If You Are Asking My Opinion- Yes, You Need A Birth Class

In full disclosure, before I get started I should probably own the fact that I do teach natural childbirth classes for money.  (I don't make much money at it, but you deserve to know that.)  So you can take what I am about to say as just shameless self promotion and fear mongering.
I often hear this sentiment :

"Women have been giving birth for 1000's of years.  You don't need a class to give birth."

What is interesting about this quote is that I hear it both from medical doctors who are very intervention happy or dislike natural birth and from people planning to home birth.

At the risk of offending everybody who reads this, I have got to address this idea.  Because frankly, this just usually is not the case.  Let me tell you why.

Women HAVE been giving birth for 1000's of years-

Yes, women have been giving birth for a long long time.  The mechanisms of birth worked the same with the first birth as they do today in the modern woman- contractions, dilation, pushing, baby, placenta.  But the CULTURE of birth is constantly changing.
How many of you have attended a live birth?  How many of you have attended multiple births in person?  How many of your husbands have?

A woman a thousand years ago most likely was around birth.  She was at the births of her siblings or cousins or nieces and nephews.  She learned to help the mother after the labor.  She saw women breastfeeding.  A 1000 years ago women were actually AROUND birth.  Birth was something that really only women understood.

They didn't hide it in hospitals and close it behind a door and a cloak of mystery and fear.  It was a normal part of life.

Not only did they see it, they talked about it, supported each other in it, and had traditions surrounding it.  We have traditions surrounding birth too, but they don't do much to teach women about the actual mechanics and how to cope with birth and labor naturally.  Today when women talk about birth they talk about epidurals and pain and what they were allowed to do.  This can be wonderfully helpful in preparing you for the typical hospital induction birth.  It does not however do much to prepare you if you are planning on birthing naturally.

Women being surrounded by other women who had birthed naturally also creates a very different birth culture.  Being in a weekly class with others in your same situation and with the same goals can re-create that "birth culture" for you today.  Having a teacher who has done what you are planning a few times herself also gives you somebody to ask questions and proof that natural birth is possible, even if you don't know many people who have done it. 

A 1000 years ago women didn't birth in the hospital-

A large part of the classes I teach focuses on preparing women to navigate the hospital system.  The truth is, if you are planning on birth in the hospital and going natural, you need to really know what you are doing.  You need to know how to relax well without medications in a place where they are readily available.   You also need to be aware of the purpose and ways to avoid common interventions, drugs, and procedures in the hospital.
Women didn't have to do this 1000 years ago.  There are huge advantages to hospital birthing- but combining it with a natural approach is often tricky.  Thus the class.

And your partner?  What was he doing a 1000 years ago?

The modern woman almost always wants her husband at the birth with her.  Not only that she wants him to be involved, helpful, loving, and basically fantastic.

I don't know how to say this nice, but....good luck with that if he doesn't know a thing about birth and is scared crapless of the entire idea of something huge coming out of your vagina.

Many women are self motivated enough to learn about birth and study and practice relaxation on their own.  After all, they realize that THEY are the ones who have to give birth.  Women are often very invested in baby and the experience long before it happens.

Men a 1000 years ago were probably not part of the birth process.  But today, women expect them to be there.  If you want him to be helpful, to understand what is normal, to know what a crowning baby looks like, and to know how to do a double hip squeeze, he needs a class.

My classes focus on the partner a LOT.  If I can get dad comfortable, excited, and confident in your ability as a couple to have a natural birth, then I feel much better about the couples ability to do this.  If mom is looking forward to this and knows her stuff, but dad is scared, doesn't know why you sound like a ghost, and just wants you to get an epidural because he wants you to be helped but he doesn't know how to help you, then we have another beast altogether. 

But I am birthing at home-

I know- I still think that a natural birth class can be helpful in preparing a mom to birth at home.  There are two reasons for this.

1)  A good class won't just cover birth- it will cover preparing for a healthy pregnancy and staying low risk.  I have seen more than one home birth mama end up having a baby in the hospital because baby came early because of poor nutrition.  Some things just go wrong and can't be prevented.  But some things CAN be helped with an awesome diet.  You can learn about this on your own, but I notice that people focus more on how they are taking care of themselves when they are asked about it weekly by their friendly birth teacher.

When I ask people to keep track of everything they eat, they really pay more attention than they do just because they read something about the Brewer Diet online.  A class helps keep you accountable while surrounding you with a supportive group of women and men.

2)  Even if you birth at home, you still need to actually LABOR.  Birthing at home might prevent some common interventions, but it doesn't get you out of the work involved in birthing a baby.  I have talked to many a midwife who has home birth mamas who have no coping mechanisms in place for their birth.
Losing control is a natural part of birth- but knowing how to relax and do it well can help keep that to the normal, baby is almost here, minimum.  A mother who is very stressed out, fearful, and unfamiliar with the birth process, can have difficulty with laboring from the very beginning and throughout the entire process.  If you throw in a partner who also is freaking out, you can really change the process in a negative way.

A good birth class doesn't just talk about what happens in a chart- it teaches you how to handle it.
 The truth is that not everyone really needs a class.  I am not going to tell you that I KNOW that you do.  But I do often see people who don't think they needed a class and it turns out they really could have benefited from the knowledge, the confidence, the time to prepare with their partner, the skill it gave their partner, and the nurturing friendships with like minded people.

One of my favorite things to see is how a couple's relationship grows in class.  They learn to rely on one another.  They learn to trust each other more.  They grow together as we discuss relationship issues that arise during the time of pregnancy.

In the end a great childbirth class really just teaches you how to tune in to what you already know how to do innately.  Then, you CAN birth more like women did 1000 years ago- naturally and with faith in your body.  


Beautifully written and I 100% agree.
kaelee said…
The most important preparation for my own Homebirth was my Hypnobirthing class. That's That.
Diana said…
Agree completely. I hear a lot of women say, "I'll just write a birth plan and go to the hospital and hope for the best" - and outcomes are usually what you would expect after that. Or women just blindly trusting their doctors, having absolutely zilch knowledge of their own, and the results are similarly abysmal.

I would apply what you have written also to doulas. If you're birthing in-hospital, you need a doula to help you navigate the hospital system, and to labor without drugs when there are drugs easily available. If you're birthing at home, you need a doula because there are no drugs available.

Good stuff! If every woman would take a decent childbirth class, this country's maternity care could turn around a lot more quickly than it is doing right now.
Anonymous said…
I agree completely. I always remind my students that birth is natural and their bodies know how to do it, but they need classes because, like you said, "when was the last time they saw a birth?" Especially a natural birth.

Forgive me if I introduce a tangent, but I do run across a problem with the idea that old-time births were better than what we have now. We can be guilty of romanticizing birth "in the old times." I know I'm guilty of it.

I've heard about, or read, lots of old documents that talk about the pain and danger of childbirth, and the high rates of maternal and infant death. Birth thousands of years ago was seldom a picture of peaceful beauty.

I wondered why that was so. Why wasn't my romantic picture a true one? I've thought a lot about it, and I think it comes down to culture.

Birthing traditions have always been governed by the society. A society might be one that held women in low esteem, or considered them creatures of temptation and sin. A society might not believe in education for the masses, or prohibit the study of the body or medicine.

Birth in these societies was often traumatic and dangerous. This is true even though only women attended the births. The beliefs permeated the culture.

It's also important to remember that so many past societies (and many current ones) did not have adequate diet, cleanliness, or health care. An undernourished, overworked woman is not a good candidate for a successful natural birth.

Our American society is definitely one that, historically, was detrimental to women. Our pioneer ancestresses often did not have enough to eat, and lived in difficult conditions.

So I'm cautious about waxing eloquent over old-time, natural births with midwives and other women helping.

The answer to this is not to drug the woman senseless and pull the baby out of her, even using the best of modern surgical techniques. The answer is to combine the best of both worlds - our ancient trust in our bodies, and our modern knowledge of diet, and the general care of those bodies.

A common thread in natural birth circles is the celebration of the female body as something good and amazing, even if we don't say it so many words. We can grow a human being, bring it forth, and feed it. It's that belief, and the free acknowledgment of it, that lets us experience a joyful, powerful birth.

But yes, it really helps to have a class that shows how to do this. Because our current birth traditions are as ignorant and dangerous as any old-fashioned puritanical belief.

I'm really sorry for going on so long. I'm working through these ideas for an anthology, and it seemed to fit in with your topic!
Unknown said…
Definitely agree too! The common prevalence of fear was just NON EXISTANT thousands of years ago too! I've had two quite different births, both with their high and low points. One was a natural home birth with immediate transfer to hospital afterwards, the next was a hospital induction with one pessary and waters broken and no other interventions apart from that.

The birth classes I attended were FANTASTIC and really helped me relax with both labours, even the induced one which brought on much worse contractions (and was over 2 years after I completed the set of classes!!) So much so I never even felt the dreaded "transition" period with either!!
Mama Birth said…
I think you are right Marlene- but that is why I talked about 1000 years ago- because that is long enough that I think there may have been a more positive birth culture. We still have birth culture today- and today like 50 or 200 years ago, it is probably mostly surrounded by fear. WE have the benefit of having some wonderful revolutions like medicine and sanitation that make it even safer if we need it-
Anonymous said…
AGREED. My 1st birth I was only prepared with the hospital birth class. Yeah, I didn't hold my baby for 29 hours.

For my 2nd I read The Birth Book 35 times over. Still, I never paid attention to the "you can be in transition and 'only' be 6 centimeters' part. Epi #2.

For my 3rd I got smart and took a class with my husband. Wow. WOW. I am so happy to have finally experienced natural birth! I finally feel like I 'gave birth' instead of just 'had a baby'!

I looked at all the things I would have done differently in the first 2 births... It's hard not to feel regret, so I throw myself into encouraging others to fully educate themselves!
Hannah said…
I agree. I took the hospital's birth class (a few hours long) for my hospital birth and my midwife's birth class (1 day) for my 2nd child (home birth). I learned a lot from both about what to expect about labor as well as what to expect as far as the provider's procedures and ways of doing things.
Elizabeth said…
I enjoyed your post, and now I pose this question to you:

What can a pregnant mamma-to-be do when there are no birth classes available?

I live in an area where the ONLY prenatal classes offered are given by the hospitals. I'm planning a home birth with the closest midwife, who lives 2 hours away. I've searched for an independent childbirth education class and there just aren't any available to me.

I've read Ina May's books and am currently reading Natural Childbirth the Bradley Way. I just bought The Birth Partner for both me and my husband to read. Are there any other books you feel to be must-reads? What else do you recommend?
Mama Birth said…
If you can't find a class- google banned from baby showers- it is a friends blog and she does video classes by mail- and she was my teacher!
Enjoy Birth said…
That is a great post! Another option if a mom doesn't have a local class is the Hypnobabies Home Study course.
mmeblueberry said…
I wish I could afford the Hypnobirthing class, or any class that is being offered in my area, but I just can't.
JanelleH said…
I didn't take any classes for my homebirth, labored mostly within until they were 3 minutes apart and we finally declared I was a having baby and called the midwife, it was only a few more hours after that my son was born. I did have a doula and she helped me to relax my face when I would winch in pain and to not scream but moan while pushing. Other than that I'd say I did a very good job not really knowing relaxation techniques I just gave myself over to any pain, kinda went within myself, I will say many women DO need a class, obviously just by the number of women not being able to handle birth.
Thanks MamaBirth for another intelligently written thought-provoking post. I whole-heartedly agree that giving women the opportunity to attend prenatal classes is a step in the right direction. There is so much fear surrounding childbirth today. I believe holistic classes that give women more confidence, the ability to believe in themselves and knowing the choices they have available, is so important.