Thursday, September 15, 2011

Why Should I Bother with Birth Classes?

Recently I have been asked this question by two very different women. Both are intelligent first time pregnant moms who desire natural non-interventive labor for themselves and gentle births for their babies. One has already done a considerable amount of reading, hired a midwife and has made the choice to birth at home. What more could she get out of classes, she wonders? The other has a belief in herself and birth which is rooted in her family history, her agricultural history and in her personality. She also witnessed a birth which went so differently than the Bradley birth her relative had planned that she feels her money is better spent on a doula.

I don't remember what I said to these women but here is what I wish I had the presence of mind to say in the moment. Yes, you should take classes! Classes serve many purposes. It is more than just learning the stages of labor. It is more than learning the normal psychological markers, the comfort measures or tools to help you flow with the intensity of the birth process. A good class should give you much, much more.

First as new parents it is vital to create community. Bringing forth a new life isn't just about the baby's life. You are literally bringing forth your own new lives. A new life means transition and transition is stressful. You will need to surround yourself with other new moms and dads. Now you're thinking, "But I have lots of friends who have already had babies." Great! Lots of wisdom can be drawn from friends and relatives who have kids, but talking with others who are just as confused and unsure at times as you creates a shared experience. This is support of a different kind. When you talk with them about lack of sleep, sore nipples, or the color of your baby's poop you'll be thinking, "Oh, you get what I am talking about because you are going through it too. I'm not alone. I'm not crazy." Every support group is founded on this principle.

A good childbirth class is a great place to start building community. It needs to be an environment that goes beyond simply giving you facts, advice & techniques. A good class fosters friendships through the sharing of thoughts & feelings, doing class activities or projects and breaking bread together. The class should bring both humor and intimacy to the subject of birth while always honoring each participant's unique journey toward the arrival of their child. This is an environment where friendships can blossom. After the babies arrive getting together for walks, talks, beach time or play time friendships can deepen. They show up at Andrea Heron's class or La Leche League. You walk into a SLO Parent Participation class or library story time and there they are. Your world suddenly seems smaller in a safe and secure way. This is building community within our larger community. New parents, new families need community.

Now what about the fact that many women who have decided they want a "natural" childbirth have already done a ton of reading? They have read great books, watched movies like The Business of Being Born, researched things on line and even watched You Tube videos of births. What more education could they need? All that is great but let's face it very few dads are motivated to share that particular journey with you. Sure you can corral them and ask them to watch this amazing You Tube birth or read them passages out of a book you are devouring from cover to cover but very few men are going to feel as compelled as their partner to steep themselves in birth, birth & more birth. As a matter of fact, the more she does, the more he may feel he doesn't have to because she is the one who is having the baby, right? She is doing such a bang up job getting educated so he can just relax. On top of that, if you are making decisions about the birth based on things you alone are reading and then telling him what you want, he may feel there is no point to reading or expressing his opinion; you've already made up your mind. These may be wonderfully supportive partners but they are hovering outside of the picture.

Classes help dads! I can't say that enough. Classes help dads. They invite them into the process. Men naturally come late to thinking about the birth. Actually they often come late to connecting with the baby in any concrete way. This is normal because they aren't the ones feeling it grow and move inside them. Believe it or not when they witness their baby being born it almost seems to take them by surprise that there really is a baby. A good class allows dads to connect with their own journey towards birth and parenthood. They gain the education they need through active participation instead of reading & research which suits many fathers better. There is time, space & support given for dads to express their feelings, beliefs, fears and desires surrounding the process and what lies ahead. They are honored as fathers, lovers and humans.

Classes most especially help dads who have witnessed past births that traveled down traumatic paths, such as c-sections or home birth transports. These dads need special care as they struggle to support a woman who is determined to have an un-medicated vaginal birth while carrying the fears left over from the past birth. It is vitally important that the couple has come together as much as possible before the birth and good classes help.

Good classes help you analyze and express your beliefs about the choices surrounding birth. They put you in touch with the values & fears that are informing your personal choices. Having to verbally express our values & fears can bring up buried thoughts, crystallize our perceptions and distill our feelings. Hearing what others value or fear is a powerful tool in learning about ourselves. Clarity of these issues on both sides can lead to respectful communication if your partner is of a different opinion. Clarity of values & fears can lead to a more open and empowering dialogue with your care provider.

Being pregnant is a process that unfolds over time. The way you feel about something at 12 weeks may be vastly different than the way you feel at 30 weeks or 38 weeks. The best time to take classes is the last 2 months of the pregnancy. The series needs to be 7 to 8 weeks long so that friendships have time to grow and so do the couples. Good classes encourage the couple to get in touch with where they are in the process now and where they would like to be eventually. They practice. They prepare. They rehearse. They live in the moment and open themselves to the possibilities of the future. Yes, you should take birth preparation classes. You will come away more confident in birth, more sure of yourselves and your abilities, more connected to your partner, more aware of your choices, more able to dialogue with your support team and just plain more ready.

These two expectant moms were right though. Many classes aren't worth taking. Classes that only focus on the physical biological aspects of birth are a waste of time. Classes that focus only on one tool or technique for labor are hopelessly incomplete. Classes that are only 4 weeks long give the couple no opportunity to grow or change. Classes that are taken the last month of pregnancy give the couple no opportunity to change course if they come to the realization through their class work that they want to go down a different path. Classes that honor only one vision of what birth should be like are disrespectful to the amazing complexity of the human race. Classes that only impart the guidelines and routines of the place of birth & care provider disrespect pregnant couples' abilities to make wise choices for themselves and their babies. These classes are an obvious attempt to dis-empower women and their partners. By all means take classes but choose wisely who you ask to "educate" you.

For more information about my classes. Also there are many excellent independent birth educators in SLO County. We each have a slightly different focus. It is important to find an educator you feel comfortable with. Most of them can be reached through the Birth & Baby Resource Network's on line Resource Guide.

Here is another birth educator/blogger's take on this same issue.

From Mama Birth:
If You Are Asking My Opinion- Yes, You Need A Birth Class

In full disclosure, before I get started I should probably own the fact that I do teach natural childbirth classes for money. (I don't make much money at it, but you deserve to know that.) So you can take what I am about to say as just shameless self promotion and fear mongering.

I often hear this sentiment :

"Women have been giving birth for 1000's of years. You don't need a class to give birth."

What is interesting about this quote is that I hear it both from medical doctors who are very intervention happy or dislike natural birth and from people planning to home birth.

At the risk of offending everybody who reads this, I have got to address this idea. Because frankly, this just usually is not the case. Let me tell you why.

Women HAVE been giving birth for 1000's of years-

Yes, women have been giving birth for a long long time. The mechanisms of birth worked the same with the first birth as they do today in the modern woman- contractions, dilation, pushing, baby, placenta. But the CULTURE of birth is constantly changing.
How many of you have attended a live birth? How many of you have attended multiple births in person? How many of your husbands have?

A woman a thousand years ago most likely was around birth. She was at the births of her siblings or cousins or nieces and nephews. She learned to help the mother after the labor. She saw women breastfeeding. A 1000 years ago women were actually AROUND birth. Birth was something that really only women understood.

They didn't hide it in hospitals and close it behind a door and a cloak of mystery and fear. It was a normal part of life.

Not only did they see it, they talked about it, supported each other in it, and had traditions surrounding it. We have traditions surrounding birth too, but they don't do much to teach women about the actual mechanics and how to cope with birth and labor naturally. Today when women talk about birth they talk about epidurals and pain and what they were allowed to do. This can be wonderfully helpful in preparing you for the typical hospital induction birth. It does not however do much to prepare you if you are planning on birthing naturally.

Women being surrounded by other women who had birthed naturally also creates a very different birth culture. Being in a weekly class with others in your same situation and with the same goals can re-create that "birth culture" for you today. Having a teacher who has done what you are planning a few times herself also gives you somebody to ask questions and proof that natural birth is possible, even if you don't know many people who have done it.

A 1000 years ago women didn't birth in the hospital-

A large part of the classes I teach focuses on preparing women to navigate the hospital system. The truth is, if you are planning on birth in the hospital and going natural, you need to really know what you are doing. You need to know how to relax well without medications in a place where they are readily available. You also need to be aware of the purpose and ways to avoid common interventions, drugs, and procedures in the hospital.
Women didn't have to do this 1000 years ago. There are huge advantages to hospital birthing- but combining it with a natural approach is often tricky. Thus the class.

And your partner? What was he doing a 1000 years ago?

The modern woman almost always wants her husband at the birth with her. Not only that she wants him to be involved, helpful, loving, and basically fantastic.

I don't know how to say this nice, but....good luck with that if he doesn't know a thing about birth and is scared crapless of the entire idea of something huge coming out of your vagina.

Many women are self motivated enough to learn about birth and study and practice relaxation on their own. After all, they realize that THEY are the ones who have to give birth. Women are often very invested in baby and the experience long before it happens.

Men a 1000 years ago were probably not part of the birth process. But today, women expect them to be there. If you want him to be helpful, to understand what is normal, to know what a crowning baby looks like, and to know how to do a double hip squeeze, he needs a class.

My classes focus on the partner a LOT. If I can get dad comfortable, excited, and confident in your ability as a couple to have a natural birth, then I feel much better about the couples ability to do this. If mom is looking forward to this and knows her stuff, but dad is scared, doesn't know why you sound like a ghost, and just wants you to get an epidural because he wants you to be helped but he doesn't know how to help you, then we have another beast altogether.

But I am birthing at home-

I know- I still think that a natural birth class can be helpful in preparing a mom to birth at home. There are two reasons for this.

1) A good class won't just cover birth- it will cover preparing for a healthy pregnancy and staying low risk. I have seen more than one home birth mama end up having a baby in the hospital because baby came early because of poor nutrition. Some things just go wrong and can't be prevented. But some things CAN be helped with an awesome diet. You can learn about this on your own, but I notice that people focus more on how they are taking care of themselves when they are asked about it weekly by their friendly birth teacher.

When I ask people to keep track of everything they eat, they really pay more attention than they do just because they read something about the Brewer Diet online. A class helps keep you accountable while surrounding you with a supportive group of women and men.

2) Even if you birth at home, you still need to actually LABOR. Birthing at home might prevent some common interventions, but it doesn't get you out of the work involved in birthing a baby. I have talked to many a midwife who has home birth mamas who have no coping mechanisms in place for their birth.
Losing control is a natural part of birth- but knowing how to relax and do it well can help keep that to the normal, baby is almost here, minimum. A mother who is very stressed out, fearful, and unfamiliar with the birth process, can have difficulty with laboring from the very beginning and throughout the entire process. If you throw in a partner who also is freaking out, you can really change the process in a negative way.

A good birth class doesn't just talk about what happens in a chart- it teaches you how to handle it.

The truth is that not everyone really needs a class. I am not going to tell you that I KNOW that you do. But I do often see people who don't think they needed a class and it turns out they really could have benefited from the knowledge, the confidence, the time to prepare with their partner, the skill it gave their partner, and the nurturing friendships with like minded people.

One of my favorite things to see is how a couple's relationship grows in class. They learn to rely on one another. They learn to trust each other more. They grow together as we discuss relationship issues that arise during the time of pregnancy.

In the end a great childbirth class really just teaches you how to tune in to what you already know how to do innately. Then, you CAN birth more like women did 1000 years ago- naturally and with faith in your body.

For more information about my classes. Also there are many excellent independent birth educators in SLO County. We each have a slightly different focus. It is important to find an educator you feel comfortable with. Most of them can be reached through the Birth & Baby Resource Network's on line Resource Guide.


  1. Very well answered Jennifer. Thank you.
    I guess it's like the difference between talk therapy and just reading a bunch of self-help books...

  2. That's the perfect analogy Ariela! I wish I'd thought of it. I don't know how many of those books I've read but never really put into practice. I think reading them is just an intellectual experience and I need something more to actually initiate change with in myself.