, mid means with and wif means woman.

Therefore a midwife is someone who is with a woman at childbirth. So, just because they’re called “wives” doesn’t mean they have to be a female; there are actually some men midwives, although their occurrence is quite rare.

While this is the origin of the modern word, midwifery predates the era of Old English and goes all the way back to ancient Egypt or perhaps even before that.

One of the most popular examples of ancient midwifery is actually found in the Bible. The Book of Exodus tells of a time when the pharaoh ordered Hebrew midwives to kill any male infants. The pharoah was afraid of the Hebrew nation overtaking Egypt; they didn’t follow his instructions, however, and this is essentially how the story of Moses begins.

Midwives were also used throughout Greco-Roman culture and even in ancient China as well. The profession has stood the test of time and has been practiced now for centuries. In recent history, midwives have even become recognized as medical professionals.

Kinds of Midwives

Though all midwives have pretty much the same goal, there are variations of midwives that have different certifications, degrees, and specifications.

Understanding the differences between types of midwives helps to give a more nuanced answer to the question “what is a midwife”. It also gives you a good idea of whom to hire if you’re looking for one — or what type of midwife you want to become should you desire to make a career of midwifery someday.

Certified Nurse-Midwife (CNM)

A CNM midwife works in standard medical facilities such as hospitals and clinics (although they are still known to deliver children in birthing centers or at a client’s home).

midwife home visit for what is a midwife article
Midwife Home Visit, By JonathanCharles, via Flickr

There are even some CNMs who are professors at universities. Their certification allows them to prescribe medications, medical devices, treatments, and different kinds of therapy and diagnostic measures. They are also capable of providing care to women all the way from puberty to menopause.

Should the client wish, they can help with the care of newborns and with most types of nonsurgical gynecological care.

Direct-Entry Midwife (DEM)

A DEM may have used an apprenticeship, a midwifery school, college, university program — or even self-study to educate themselves about midwifery — to help them obtain their certification; they are, however, independent practitioners and are not typically directly employed by hospitals or clinics.

They specialize in aiding women through their labor and childbirth in birthing centers and at the client’s home. And they are trained to provide what’s known as the “Midwives Model of Care.” Some examples of DEM midwives are both Licensed Midwives (LM) and Registered Midwives (RM).

Traditional Midwives

This type of midwife is sometimes called a “lay midwife” and has been in existence from the beginning of midwifery. Traditional midwives are typically those without any degree or certification in the field. They rely on their experience and reputation instead.

They may have gone this route for many reasons, sometimes religious or philosophical. But are still able to be excellent care providers to women in the midst of the pregnancy and birthing process. Some of them see midwifery as more of a social contract between the midwife and mother. One that should not be legislated by outside bodies; legal status is not an issue to them.

How to Become a Midwife

woman studying how to become a midwife

Now that the answer to “what is a midwife” is cleared up, you may be thinking about making a career out of midwifery. Choosing to pursue a career helping women who are pregnant and guiding them through the process of childbirth is noble.

If that rings true for you, then here are some basic directions to follow in order to become a professional midwife. It’s exciting to start a profession that involves bringing new life into the world. And, helping mothers during one of the most critical and important times in their lives is rewarding.

Certified Nurse-Midwife (CNM)

Home birth with Midwife Sarah
Image: Homebirth, Midwife Sarah, by Andrew Dawes, via Flikr CC by SA2.0

In order to become a CNM, you first have to hold a bachelor’s degree and be licensed as an RN. Those in a CNM program will end up with a master’s or graduate degree once it comes to a close. At the very least, they take 24 months to finish.

Following the completion of a CNM program, the graduate will then need to make sure their program is accredited by the ACME (Accreditation Commission for Midwifery Education). After that, they must pass the national qualifying exam from AMCB (the American Midwifery Certification Board). They are the only organization that issues CNM credentials in the U.S.

Certified Midwife (CM)

This specification allows those with undergraduate degrees in non-nursing disciplines get a graduate degree in midwifery. They undergo training and must meet the requirements set by the American College of Nurse-Midwives in order to obtain their certification.

They must also take the same exam from AMCB that CNMs do. Though only six states recognize a CM’s credentials, their work is essentially the same as a CNM’s.

Certified Professional Midwife (CPM)

Image: Midwife Weighing Baby, by Andrew Dawes, via Flickr, CC by SA-2.0

If you want to be a CPM, you’ll most likely have to go through an apprenticeship with a more experienced midwife. You can also attend a special midwifery program or school dedicated to the practice.

Those who graduate from MEAC accredited schools can then take the NARM written exam. Any others must go through the Entry-Level Portfolio Evaluation Process (PEP). The CPM is the sole midwifery credential that demands you have the knowledge and experience to handle childbirth in out-of-hospital settings.


So what is a midwife? They’ve been around since ancient times aiding women through their pregnancies and birthing experiences. Some modern midwives also offer care from the very beginning of pregnancy all the way through menopause; that makes them virtually unrivaled specialists in gynecological health.

Many hold special certifications and degrees, having gone through years of training and education to obtain their credentials. Furthermore, their ultimate goal is to provide superior care and assistance to those getting ready to give birth and help them have the best experience possible.

Whether you wish to make midwifery your profession — or are planning on using one when you give birth — the information provided here has hopefully made your decision easier. Midwives serve a vitally important purpose, and there’s nothing quite like their personal touch when it comes to their role in childbirth.