More women having babies at home
Numbers of UK women who have babies at home are increasing, figures suggest.
Office of National Statistics data showed there were 15,198 home births in 2004, up 7% on the 14,204 in 2003.
The group BirthChoiceUK.com said Merseyside and Northumbria had the lowest rates of home birth, and Devon had the highest.
The National Childbirth Trust called for an end to the "postcode lottery" which meant many women who wanted one could not have a home birth.
Some doctors are reluctant to advise women to opt for a home birth if they are likely to need hospital care such as epidural pain relief or an Caesarean section.
The ONS figures show that in 2004 home births accounted for 2.14% of the total number, compared with 2.06% in 2003.
Wales saw the biggest increase, with 3.06% of births taking place at home in 2004 - up from 2.70% in the previous year.
The Welsh Assembly has previously said it would like to see 10% of all straightforward births in Wales taking place at home.
In Scotland, the rate went up from 1.03% to 1.12%, in Northern Ireland the increase was from 0.34% to 0.38% and in England, the rate went from 2.18% in 2003 to 2.25%.
Devon had the highest home birth rate, at 5.4%, while Merseyside and Northumberland had rates of just 0.7% and 0.9% respectively.
Miranda Dodwell, of BirthChoiceUK, said: "It is important that birth statistics are available to the public so they can see how services vary from one area to another.
"All NHS trusts, especially those in areas with low rates, need to consider whether they are providing a good home birth service and whether women are getting the necessary information and support in order to be able to use it."
The National Childbirth Trust (NCT) said women still faced a "postcode lottery" on where and how they gave birth.
It said a lack of information, a steer towards hospitals where epidurals and other medical interventions are readily available and shortage of midwives often restricted women's choice about where they had their baby.
It called on Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt to set a target for England on the number of births at home.
Mary Newburn, head of policy research at the NCT, said: "The modest increase in home births is a move in the right direction, but not a sufficient change to mean that government policy is being implemented.
"Wales' specific target to increase the home birth rate to 10% by 2007 is providing a clear incentive to prioritise extending the choice of place of birth.
"Women in many areas of the UK still find it difficult to choose a home birth, as there is often a succession of barriers in their way."
She said the NCT had learnt home births were being suspended in Lincolnshire from 1 April because of a shortage of midwives.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Health said the government was committed to offering all women choice of how and where they give birth, and what pain relief is available.
She added: "All these services will be offered within the context of what is safe and clinically appropriate care for each individual woman."
She said there were 2,500 more midwives now, compared to 1997, as well as a 41% increase in midwifery students.
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