Angela Kwan was nearing her third trimester of pregnancy when she and her husband signed up for a series of maternity classes. This is their first baby, and they felt the classes would help them better prepare for childbirth and the first weeks and months of parenthood.
Angela is a digital content specialist at Providence Health & Services in Portland, Ore., and a former contributor to To Your Health. She knows there’s a lot of information available online about childbirth and caring for a newborn, plus tons of maternity apps, videos, books and forums. But there’s nothing like an in-person instructor and a room filled with other exuberant moms-to-be and their partners. In spite of the time commitment, she and her husband decided they would get more out of being in a classroom than sitting in front of a computer screen. “I’m sure I’ll glean a lot from the other women in the classes,” she says.
Before education: A brief history of childbirth
It’s hard to believe that maternity classes are a relatively new resource for parents. Until the mid-20th century women learned about childbirth and newborn care while in the throes of it or by helping other women through it. Babies were born at home where mothers derived emotional and physical support from family, friends and midwives. Pain management? There was no such thing – of the pharmaceutical type, anyway – until the late 19th century. And men, including fathers, were kept far away. It wasn’t considered “appropriate” for them to be in the presence of a woman during childbirth.
Physicians began attending to births for upper-class women in the 19th century and, eventually, middle-class women sought their services, too. With physician-assisted births, came new instruments and techniques for delivering babies in hospital rooms. By 1940, half of all births in the U.S. were in hospitals, and within 20 years nearly every U.S. born baby arrived in one.
Gone was the attending midwife and words of encouragement from family. In hospitals, women relied on doctors, nurses and a process that looked more like a medical procedure than the delivery of a tiny human.
Methods for relieving pain in childbirth also shifted during the period of transition from home births to hospitals. One drug combination given to women was appropriately called “twilight sleep.” Heralded for its wondrous effect, the morphine and scopolamine cocktail dulled the pain of childbirth while causing women to forget the entire experience. New mothers woke to a baby at their breast but no memory of how the little one got there. It wasn’t long before the dangerous drug duo fell into disrepute when its horrific adverse effects, such as inducing psychotic behavior and sometimes death, became public knowledge.
Out of the era of heavy sedation and dangerous drugs emerged a new attitude toward birthing and the call for education. The women’s movement of the 1960s in particular appealed for childbirth to be treated as a natural process, not as a medical procedure requiring heavy sedation. Women should be in charge of their bodies and the birth process, they argued. Soon after, fathers aching to join their wives as they labored behind closed doors won the right to be in the delivery room, as well.
Education: Know your role in childbirth
Trends in childbirth ebb and flow with cultural movements, medical and technological advancements. The primary difference now, however, is a woman’s involvement in her own birth process. Whether it’s a hospital or home delivery, the Lamaze method or water immersion, a woman can choose whether she wants pain medication and the care of an attending physician, a midwife or a doula.
How does a mom-to-be know what to choose and expect in childbirth? Education and discussion are key. There are a lot of resources available. Yet, in spite of the current trend to learn by reading blogs or asking friends, experts say a real classroom is the best place to gain fact-based information.
Here are six reasons why experts recommend a woman (and her partner, if possible) attend prenatal and maternity classes:
- Ease your fear of childbirth and increase your confidence
In a childbirth class, women learn about the connection between fear, tension and pain in labor. They also learn how to stay relaxed and confident throughout the process.
- Learn about your options
In classes focused on childbirth, moms-to-be learn about pharmacologic pain relief for labor, natural comfort measures, and the risks and benefits of different types of medical interventions. For example, epidurals are promoted as a risk-free way of avoiding pain in childbirth, but there are risks involved. And, laboring women will need to manage pain before they receive the epidural or other pain-relief medication.
- Practice hands-on techniques
In a classroom setting, pregnant women can practice breathing techniques, labor positions, relaxation exercises, effective breastfeeding holds, infant massage, dressing and diapering a baby, and many other useful tactics.
- Gain knowledge from evidence-based guidelines, not hearsay
The highest-quality prenatal classes are routinely updated with current research and relevant resources. Organizations such as the American College of Obstetricians & Gynecologists, the American College of Nurse-Midwives and the American Academy of Pediatrics regularly revise their guidelines. For this reason, even second- and third-time moms benefit from taking prenatal education classes with each pregnancy.
- Learn from other women
Everyone comes to class with different life experiences, concerns and questions. Plus, sitting in a class with others who are experiencing similar life events helps build a sense of community and support.
- Prepare your partner for baby’s arrival
By learning alongside mom-to-be, partners are better prepared for labor, childbirth and everything that follows after the baby’s arrival. Partners who attend classes are more likely to be involved in child care, and they’re more comfortable and confident doing it.
Prepared for baby
Angela was anxious before attending her first childbirth class. “Will it be graphic? Will I leave feeling more anxious? These were the questions I was asking myself before I went to my first class,” she says. Instead, Angela left the classroom feeling calmer and confident she’d made the right decision. “I don’t know a lot about childbirth or being a new mom, so taking classes is the best way for me to gain knowledge,” she says.
Where to find a class in your area
Angela is attending a series of classes in Portland. In addition to the course on childbirth preparation, Providence offers classes on:
- Breastfeeding preparation
- Newborn care
- Twins or more: Newborn care and feeding
- Infant massage
- Infant CPR
- New moms’ group
- Parenting education
If you live in the Portland area, you can find out more about our frequently offered classes by clicking here. If you can’t attend in person, consider our online program, which includes a virtual class where you can meet with a childbirth educator.
If you live outside the Portland area, check with your nearest maternity center or clinic for classes in your area. You can also attend Providence online courses.
Download the Circle by Providence app to your smartphone at no cost and tap into a vast network of local Providence-approved resources, classes and tools for expectant and new moms. Circle offers a to-do checklist to help guide you through every stage of pregnancy, trackers for monitoring your baby’s kicks, and much more.