While all childbirth classes aim to educate participants, their philosophies vary considerably. Familiarizing yourself with available options can help you pinpoint the class that’s right for you.
The only thing more overwhelming than naming your baby and finding the perfect stroller is choosing a childbirth education course. While all classes aim to educate participants about birth and parenting, their philosophies can be quite varied. Familiarizing yourself with the available options and creating a birth plan can help you pinpoint the class that is right for you.
Draft a Birth Plan
Three months before the birth of our son, my husband and I began looking for a childbirth education class. My first instinct was to sign up for the lengthiest, most in-depth course I could find. When I mentioned this to my midwife, she suggested that I first write a birth plan.
A birth plan is a written description of your ideal birthing experience. To begin with, find a quiet place where you will not be interrupted (you can do this alone or with your partner). Write down, in as much detail as possible, where and how you would like to give birth. Would you be more comfortable delivering your baby at home with a midwife, in a birthing center, or in a hospital setting surrounded by the latest medical equipment? Are you open to using pain medication or is your heart set on a natural childbirth experience? What would help you relax? Soft music, dim lighting, aromatherapy?
What to Expect
Despite some differences (see summaries of classes later in this article), all childbirth education courses aim to de-mystify the birthing process, reassure women of their body’s innate ability to give birth, and encourage couples to communicate openly with each other and their healthcare team. Childbirth is presented as a natural, albeit challenging, process rather than a risky medical procedure.
Whether you opt for an intensive, one-day workshop or a series of weekly classes, you can expect a supportive, informal atmosphere. Both partners should wear loose, comfortable clothing, and many classes ask that you bring a mat and two pillows. The group’s facilitator leads participants through a variety of breathing, relaxation, and visualization exercises meant to ease a birthing woman’s anxiety and physical discomfort. A wide range of prenatal, pregnancy, and postpartum issues are also covered. These may include the importance of diet and exercise, safe sex in your last trimester, postpartum depression, and day-to-day care of your newborn.
Finding the Right Class
The cost of childbirth classes can vary considerably. Jessica Porter, Executive Director of the Association of Labor Assistants and Childbirth Educators, has these suggestions for getting the most for your time and money.
- Sign up early: Don’t wait until the last, hectic weeks of your pregnancy to take a class. The ideal time to attend a course is during your second trimester (or even earlier). This way, you will finish the course even if you deliver early or experience unforeseen developments. Also, the nutritional information included in almost all of the different courses is more applicable to women in their second trimester than to those in their third.Completing classes early allows you more time to practice the class exercises and supplement what you have learned with additional childbirth books, lectures, or workshops.
- Get to know the instructor: Once you have verified that the instructor is certified as a childbirth educator, make sure he or she played an active role in developing the curriculum. Porter cautions that some instructors (particularly those employed by hospitals) may be limited to teaching the practices and procedures of that particular institution. Independent childbirth educators do not have such limitations and may address your questions and concerns more impartially.Most importantly, find an instructor whose overall philosophy closely matches your own. If you are open to using pain medication (i.e. an epidural or other options) steer clear of instructors who discourage their use. Similarly, if you are determined to have a natural (drug free) birth, find a class that offers a wide variety of relaxation and pain management techniques.
- Attend classes with other people: Many independent childbirth educators offer expectant couples private, one-on-one instruction. While this virtually guarantees you a more personalized experience, it may not warrant the extra cost. Having other people in the class gives you the chance to learn from their observations and experiences. Frequently, women who attend childbirth classes together go on to form friendships, support networks, and playgroups that ease some of the isolation associated with being a new mom.
- Opt for thorough instruction: Porter suggests taking a minimum of six or seven classes, each lasting somewhere between two-and-one-half to four hours. Taking an intensive, one-day course (those usually last eight hours) is better than nothing, but can be exhausting and deprives you of many of the benefits of a more in-depth class. If the price of a particular course is a concern, check to see if your insurance company will pay a percentage.
The Association of Labor Assistants and Childbirth Educators (ALACE)
ALACE childbirth classes teach an expecting woman to trust her body’s natural ability to give birth and to provide her with relaxation, breathing, and visualization tools for labor. Classes are structured on a midwifery model of care that encourages couples to work as a team and become active participants in every stage of birth.
The curriculum covers each stage of normal labor and what can be done if something unexpected occurs. Other subjects include selecting a birth setting, deciding on a doctor or midwife, the pros and cons of pain medication as well as postpartum care for mom and baby. The final class is a potluck dinner where ALACE alumni return to answer questions, share birth stories, and lend support to expectant parents. The course involves seven, two-hour classes. (For more information: www.alace.org; 888-22-ALACE.)
Birthing from Within
Developed by Pam England CNM, MA, Birthing From Within presents childbirth as a rite of passage for both parents and baby, rather than as a medical procedure. “The essence of childbirth preparation is self-discovery, not assimilating obstetric information,” states the organization’s website. While facilitators will discuss pain medication, they encourage expectant mothers to trust in their bodies’ capacity to birth naturally and to reinterpret pain as something to be expected, but not feared.
Participants explore the psychological and spiritual sides of birth through the creation of birth art, creative projects that include writing, painting, and sculpting. The series runs for six weeks, two hours per class with three postnatal sessions. (For more information: www.birthpower.com; 505-254-4884.)
According to the organization’s website, “Birth Works is a process, not a method of childbirth. It recognizes that there is no one right way to labor and birth.” Classes cover a wide variety of topics including diet, exercise, the risks and benefits of pain medications, breastfeeding, and proper infant nutrition. Emphasis is also placed on exploring the emotional and psychological components of childbirth and parenting.
The website encourages people to sign up early (even before becoming pregnant) to learn about interviewing health-care providers and identifying a birthplace that feels safe and comfortable. A full session consists of ten, two-and-one-half-hour sessions. (For more information: www.birthworks.com; 888-862-4784.)
The Bradley Method
Named after its founder Dr. Robert A. Bradley, MD, the Bradley Method stresses the importance of a well-prepared, supportive birthing coach. Couples learn the birthing and coaching techniques needed for each stage of normal labor as well as skills for coping with unexpected complications.
Interactive class exercises include labor rehearsals where partners can practice their communication, breathing and relaxation techniques as a team. Nutrition, exercise, breastfeeding, and caring for a newborn are just a few of the other subjects covered in the courses. A full Bradley series consists of twelve, two-hour meetings. (For more information: www.bradleybirth.com; 800-4-A-BIRTH.)
The central philosophy of HypnoBirthing is that childbirth without tension and fear is childbirth without pain. “We view birth as normal, natural and healthy,” says Marie Mongan, founder of HypnoBirthing and author of HypnoBirthing: A Celebration of Life. “We teach people self-hypnosis, so they can bring their bodies into a profound state of relaxation and allow it to work and function the way it was created to work.”
Pain medications, including epidurals and analgesics, are not included in the HypnoBirthing curriculum, although there are a number of other self-hypnosis childbirth classes that do include information about pain medication. A HypnoBirthing series consists of five, two-and-one-half-hour sessions. (For more information: www.hypnobirthing.com; 603-798-4781 or 623-772-7738.)
Today’s Lamaze classes are less a proscribed method of delivery (characterized by their hallmark breathing exercises) as they are a philosophy aimed at reassuring women of their natural ability to give birth. Certified Lamaze instructors offer a balanced curriculum that includes an overview of the different stages of labor, the most effective birthing positions, relaxation and pain management techniques(including massage, hydrotherapy, the use of heat, cold packs, and pressure), effective communication with your birthing partner and medical team, the pros and cons of pain medication, breastfeeding, diet, and exercise as well as preparation for the postpartum period. Expect 12-15 hours of instruction. How often the class meets and (For more information: www.lamaze.org; 800-368-4404.)
Although the childbirth philosophies behind each method differ considerably in perspective and content, they all share a common goal: to help prepare you physically and mentally for the hours that will profoundly impact your life and enrich it by welcoming your new baby into the world.