If you're expecting your first child, it's easy to feel overwhelmed by questions, fears, and not knowing what to expect. Many soon-to-be parents find that birthing classes really help calm their worries and answer many questions.
These classes cover all kinds of issues surrounding childbirth including breathing techniques, pain management, vaginal birth, and cesarean birth. They can help prepare you for many aspects of becoming a parent: the changes that pregnancy brings, labor and delivery, and caring for your newborn.
Usually, expectant parents take birthing classes during the third trimester of the pregnancy, when the mother is about 7 months pregnant. But some classes might begin both sooner or later than that. Ask your doctor about what's offered in your community.
Benefits of Taking a Childbirth Class
A childbirth class can be a great forum to ask lots of questions and can help you make informed decisions about key issues surrounding your baby's birth. Information you can get from a birthing class includes:
- how your baby is developing
- healthy developments in your pregnancy
- warning signs that something is wrong
- how to make your pregnancy, labor, and delivery more comfortable
- breathing and relaxation techniques
- how to write a birth plan
- how to tell when you are in labor
- pain relief options during labor
- what to expect during labor and delivery
- the role of the coach or labor partner
Many classes also address what to expect after the baby is born, including breastfeeding, baby care, and dealing with the emotional changes of new parenthood.
You might also find support from other expectant couples at a childbirth class. Who would better understand the ups and downs of pregnancy than couples who are going through them, too? Many people find friends in their childbirth class who last long past the birth of their child.
If your birth coach is the baby's father, taking a class together can mean his increased involvement in the pregnancy and can act as a good bonding experience. Like the mother, the father can also benefit from knowing what to expect when the mother goes into labor — and how to assist in that process. Some classes have one session just for fathers, where men can discuss their own concerns about pregnancy and birth. There are also classes geared just for new fathers. Some classes even offer a special session for new grandparents, which is a great way to get them involved in the process and to make sure they're up on the latest in baby care techniques and safety.
Of course, some people get more out of childbirth classes than others do. But even if you find the techniques you're taught don't work for you when you finally go into labor, you may get other benefits from the class. The common goal of all birthing classes is to provide you with the knowledge and confidence you need to give birth and make informed decisions. This includes reducing your anxiety about the birth experience, as well as providing you with a variety of coping techniques to aid in pain management. Remember that the ultimate goal is to have a healthy mom and healthy baby.
What Types of Classes Are Available?
Many childbirth classes embrace a particular philosophy about pregnancy and birth. The two most common methods of childbirth breathing, relaxation, and exercise in the United States are the Lamaze technique and the Bradley method.
The Lamaze technique is the most widely used method in the United States. The Lamaze philosophy holds that birth is a normal, natural, and healthy process and that women should be empowered through education and support to approach it with confidence.
The goal of Lamaze is to explore all the ways women can find strength and comfort during labor and birth. Classes focus on relaxation techniques, and also encourage the mother to condition her response to pain through training and preparation (this is called psychoprophylaxis). This conditioning is meant to teach constructive responses to the pain and stress of labor (for example, controlled breathing patterns) as opposed to counterproductive responses (such as holding the breath or tensing up).
Other techniques, such as distraction (a woman might be encouraged to focus on a special object from home or a photo, for example) or massage by a supportive coach, are also used to decrease a woman's perception of pain.
Lamaze courses don't advocate for or against the use of drugs and routine medical interventions during labor and delivery, but instead educate mothers about their options so they can make informed decisions when the time comes.
The Bradley method (also called "Husband-Coached Birth") places an emphasis on a natural approach to birth and on the active participation of the baby's father as the birth coach. A major goal of this method is the avoidance of medications unless absolutely necessary.
Other topics stressed include the importance of good nutrition and exercise during pregnancy, relaxation techniques (such as deep breathing and concentration on body signals) as a method of coping with labor, and the empowerment of parents to trust their instincts and become active, informed participants in the birth process. The course is traditionally offered in 12 sessions.
Although Bradley emphasizes a birth experience without pain medication, the classes do prepare parents for unexpected complications or situations, like emergency C-sections. After the birth, immediate breastfeeding and constant contact between parents and baby is stressed. Bradley is the method of choice for many women who give birth at home or in other nonhospital settings.
Several other types of birthing classes are available. Some include information from the two previously mentioned techniques, and some are offshoots that explore one particular area. Two options that might be available in your area are active birth classes that teach yoga techniques to prepare for labor and "hypnobirthing" courses, which use deep relaxation and self-hypnosis as relaxation techniques.
When Should I Start Taking a Class?
Birthing classes can vary greatly in duration. You'll find classes that begin during the first trimester and focus on all the changes that pregnancy brings; 5- to 8-week courses offered late in pregnancy aimed at educating parents mostly about labor, delivery, and postpartum issues; and one-time-only refresher courses for repeat parents.
Most parents opt for a course that meets about six or seven times in the last trimester for 1½ to 2 hours per session, or for full-day versions that take place over a weekend or two.
A variety of options are often offered, so be sure and find one that fits your needs.
Choosing a Class
The type of class that's right for you depends on your personality and beliefs, as well as those of your labor partner. There is no one correct method. If you're the kind of person who likes to share and is eager to meet people, you might like a smaller, more intimate class designed for couples to swap stories and support each other. If you don't like the idea of sharing in a small group, you might want a larger class, where the teacher does most of the talking.
Before you sign up for a class, ask what it covers and what philosophy it is based upon. You can also request to see the course outline. A good class will cover a range of topics and prepare you for the many possible scenarios of labor and delivery. Classes should include information about vaginal births and cesarean sections; natural childbirth techniques and the use of pain medication during labor; tips on pre- and postnatal care; and postpartum adjustment.
If something you wanted or expected to see isn't included in the outline, ask about it — if the teacher doesn't seem flexible or his or her philosophy doesn't match yours, you may want to look elsewhere.
You should also feel free to contact the teacher or childbirth class coordinator with questions, such as:
- What's your background and how were you trained?
- Do you have certification from a nationally recognized organization?
- What is your philosophy? Do you teach a particular method?
- How does the class time break down between lecture, discussion, and practicing techniques?
- How many people are in the class?
Whatever course or method you choose, you'll want to begin exploring your options early — some classes fill up well in advance of the start date.
Finding a Class
You can find out about your birthing class options by asking your obstetrician, family doctor, or midwife, or friends who have had babies in your area. Your local hospital or birthing center should also have a list of classes.
Look for childbirth classes offered by:
- private teachers
- health care providers (through their practices)
- community health organizations
- national childbirth education organizations
- videos and DVDs
You can also contact national organizations that certify childbirth educators. The International Childbirth Education Association supports families and trains childbirth educators — you can contact them to find out what certified courses are offered in your area.
Lamaze International will have information on where the Lamaze technique is taught in your area; for information on the Bradley method, contact the American Academy of Husband-Coached Childbirth.
Whether it's a healthier pregnancy, increased knowledge, reduced anxiety, or a greater closeness with your labor partner, there are many benefits to taking a birthing class.
Reviewed by: Larissa Hirsch, MD
Date reviewed: January 2012
Previously reviewed by: Sue Bechhold, RN, BSN