Preparation for Birth
You might be wondering, why do I need birth preparation classes to tell me how to do something that is a natural process? Won't the midwives or doctors just tell me what is happening and what to do?
The answer is no, the midwife likely won't tell you. Because only you know what is going on in your body, with your baby, and what you might need from moment to moment. A midwife can tell you facts, such as how dilated your cervix might be, or what type of pain relief can be offered to you, and she can tell you what different stages of labour are called. She can coach you when to push, if you wish to have her do so. She can be a quiet support to you, or a vocal advocate.
What a midwife can't do, no matter how intuitive she is, is know or experience what you yourself are experiencing during the birth of your child. Even if she has given birth a thousand times, and helped a million women in labour, you and your baby are completely unique.
As I have said in a previous blog post, nobody else will experience YOUR pregnancy, nobody else will feel YOUR labour, and there is nobody else who knows what it is like to make your decisions based on your available choices. It is so important a woman feels prepared, confident, informed, trusted and respected in order for her to have the best birthing experience possible. One thing is true the world over though, no matter the level of preparation you do your baby will come out - one way or another!
Your body will usually give you plenty of signs that labour is imminent. But perhaps nowadays we do need some help interpreting those signals, which is where birth preparation classes come in. Birth has (sadly, some would say) moved away somewhat from the natural experience that our ancestors through the decades would have had. Of course they faced many more risks than we do, thanks to the advances in both our medical knowledge, informed choices, and better standards of health and hygiene. But before the trend of births moving to a hospital location, women would have been at her home or a familiar place, watching and waiting for labour signs. When her body told her it was time, she would ultimately find a safe, cosy space and push baby into the world without being scrutinised or instructed.
Nowadays we have made advances, yes, and we are more open about birthing. We can talk about antenatal and postnatal care. We are aware that some women may have experience birth trauma from previous childbirths, or perhaps are first time mums and very fearful of the unknown, and wondering how they can cope with pain. But does a woman today really know her choices, and how to trust her instincts? Has it become more that women's intuition is so used to being quietened that we have learned to rely on authority telling us what to do? Antenatal and birth preparation classes can really help a woman, and her family, get ready for what sensations and emotions may come up for them, and what their available choices are.
Mindful Birth Preparation
While the NHS generally offers some free 'parent education' classes to every pregnant woman, sadly they aren't always available. It does depend on your area and what provision is available in your local Trust. Some of my local clients wanted to take the NHS classes they'd heard about from their community midwives, but because they didn't book on the course soon enough they were not able to access them. This is obviously very disappointing for mums-to-be and their birth partners. So please be aware of this situation, and be mindful that you reserve yourself a place early on, because those courses are invaluable.
The NHS classes and midwives themselves are very informative and extremely knowledgable - however they don't necessarily prepare you mentally, emotionally and physically for your birth. This is where private antenatal classes might be a good option for you. There are many choices open to you, from ex- and current midwives running sessions, online courses, hypnobirthing, to my own MummyNatal mindfulness-inspired antenatal classes and workshops. There really is something for everyone. (Obviously I think mindful birthing preparation is a great way to approach your antenatal education!)
The parenting or birthing classes delivered by your midwives at a local hospital or children's centre may focus on the more medical aspects of birth. Classes can guide you through examples of pain relief options which are available at your local hospital or delivery suite, so you know what you can request if you wished to try it when the time comes. They might tell you about the hospital tours, if they have them running, and ward visiting hours, and what amenities are available to you and your birth partners. They can walk you through the basics of labour, induction processes and tips for breastfeeding. They may demonstrate some equipment that may be used (such as ventouse, or forceps).
All of this is extremely beneficial, as knowledge is power. Imagine seeing certain medial equipment for the first time when you are concentrating on contractions; seeing something strange, new and unfamiliar could add to feelings of fear and panic. That - or anything strange or stressful - can cause adrenaline levels to spike, which is unhelpful to the flow of oxytocin required to keep your labour flowing smoothly. If you know in advance where you are going, what your room might look like, what some medical equipment is called and why it might be used, hearing and seeing some of those things during labour is not going to be quite as worrying if you've seen it before and know what it is for. The knowledge demystifies the process, leaving you free to focus on what you want to be doing during your labour.
Why Plan Ahead?
Ok so maybe you've been to the 4-6 classes the NHS has offered you, and you've found out all about drugs, induction, when the breastfeeding clinics run, and visiting hours on the maternity ward. That is fantastic. But maybe the preparation shouldn't end there.
Imagine you are planning to run a marathon. You wouldn't decide overnight to get up the next morning and just run it. In my case, you'd be lucky to make it 2 kilometres before straining something or feeling a bit rubbish (I'm trying to get to 5k again, honestly I'm trying!) You'd be more likely to find out about a race date ahead of time, look at all the relevant details in advance, decide what distance you wanted to run, and figure out what time to arrive and who might run with you or cheer you on. You might begin a training programme in advance of the date, and look at ways you can improve your overall experience, as well as stamina and speed.
The same is true of birth. Whilst yes, it is a natural process that your body prepares you for (sometimes with Braxton-Hicks contractions as your uterus 'warms up,') you may also feel the benefits from some emotional and mental preparation. The NHS classes can take you to a certain point, but they are designed to cater to the majority - not you and your baby personally. Most antenatal classes work with smaller numbers of mums and dads, and have more time to go in-depth and find out what type of birth you hope for.
Your birth is a life changing experience, and it isn't like a race where you stop running at the end, drink some water, and if you're lucky maybe receive a medal. At the end of your birthing experience you get a baby. An actual living, tiny, precious little being that you have to care for - for the rest of your life. Just when the hard bit is over, the harder bit begins. Antenatal classes can help you with this. They might be called 'birth preparation' but often you'll find they will go beyond just the birth and immediate aftermath. Equally important as the knowledge and tips you'll receive are the friends you have the chance to make there. No matter how strong a family unit you are, and how confident a person you are, I think it is vital for any mum and dad to have a support network around you as you enter parenthood - antenatal friends could be that network.
On a practical level, attending an antenatal course might be the only time that a mum-to-be has to herself, just to find a moment of relaxation - as well as education. In her daily life, she may be so busy fulfilling many other roles for and with other friends and family, she forgets to take time out for herself and her baby. In a weekly class she can meet a support network of other women, but she has no responsibility to them. In class she can focus solely on connecting with her own body and baby, with no worries about other children, her job, her birth partner or romantic partner - that time is all about her and baby.
Looking beyond this, on a more spiritual and emotional level, as she learns more about her body and baby, the depth of connection she can develop will no doubt have a huge emotional impact on her bond with baby. She learns to connect with herself, and tune in and really feel her baby, and importantly learns she can trust her body and instincts. All this can stand her in good stead before and after birth, as she moves into motherhood. Taking this time for herself may well have a positive outcome on other relationships in her life, as by attending a class she will be carrying out a simple act of self-care, leaving her energy 'topped up,' ready to continue giving to her roles outside of 'being pregnant.'