By Nicole Gregory

There’s no law that says you have to sign up for a childbirth prep class just because you’re pregnant, but doing so can help you discover the childbirth experience you want and then help you achieve it.

These classes, led by childbirth educators, doulas, nurses, midwives or other trained professionals, typically offer support and information that reduce a woman’s anxiety about what’s ahead and provide techniques for coping with the stages of labor and birth. That support alone—the expertise of the class leader and the camaraderie of the other participants—is critical. A 2007 study conducted at the University of Toronto showed that women who had continuous support during pregnancy were more likely to have shorter labor, more likely to have a spontaneous (rather than induced) vaginal birth and were less likely to use pain killers or to report dissatisfaction with the childbirth experience.

Unlike learning about labor and birth at home by yourself from a DVD, a class offers a community of women, a safe place where questions and fears can be brought into the open. “Being together once a week for six to eight weeks and sharing feelings about becoming a mother can help women so much,” says Julie Freitas, a Los Angeles childbirth educator with 38 years of experience. “Being with other couples and hearing their questions and concerns, talking with them about their solutions—it enhances the experience of being a couple. For a couple of hours you can focus on the baby coming and leave other concerns behind.”

Although many childbirth preparation classes aim for a nondrug childbirth, most teach techniques that can be used right up until an epidural is injected, and sometimes after. Most classes require pregnant women to sign up late in the second trimester or early in the third, so the earlier you start researching your local options, the better. Here are some choices to investigate.

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LAMAZE

The philosophy: Lamaze is based on the idea that birth is normal and natural, that women have the right to give birth free of medical intervention and that childbirth education allows women to make informed choices and take responsibility for their own health. Long associated with a specialized breathing technique used during labor, Lamaze means much more today. “A good childbirth class gives women all the information they need to make truly informed decisions,” writes Judith Lothian, RN, PhD, LCCE, FACCE, in The Official Lamaze Guide: Giving Birth With Confidence.

What to expect: You will be given reassurance that birth is normal and that your body can do this. The Lamaze philosophy encourages women to feel confident about giving birth by offering strategies for staying calm and relaxed so that there is no need for pain medication. You’ll learn about all the ways to ensure a normal birth as well as information about breastfeeding.

What to look for: An instructor who is a Lamaze Certified Childbirth Educator.

Watch out for: Classes that are too big or focus too much on breathing techniques and lack other helpful, confidence-boosting information and support.

Where to find out more: lamaze.org and The Official Lamaze Guide: Giving Birth With Confidence by Judith Lothian, RN, PhD, LCCE, FACCE, of Lamaze International (Meadowbrook Press, 2005).

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SELF-HYPNOSIS

The philosophy: Self-hypnosis is taught in several different kinds of classes. The best known is HypnoBirthing®, which teaches deep relaxation techniques. “The focus is on breathing, relaxation, visualization and deepening techniques to help a woman access her natural birthing instincts,” says Sara Shelley, a Washington DC–area childbirth educator and licensed hypnotherapist who has taught HypnoBirthing. Shelley now teaches the newer Blissborn technique, which is similar, though involves the husbands or partners in the experience—“a big advantage these days,” says Shelley, “as most dads want to play a more active role in all the phases of the birthing process.”

What to expect: You’ll learn optimal birth positions as well as breathing and visualization techniques that will bring you to a state of deep relaxation during labor and delivery.

What to look for: Look for an instructor who is certified in HypnoBirthing – The Mongan Method (named for the founder, Marie Mongan, MEd, MHy) or has other certification.

Watch out for: Promises of a birth that will not include any pain at all. “Beware of anyone who promises a pain-free delivery,” cautions Catherine Williams, a midwife who works for Home Birth Service in Los Angeles. “This sets women up, so that when it really hurts, they think they must be doing something wrong, that they failed somehow.”

Where to find out more: hypnobirthing.com and HypnoBirthing – The Mongan Method: The Breakthrough Approach to Safer, Easier, More Comfortable Birthing by Marie F. Mongan, MEd, MHy (Health Communications, Inc., 2005).

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THE BRADLEY METHOD

The philosophy: Birth is natural and normal, and can be profound for a couple to fully experience together without medical intervention or the need for pain medication. Husbands or partners are training to be skilled, loving participants in helping a woman give birth.

What to expect: A 12-week course that covers nutrition, exercise, the “husband-coach” role in all aspects of labor and birth, how to be comfortable during labor, breastfeeding information and more.

What to look for: An instructor who has been specifically trained in the Bradley Method.

Watch out for: A class that is less than the standard 12 weeks or instructors who are not trained in the Bradley Method.

Where to find out more: bradleybirth.com and Husband-Coached Childbirth by Robert A. Bradley, MD (Bantam, 2008)

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YOGA


The philosophy: By focusing on breathing, relaxing and meditating, and moving into certain safe yoga poses, you will more fully connect to your body and come to experience the power, joy and spiritual aspects of pregnancy.

What to expect: This varies according to the yoga studio, but generally involves learning how to use breathing and yoga poses to help stay relaxed, focused and calm and to move into positions to ease discomfort during labor. Some classes encourage husbands or partners to participate, too, so that they are prepared to support and work with women throughout labor. “This is a night where you and your partner have an opportunity to practice positions in labor, breath work, touch support and visualization, and basically start a dialogue with each other,” says Juliette Kurth, a doula and certified yoga instructor who, with her husband, conducts a labor support workshop for expectant couples in Silver Lake, Calif.

What to look for: A certified yoga instructor who has experience in working with pregnant women, preferably one who also has experience in childbirth education.

Watch out for: Inexperienced instructors, or those who have not worked with pregnant women and may not be aware of unsafe poses.

Where to find out more: Bountiful, Beautiful, Blissful: Experience the Natural Power of Pregnancy and Birth With Kundalini Yoga and Meditation by Gurmukh Kaur Khalsa (St. Martin’s Press, 2003) and check out your local yoga studios.

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HOSPITAL OR BIRTH CENTER CLASSES


The philosophy: Classes that are connected to a hospital will support the kinds of births that hospital typically does. So you may not hear about tub or home births here! Still, the support and information they provide can be valuable. “Even those who desire an unmedicated birth will register for the valuable information provided in the class,” says Raeanne Brazee, RN, founder of Boston Baby Beginnings, the in-hospital childbirth education classes for Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, Mass. “Topics include relaxation techniques, breathing techniques, partner participation and support during and after labor.”

What to expect: Duration of classes will vary but will include information about the stages of labor, pain medication available, cesarean birth, breastfeeding support and more.

What to look for: Instructors who are trained childbirth educators and who share your values about childbirth and breastfeeding.

Watch out for: An emphasis on hospital rules and restrictions as to what pregnant women are allowed to do to be comfortable during labor.

Where to find out more: Check your local hospitals.

Birthing classes offer a safe place where questions and fears can be brought into the open. Here are some choices to consider.

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