Too many pregnant women are being treated as though they are "abnormal" and told their age or weight could put their child in danger, warned Prof Cathy Warwick, general secretary of the Royal College of Midwives (RCM).

Mothers-to-be categorised as "high risk" by the NHS - either because they were young, old or considered overweight - who want to give birth at home or in a midwife-led unit, are being frightened into going to hospital.

Prof Warwick suggested the heightened stress and worry about the risks could in itself harm the development of the child. She added: "It seems more and more we have got into a situation where it is actually unusual to be treated as a normal woman. It makes no sense at all."

Latest figures suggest that half of all women of childbearing age are overweight or obese, while more than 40 per cent of those who become pregnant have a body mass index (BMI) above the range defined as normal. Meanwhile, the number of births to women aged 40 and over has trebled in two decades.

Obesity and older age in pregnancy are associated with a number of risks - including miscarriage, foetal abnormalities and stillbirth. Prof Warwick said it was often not made clear to women that despite the relative increase in risk of a home birth, the overall dangers remained low.

Prof Warwick said the cumulative effect of all the guidance put midwives under pressure to restrict the options for many women and she urged midwives to "push back against a culture of fear" that had permeated the NHS. The slavish adherence to guidance, combined with an increasing culture of defensiveness, risked turning midwives into "unthinking automatons," she warned.

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