There's a wealth of information to help you maintain a healthy pregnancy, but the act of childbirth itself can seem a bit mysterious to many first-time moms-to-be — even if you've read up on all the details.
That's where childbirth education classes come in. Also called birthing classes, taking one (or even a few) gives you hands-on practice and knowledge about the entire birth process. In turn, knowing what to expect from that first contraction to that final push will go a long way toward reducing your anxiety and preparing you for the incredible journey you're about to go through.
What you’ll learn in a birthing class Depending on the type of childbirth classes you take, you’ll get answers to all of your questions from an experienced instructor. You can learn the following:
Techniques to relax, breathe and distract yourself (or do all three simultaneously) to get some relief
Various labor positions that can help your baby line up with your pelvis, speed your labor and relieve pain
Pain relief options, including how and when to request them
The stages of a normal labor and delivery
Possible delivery complications and how they might be handled
Other medical interventions that may be used, such as a C-section or induction
Birth planning and assistance, including birth plans and information about where you can give birth (like hospital births versus delivering in a birthing center or at home)
Hands-on instruction in alternative approaches to pain relief, including breathing and relaxation techniques
Basics to care for your newborn baby, including your baby’s anatomy and physiology, postpartum care and breastfeeding
Other benefits of childbirth classes In addition to hands-on learning opportunities, benefits include:
The opportunity to bond with other expectant couples
A chance for your partner to join in — and a way to connect with your birthing partner or labor coach
Addressing your fears
Sharing your concerns with other parents-to-be and the instructor
Confidence that can may help you to have a more satisfying childbirth experience
A chance to explore the facility where you plan to give birth
How to choose a birthing class Hospitals, private instructors and practitioners (through their offices) all offer courses. You can choose from several different types of classes, each with its own philosophy and teaching method. One thing they all have in common: They give pregnant people and their partners the tools and information that will make the birthing experience as positive as possible. Here are a few things to consider when choosing a class:
The general philosophy. Make sure the class is compatible with your visions of an ideal birth. You may also want to ask if the class is taught by a private instructor and the instructor’s views on birth to determine if they coincide with those of your doctor. Additionally, it’s helpful to know if the class is affiliated with a hospital.
Whether the class is in-person or online. Many childbirth classes relocated online during the COVID-19 pandemic — and now you can take classes virtually plus browse supplemental material and videos from home. Bonus: A few of these childbirth classes are even free. If you’re taking an in-person class, find out if it’s hands-on, interactive instruction as well as what the maximum class size is.
The curriculum. A good course includes a discussion of C-sections and both natural ways to reduce or cope with pain (like massage, acupressure, aromatherapy or using a birthing ball) as well as medicated pain-relief options (such as epidurals). It should deal with both the psychological and emotional as well as the technical aspects of childbirth.
How the class is taught. Are films of births shown? Will you hear from parents who have recently delivered? Will there be ample opportunity for questions? Are techniques practiced in class?
The size of the class. Many moms-to-be find that five or six couples to a class is ideal; more than 10 to 12 may feel too large. Not only can a teacher give more time and individual attention to couples in an intimate group — particularly important during the breathing and relaxation portions of the session — but the camaraderie in a small group tends to be stronger.
The techniques. Consider which childbirth techniques the class teaches (more on that below).
Postpartum information. Depending on your needs, you may also want to take a class (or sign up for another class) that covers breastfeeding, infant CPR and infant first aid.
Childbirth education techniques Nurses, nurse-midwives or other certified professionals may teach childbirth education classes. Approaches may vary from class to class, even among those trained in the same program. There are variations and hybrids of the following techniques, but here are the most common approaches: Lamaze Pioneered in the 1950s, Lamaze emphasizes relaxation and rhythmic breathing along with the continuous support of a coach to help the laboring mother achieve a state of “active concentration.” The goal is to enable moms to get through childbirth without pain medication using certain labor positions and birthing tools (like birthing balls) with a minimum of medical intervention, although information about pain-control meds and other standard interventions is included in the curriculum. The Bradley Method The original “partner-coached” education program, the Bradley Method teaches deep abdominal breathing and other relaxation techniques that focus the laboring mom’s attention inward to her body rather than a “focal point” outside the body, as in Lamaze. The Bradley Method also teaches mom’s birth partner to act like a “coach” during labor, guiding her through the pain. The course is also designed to help moms accept pain as a natural part of the birthing process; the vast majority of Bradley graduates don’t use pain medication during delivery. The Alexander Technique When it comes to labor and delivery, the Alexander technique, which is often used by actors to get the body and mind working in sync, focuses on countering the natural tendency to tense the whole body during contractions. It emphasizes coping with pain by exerting conscious control over posture and movement. Students learn how to sit and squat comfortably to release the pelvic floor and work with gravity as the baby descends through the birth canal. HypnoBirthing Also known as the Mongan Method, HypnoBirthing provides self-hypnosis techniques that help laboring moms achieve a highly relaxed state. The goal is to reduce discomfort, pain and anxiety during childbirth as well as during other stressful situations well beyond the birth of the baby.
How to find a birthing class Not sure where to find a class that’s right for you? Seek out classes in your area by asking for recommendations from your doctor, local hospital, birthing center, La Leche League chapter or health insurance company. You can also choose an online childbirth class, though one drawback is that you’ll miss out on the hands-on help you’ll get in an in-person class. Women who’ve recently had babies are also a great resource, as they now have a realistic perspective on how well the classes they took prepared them for the actual experience. When to take a birthing class There are “early bird” classes, taken in the first or second trimester, which cover nutrition, exercise, fetal development and sex. Other classes start in the third trimester, which tend to focus on labor, delivery and postpartum mother and baby care. The bottom line is any time before you go into labor is a good time to take a childbirth education class, but most experts say that the best time to take childbirth classes is around month 6 or 7 of your pregnancy. Keep in mind that the sooner you register, the more flexibility you’ll have in terms of class dates and times. Should second-time parents take a birthing class? Even if it’s not your first pregnancy, you may want to consider taking a class. Every labor and delivery is different, so even seasoned pros can benefit from a refresher course. Aside from that, you may learn about new childbirth options that weren’t available during your previous birthing experience. Keep in mind, too, that “refresher” courses are available online and in most areas. Just remember that no matter how well prepared you are, giving birth can be full of surprises, so try to get ready to roll with whatever comes your way.
From the What to Expect editorial team and Heidi Murkoff, author of What to Expect When You're Expecting. What to Expect follows strict reporting guidelines and uses only credible sources, such as peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions and highly respected health organizations. Learn how we keep our content accurate and up-to-date by reading our medical review and editorial policy.