The percentage of live births attended by a skilled birth attendant (SBA) is a key global indicator and proxy for monitoring progress in maternal and newborn health. Yet, the discrepancy between rising SBA coverage and non-commensurate declines in maternal and neonatal mortality in many low-income and middle-income countries has brought increasing attention to the challenge of what the indicator of SBA coverage actually measures, and whether the indicator can be improved. In response to the 2018 revised definition of SBA and the push for improved measurement of progress in maternal and newborn health, this paper examines the evidence on what women can tell us about who assisted them during childbirth and methodological issues in estimating SBA coverage via population-based surveys. We present analyses based on Demographic and Health Surveys and Multiple Indicator Cluster Surveys conducted since 2015 for 23 countries. Our findings show SBA coverage can be reasonably estimated from population-based surveys in settings of high coverage, though women have difficulty reporting specific cadres. We propose improvements in how skilled cadres are classified and documented, how linkages can be made to facility-based data to examine the enabling environment and further ways data can be disaggregated to understand the complexity of delivery care. We also reflect on the limitations of what SBA coverage reveals about the quality and circumstances of childbirth care. While improvements to the indicator are possible, we call for the use of multiple indicators to inform local efforts to improve the health of women and newborns.