When I was pregnant with my first baby, I pulled out all the stops. Even though I was planning a natural birth at home, I still took the hospital birth classes available in my area. I also went on to take two independent childbirth ed courses, but I wanted to get all the information available to me. I also wanted to do a compare and contrast for myself because long before I was pregnant, I started working on my natural birth education certification course.
It has long been understood that positive birth outcomes are strongly correlated with the attendance of a natural birth course. Midwives and birth workers often recommend their clients take a birth preparedness course, and for good reason.
My experiences at the hospital birth class I took were pretty uncomfortable. As I was taken with three other pregnant women to where the classes would take place, we were pointed first and foremost to the room where the c-sections take place. It wasn't too positive and natural-birth-friendly from there out either.
I went on to take two other classes with my partner when I was pregnant, (in a subsequent pregnancy, I also enrolled in one more), and they were major upgrades. I learned a lot in these classes, but not so much in the way of emotional support and mind-body techniques that I personally valued. I knew even then how much the mind and emotions effect the experience.
And let me tell you, if you talley your mental game up to being meaningless, I urge you to rethink this. Scientific correlations between the mind and the immune system (as well as the mind and the endocrine system) have been examined for years. What's going on within can definitely influence the birth experience. There was little fear support in the birth classes I took, (beyond one of the class taking maybe 20 minutes to go around the group and have each couple share their biggest fears).
The nutritional components were basic. We got a good idea about how to reach protein and iron goals , and this is super important, but I was already having these conversations with my midwife. In a class where all the women wanted natural birth, I hoped for more in the area of herbs and alternative health information for pain management, comfort measures and postpartum care...
All the while, I took notes. I supplemented and filled in what I felt I was missing on my own time. I explored shadow work, meditation, Emotional Release Techniques and more, and I applied them during my pregnancy with good results. I have found that attitude and emotions were a huge part of birth outcomes, as they are a huge part of life outcomes, yet they were basically missing from any birth preparedness program that I took. Later, I went on to become a doula, and I created my own natural birth curriculum based on my experiences and the knowledge gained in my own research.
If you want to learn more about my birth program, check out this video.
In the meantime, here are some very good reasons why you may want to consider an independent childbirth ed course:
Hospital Courses Teach You How to Be A Good Patient
Rule-following tends to be emphasized over birth-preparedness and information. Hospitals often use their courses to indoctrinate patients on their rules and policies. For instance, the topic of water birth is rarely covered because many hospitals (in my area anyway) don't want you to actually have a water birth. They will allow you to labor in their tubs, but expect that you will get out during pushing. Anyone who has had a baby will let you know how fun making those kinds of physical transitions can be. You won't learn about positions for water birth. Also, pushing is often coached in the hospital, so they will likely teach you Valsalva pushing techniques in your birth classes rather than discuss birthing down or breathing for second stage.
Bottom line, if you want high-quality, unbiased, natural birth oriented classes, take an independent birth class.
Independent Birth Educators Are Enthusiastic and Driven
When it comes down to it, I'd much rather take a course from someone who specializes in birth education. At the hospital, classes are often taught by nurses and often the job is passed around each session from one nurse to another. For this reason, they may lack the enthusiasm that most independent birth educators have. Independent natural birth educators have been taught pedagogy, so it's more common to find that their courses apply various teaching techniques to allow for a more diversified learning environment. Some even focus on strategies to engage birth partners as well.
They are more likely to be teachers by nature, like me (I taught middle school for several years prior to teaching natural birth classes). They often come to the position honestly, having given birth themselves (or being birth workers) and knowing what they (or their clients) needed and enjoyed learning about the most, or being deeply inspired by birth and their own birth experiences.
You also get what you pay for. Since independent classes usually aren't free (remember, this is someone's business), there is reason for instructors to invest more in their work and be professional.
If you're nervous, you're more likely to look to your nurses and doctor as the authority of your birth experience. In hospital birth classes, you are usually not taught that you are in charge, but instead taught that you can do what is "allowed" and what your doctor is comfortable with and this is communicated in basic semantics and language (and sometimes not very well at all!) Often this means you will labor in an uncomfortable position, like on your back. The scare tactics often start in the childbirth ed class with an emphasis on scary stories and even worse birth videos that rarely show natural birth, and even more rarely show partner supported, undirected, spontaneous and empowered birth (i.e. you'll get a lot less upright, natural, active birth examples). In my birth class, the birth videos that are shared are empowering and all natural, and I even have guest appearances of women who have given birth naturally who share their stories.
Here's an example of what I mean: The doctor who taught the hospital class I attended very much disliked it when I asked him about birthing in the hospital tub. He made it very clear to me that "babies die in the water." An absurd comment, especially after having seen some pretty awesome water birth videos, having attended a conference on water birth and having read some opposing research on the topic. Nonetheless, it showed me how intolerant, judgmental, biased, not to mention and wrong, physicians can be regarding alternatives to what they learned or are comfortable with.
The Hospital Has Little Invested in Teaching Natural Pain Management
Why? Because they have drugs. I mean this with all due respect to anyone who chooses to use drugs to assist their birth experience: There is zero wrong with this. I totally support your choice and however you choose to birth, but this is a huge consideration when choosing a childbirth ed class.
When it comes to pain relief, the hospital can pull out the big guns. A natural childbirth instructor is invested in teaching natural birth skills. For that matter, the hospitals answer to getting labor moving (and for inducing it altogether) often includes drugs as well. However, if you are interested in pain management or labor enhancement or induction methods that are drug-free, you'll want to consider other options: Plan to work with an acupuncturist and/or massage therapist, definitely get a doula and/or take an independent childbirth ed course.
My checklist for natural childbirth would be an important resource to checkout as well. The focus of a hospital birth course will go beyond natural pain management techniques, there will be other priorities to focus on as well. In fact, if you intend to birth at the hospital, even certain comfort positions may not be fully supported. I once attended a birth in a hospital for a friend whose water broke at the onset of labor before contractions began. It was her first baby and she went to the hospital immediately, as directed by her doctor. The nurses refused to let her walk around or try different positions to stimulate labor! By the time I arrived, she had been laboring for an entire day, laying on the hospital bed hoping something would just happen.
Learning about your hospitals policies and tolerance for natural birth prior to your labor would also be a good idea. Have a talk with your doctor or midwife about the natural options you are interested in and be sure you also talk to others who have labored with them and had positive natural birth outcomes to confirm your birth priorities will be respected. I offer an excellent guide in my birth class that helps women establish their boundaries, wants and needs in a way that gets things clear and concise with them so that they are less likely to encounter obstacles. This exercise goes way beyond birth planning.
If you intend to have your partner support you through your birth experience, it is especially important for you to take an independent class. Independent classes invest way more in partner support skills. My class offers your partner both physical skills as well as emotional support skills. We go through a few rounds of common birth scenarios so you can discuss what your responses will be, together. A partner that understands birth, is not afraid of birth, knows how to support birth, is going to feel more responsible for supporting the laboring mother, especially when they know they cannot rely on drugs to "do their job!" It also ensures that the birthing couple will be much more likely to have had conversations about their birth often prior to the big day. In my birth class, I offer specific "Partner Connection" pieces aimed at building this bond and meeting this goal.
You don't have to take my natural birth course, but please do yourself a favor and be sure to take an independent natural birth course from someone if you intend to have a natural birth experience.