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You wouldn’t dream of running a marathon without training first. Such an intense athletic event requires mental, physical and emotional preparation. The same is true for childbirth: Knowing what can happen during labor and delivery—and your options for pain relief—can alleviate your fears and boost your confidence. “Knowledge is power,” says Sheri Bayles, R.N., a certified Lamaze instructor who taught childbirth classes at New York-Presbyterian Hospital in New York City for more than 20 years.
Your first step should be to sign up for a childbirth education course. Many women skip these because they’re planning to use pain medication or have watched TV shows about birth. But childbirth education classes are worthwhile, even if you do anticipate using medication. “What if you can’t get an epidural—or it doesn’t take?” says Maureen Corry, executive director of Childbirth Connection, an advocacy group in New York. “Having strategies for coping with labor pain is very important.” (Unintended natural childbirth is more common than you might expect.)
A class can also open your mind to possibilities you may not have considered. “Many women can deliver without drugs if they’re prepared,” says Laura Riley, M.D., medical director of labor and delivery at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and author of 2006’s You & Your Baby: Pregnancy. Other reasons to sign up: An educator can teach your partner how to be supportive during labor and delivery—and answer any questions you forgot to ask your doctor.
Perhaps most importantly, “the instructor can help you sort out all the other information you’ve received,” says Judith Lothian, R.N., Ph.D., a Lamaze instructor in Brooklyn, N.Y., and associate editor of the Journal of Perinatal Education.
Choose a childbirth class
The childbirth approach that will work best for you is the one that most closely resembles your lifestyle, says Lisa Gould Rubin, a childbirth educator and doula and co-author of 2005’s The Birth That’s Right for You. “How do you relax?” she says. “Are you physically active? Do you meditate? If you’ve never sat still and looked inward, it could be a challenge to learn how to do that.” Also, consider the instructor’s philosophy about childbirth. There’s no right or wrong way to have a baby, so choose someone who will support you no matter what kind of birth you want. Here’s a rundown of the most common approaches:
Lamaze Best known for its unique breathing techniques for coping with labor (think “hee hee”), Lamaze is now emphasizing “normal birth,” in which labor begins on its own, there are no routine medical interventions such as an episiotomy, and a woman can move freely during labor and push spontaneously during delivery. Lamaze.org
Bradley Natural childbirth is the goal (87 percent of Bradley-trained couples give birth without drugs), and a woman’s partner plays a big role. Bradleybirth.com
Birthing From Within This approach involves preparing the body, mind and spirit for labor and delivery through self-hypnosis, visualization and meditation. Birthingfromwithin.com
HypnoBirthing You learn how to achieve deep relaxation to manage labor pain. Hypnobirthing.com
Hospital classes Instructors—often labor and delivery nurses—typically discuss the stages and signs of labor, coping strategies (often Lamaze breathing as well as medication) and hospital procedures. There may also be a tour.