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How to choose the best antenatal birth preparation classes

Going to antenatal classes during your first pregnancy is something that many parents just ‘do’, often without being quite sure why they are going or what is supposed to happen at them. This isn’t surprising as there are so many around and most parents to be quite understandably don’t even know what it is they need to know. Most think they are going to some sort of ‘breathing classes’, where they will learn about labour, but a good course of all rounder classes can give invaluable and reassuring practical advice on all sorts of stuff about birth and babies.

Most parents start attending classes when they are around 32 weeks, sooner if expecting twins or more as these tend to come earlier. Personally, I like mothers to have had all their classes with me by 36 weeks. I have been teaching new parents about birth and babies in private antenatal classes for over 20 years now, and know that there is usually one baby who is in a hurry and arrives before mum has had a chance to learn a few basics on what to do with him or her!

The other issue is parents’ different needs; some would like very in-depth practical facts about labour and birth, others have a more relaxed approach to the birth but have concerns about feeding and caring for a newborn. Some are most interested in finding ways to have a normal, unmedicated birth experience and amongst all of these are women who are extremely frightened about even the thought of birth and haven’t considered what they will do about baby care as they can’t see past the birth itself.

If you are having your first baby there are a few choices to make about the best ones for you and your circumstances, but I would highly recommend going to something; giving birth will seem a lot less daunting if you have even a little prior knowledge. If you can understand at a basic level what it is your body is trying to achieve when labour starts, or even know the process of what will happen if you’re having a planned caesarean section you’ll be more relaxed, and so will your birth partner.

Learning also about feeding your baby before he or she is born will help you to feel more confident, especially if you are planning on breastfeeding; lots of people assume that it is either a ‘natural’ skill that you will miraculously suddenly know how to do (not true!), or that it is so difficult it isn’t even worth trying (also not true). It is a learned skill that, like any other, needs prior knowledge, preparation and lots of practical application when the time comes. It takes time and patience but in the main, with proper postnatal help and support, it works beautifully. If it didn’t, the human race would have disappeared long before formula feeding was invented!

Finally, a big driver for many parents to be to go to classes is to meet other parents; if you have a busy job you may not know any other pregnant women, and even if you do they may not live near you. That might not seem important in pregnancy, but having to get yourself several miles to meet up when you’re tired and have a tiny baby in tow can become something that is just too hard to organise. That shouldn’t be your main priority though, the information is the key thing, and it is a very expensive way just to meet people! If that is the main issue for you, look online in your area for free coffee mornings/meet ups for new and expectant mothers.

So, where to go?

NHS

If you are booked at an NHS hospital, most will offer classes to first time parents, and occasionally ‘refreshers’ to those who have already had a child but are planning a different kind of birth or have had a long break between babies.

Pros: These are free, and will usually be run by midwives, who know their stuff. They might include a tour of the hospital too, so you can familiarise yourself with where you’ll be in labour, check out the parking arrangements and see the different kinds of wards.

Cons: They are usually very full, and classes can be large, which some parents find intimidating, making them less likely to ask the questions they want to. The class size can also mean that fathers/birth partners are not included in some or all of the classes.

They can be held at times that don’t fit in with your current work/lifestyle schedule.

Because hospital catchment areas can be enormous, you may end up in classes where no one lives anywhere near you.

Private antenatal classes

Private antenatal classes allow you more flexibility in terms of timing, location and content. Probably the most well known private classes are those run by the National Childbirth Trust (NCT). These are taught by NCT trained teachers, who may or may not be midwives as well. There are also plenty of individual providers who give excellent information about birth and babies- it is worth finding out if the classes you are considering are run by a midwife, as frankly you’ll get a greater depth of information from someone who has had previous formal midwife training. Unless you are looking for a specific skill to learn (i.e. hypnobirthing, see below), most antenatal courses will include not only birth preparation but feeding as well, and some will cover basic newborn care. Also bear in mind that you don’t have to be having private pregnancy care to have private classes; the two things are separate. Good information is relevant wherever you are having your baby, privately or NHS, at home or in hospital. It is obviously wonderful for me as a private midwife to be able to hold classes for our Birth Team clients as I will be looking after them during labour as well, which gives continuity and confidence, but I also hold many sessions with parents who are using the local NHS services and it has proven just as useful; birth is birth, whichever way you choose to do ti!

Hypnobirthing

Learning the technique of hypnobirthing can be tremendously helpful – you will learn how to work with your body, and to approach labour with confidence. There are many practitioners around the country, so there is likely to be one near you.

Pros: Small groups or individual sessions. Great birth preparation, and you’ll learn relaxation techniques that will stand you in good stead.

Cons: They are not free. Your learning will be mostly limited to managing the birth itself, and doesn’t usually include any preparation for feeding and baby care.

Whatever classes you decide on, one of the most important skills you can learn is baby emergency first aid – this training isn’t usually included in any antenatal class package, but it is such a crucial skill. Again these are run either by individuals or charities such as St John’s Ambulance, but it is possible that your local hospital may do some. Whatever else you decide on, completing a baby first aid course should be a priority, ideally before your baby is born. It’s worth taking grandparents or anyone who will be caring for your baby on a regular basis as well, so that you can be reassured that whoever is looking after your child knows what to do in the event of an emergency.

A word to Dads-in-waiting

I’ve used the term ‘parents to be’, but mostly thoughts centre around the mother and this post is as guilty of that as any other, men are as caring and emotionally involved as mothers, and have been kept out of the picture for far too long! Many fathers to be simply go to whatever their partner has arranged, or don’t go to any at all, either because there is no provision for them to come along or they feel way outside their comfort zone. A lot of fathers (and mothers) get a bit wild-eyed and apprehensive when informed they will be going to some classes whether they like it or not, which may or may not involve the uncomfortable prospect of participatory labour role play. My personal view is that nothing useful is achieved by forcing embarrassed, rational grownups to pretend to be in labour when they have absolutely no idea what that might feel like! To reassure, most good classes don’t do that, and it is brilliantly useful to go to some sessions with your partner, if only so that you will have an idea what might happen and be more able to be a calm, reassuring presence. Similarly, asking a group of people who don’t know each other to sit and discuss their innermost feelings about parenthood, bonding, love and relationships can be very off-putting, and is more appropriate if that is what is needed, in a one to one setting.

There will be fairly frank discussions about vaginas, cervixes and bodily fluids as it’s kind of necessary, but a good teacher will deal with this in a matter of fact way.

Basically you’ll have to do a bit of research to get the classes that suit you, whether that’s group sessions or a private one-to-one, everything from birth to baby care or just labour, whether it is more important to you to meet other parents or learn a specific skill. You also need to think about location, timing and the number of sessions that you want; in group sessions, can you pick and choose or do you have to pay for all of them regardless? Do you want a concentrated one day or weekend course, or to spread the sessions over several weeks? What is most important to you? To get good value for money, it is worth doing a bit of research to avoid disappointment; don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions before booking anything, as a good antenatal educator will be more than happy to help.