With the rise in the number of apps, websites, on-line forums, You Tube videos, TV shows, books and magazines all specialising in childbirth, is it still really necessary to attend traditional antenatal classes? You know, where you sign up for a 6 or 8 week course of evening classes, or a couple of weekend sessions, with a group of other pregnant couples due around the same time as you? Surely you can get all the information you need from the above mentioned sources?
Actually, there are many great reasons why, despite the vast array of technology we have at our fingertips, there’s nothing that quite beats a really good antenatal course to prepare you for labour and becoming a parent, especially if it is your first baby.
1. Creating a support network.
This may seem so obvious that it doesn’t need mentioning, but to me this is the single most important reason to attend a course. What many first time parents don’t realise until it is perhaps too late, is that once your baby is here, it is harder than it was when you were pregnant to get out and about and meet people who really understand what you are going through, as they are going through it too. Having a group of new mums (and dads, for the dads) who you have built up friendships with over a number of weeks can do wonders at helping to prevent the feelings of isolation that are so common to many new parents. You just can’t build those sorts of relationships in a one-off class which gives you little or no time to mix and socialise. Physically getting together with those new friends in the early weeks of having a new baby, so that you get out of the house and actively mix with others in the same boat, gives you a purpose to your day and something to look forward to which is not too demanding, when you may be feeling a bit delicate or vulnerable. Laughing and crying together is a great form of emotional release, during what can be a very emotional time.
2. Feeling empowered about your birth.
A good antenatal class will do more than tell you “this is what you have to do when your labour starts”. The longer the course is, the more time there will be to discuss a wide range of topics to do with your birth. This will give you a chance to consider options that perhaps you had not considered before, whilst being in a “safe” space to share your worries, ask questions and get as much information as you need to feel enabled to make choices that are right for you. If your antenatal teacher is skilled and experienced, she will be able to answer your questions in a way that doesn’t tell you what to do, but makes you think about what is important to you, and encourages you to take “ownership” of your birth experience, whilst giving you the confidence to take the responsibility that that ownership brings with it. She will also help you to understand how taking that responsibility can lead to you feeling really positive about your birth experience, however it turns out.
3. Exploring the mine field that is parenting.
As any new parent will tell you, there are probably as many different approaches to parenting as there are babies being parented. This is because each baby is different, and each family is different, and what works for one does not necessarily work for another. When you are expecting your first baby, especially if you have not had much contact with babies yet, it is easy to think that “a baby’s a baby’s a baby”, and that there is a single answer to each baby specific question. A good antenatal class will help you to realise that babies do not come with a one-size-fits-all solution, and will give you the confidence to parent your baby the way that feels right to you as a new family.
4. Getting to ask questions.
The great thing about an antenatal course that encourages you to get involved (instead of just sitting and listening to a “lecture”), is that you get the chance to ask questions. At the start of each antenatal course I teach, I encourage everyone to ask as many questions as they want to, and reassure them that there’s no such thing as a stupid question. By attending a course that takes place over several weeks, you have the chance to mull over what you’ve heard, and if any questions crop up between classes, you can bring them with you the following week, and still get your answers. If you're really lucky, you'll find a course which includes both a women only and a men only class - the benefits of these sessions is that you get a chance to ask questions that you might not feel comfortable asking in front of either your own, or other someone else's, partner. In all the years I have been teaching antenatal classes, and from over 1,000 couples taught, I think I have only ever once been asked a question that made everyone laugh out loud, and it was “Are Caesareans performed by keyhole surgery?”.
5. More than just information.
Without a doubt, good evidence based information is essential in a decent antenatal course - you don’t want someone who’s just going to tell you what their personal experiences of having babies was, or of what their opinions are on any given topic. However, a good antenatal course will also give you the chance to explore your feelings around subjects, not just think about the hard facts. Giving birth and becoming parents is so much more than a physical event - it is emotional, spiritual, life changing, exciting, daunting, full of challenges and possibilities. Whilst it is really hard to truly understand what it feels like to either give birth or be a parent until you are actually doing it, it can be good to consider how certain things might make you feel, so that when it happens (and it probably will), you may be able to cast your mind back and think “Oh yes, we talked about this in class. Now I get it!”. Learning to trust your instincts, in the birth room and with your baby, starts with a recognition that those instincts exist and are worth trusting.
If you sign up to a series of antenatal classes, especially if you have to pay for them, you are more likely to make the effort to attend all of them, as you want to get to your money’s worth. If you are reading a book or a magazine, you can put it down whenever you want, if you are looking online at a forum or blog you can switch it off, but if you are at a class with other people, you are making a public commitment to learning. And so are the others, so there is a sense of group investment in making the sessions as good as they can be.
7. Leaving your comfort zone.
When you are pregnant, especially with your first baby, there may be aspects of labour that make you uncomfortable. Not only will a good antenatal course bring these fears to the front so you can face them, but hopefully it will enable you to not be so worried about them if they do happen. Once you have had your baby, you realise that, when you got to that part of your labour, those worries became pretty insignificant, but it is hard to believe that when you are pregnant. A good antenatal course will also put you in a few positions (literally) where you feel uncomfortable - such as practising different labour positions or breathing techniques with your partner - in a room full of other people doing the same thing. Some people find this a really awkward and embarrassing exercise, but the fact that they can do it in class will hopefully help them to see that they will also be able to do it in labour when they really need it.
8. They’re fun!
A good antenatal course will not only give you the chance to make friends, ask questions, share hopes and concerns, practice skills for labour and parenthood, and enjoy chocolate biscuits in the tea break, but they will also be delivered by someone who injects humour into the sessions, and makes them fun! Often people turn up to the first session feeling a bit anxious, not sure exactly what they are coming to or why they need to be there (especially the dads, who have often just been told they are coming!), and not sure what’s going to happen in the sessions. A skilled teacher will put you at ease, get you chatting to each other and soon have the group laughing. By the end of the course, people are often sad that its over, and say how much they will miss coming along every week, as they have had such a good time.
It is worth booking onto your antenatal course early (by 20 - 24 weeks), even if it won't start till you are past 30 weeks. Many courses fill up quickly, and all need to get a minimum number of bookings by a certain date in order to confirm a course will run. So, if you leave it till the last minute, you might find that there is nothing left - they are all either full, or have been cancelled by the time you get round to thinking about it. Attending a good antenatal course can really help to prepare you for what lies ahead, get you thinking about things in a different way and give you the chance to make life-long friends - none of which you will want to miss out on.