Antenatal classes and preparation for birth
Antenatal classes help many women prepare for birth and parenthood, especially in their first pregnancy. Midwives have details of free NHS classes in each area. The National Childbirth Trust's (NCT) network of trained antenatal teachers also provides classes; a fee is charged for these, which can be reduced in some circumstances. Some exercise and sports centre classes are aimed at pregnant women, including swimming and yoga, which may also cover breathing and positions for labour; many people we talked to had enjoyed these (See 'Resources' for further information).
An important benefit of attending classes was obtaining information about birth and making decisions about care. It was also very useful to get to know other new parents locally. One mother found her pre-natal yoga classes useful for this. She also went to NCT classes, but felt embarrassed there because she wanted an epidural while everyone else seemed to want home births and water births.
She enjoyed both NHS and NCT antenatal classes. The NCT in particular gave her information to...
Yes, my husband and I decided that we would do the standard antenatal classes that, provided by the local auth-, local health board, and then we also opted to do classes with the NCT, National Childbirth Trust, because we just felt that there were only, I think there were only four classes provided by the health board and it didn't seem very many, really, in terms of, you know, finding out about something completely new, and the NCT sort of series of classes was slightly, slightly longer. So we did the two in parallel and it was quite good actually. There was some repetition but it, it did mean that we felt quite well briefed on all sorts of things. And I think the NCT one was slightly more independent in terms of giving you the information if you needed to challenge anything that the health professionals might, might want to sort of steer you towards, giving you a bit more independent information to help you make up your mind.
What, what sort of things were they sort of equipping you to challenge if they were to arise?
Things like, well, it was basically what questions to ask if you were being pushed down a certain route perhaps for intervention during the pregnancy, or during the labour in particular. So, in terms of aspects of pain relief or the position that you were being asked to, to take for delivery, aspects to do with drugs you might be offered or, you know, the vitamin K injection that you're offered after the baby's born, that sort of thing. There were various, the various sort of interventions and just knowing the right questions to ask, or if there's a sudden, you know, emergency what are the sort of options that you have, so that you would be calm in that situation rather than being sort of slightly flustered and not quite knowing what to, what to ask.
Yoga classes were useful for meeting people. She felt embarrassed in NCT classes to be the only...
So we only did a couple of weeks. And again, that was very much to meet people. I wasn't so down the green route of having a water birth and all of that. I, I felt a bit embarrassed when I went to the first class and they asked you what your, you know, what you thought you might like at birth and everyone's saying a water birth and a home birth, and I said, 'I'd like an epidural.' And they looked at me like, "What are you doing here?" [laughs] So. And we went on the hospital tour, but we didn't go to - because we were doing NCT we didn't go to the classes at the hospital, but actually as it turned out we probably should have done. Because they would have been over earlier, and we'd have learnt more before the big day.
So you missed like all the classes about breathing and birth positions and stuff? Did you get any of that in the yoga class?
Yes, we did. We got breathing in the yoga classes, and that was, you know, of great use.
However, another woman attending both NHS and NCT classes was the only person in her groups planning a home birth. She liked the way her NCT classes focused on emotional as well as physical aspects of birth. Several people valued having time to think through their feelings and to focus on the baby.
NHS classes were very practical and NCT more about emotions. She was the only person in her...
Yes, I had gone to two different antenatal classes, one which was conducted by the NHS local practice, and another which was run by the NCT, National Childbirth Trust. And again they were quite different, the, the approaches were very different. I would say the NHS class was very fact-based and it was very useful in its way, but it, it was not really encouraging us to approach labour and birth as, as an emotional thing, only as a physical thing, as a physical procedure to go through. But it, but the information that it provided was excellent. And the National Childbirth Trust classes, I think, were a bit more holistic in their approach, because they helped you to consider not just the physical practicalities of the labour but also life after the birth of the baby, and also encouraging support among the different people who were attending the class, and that was really good.
Were there other people in either of your classes that were planning a home birth or were you the only one?
We were the only people planning a home birth in either of our classes, so we stuck out like sore thumbs. But it was good, it was good because it gave us an opportunity to, to discuss the reasons why we were having, deciding to have a home birth, and just to encourage other people to think about it a little bit more.
Other women were more interested in factual, practical information. The midwife who ran one mother's classes talked about life with a small baby, as well as the birth itself. Some people would have liked more on parenthood in their classes.
Antenatal classes provided an opportunity to chat to other parents. She was more interested in...
And did they start talking to you at that stage about birth plans, and did they encourage you to..?
Yeah, I think that was towards the end of the classes we got, got on to that, which was kind of the bit that we were all interested in, you know, and how was this baby actually going to get out?
What had they been talking to you up till then?
I can't remember, all sorts of, you know, how you were feeling and sort of more emotional stuff, I suppose. But actually you just want the nitty-gritty, you know [laughs]. Which was, so the more the classes went on it sort of got more interesting, I think.
Right. And did they talk about what happens after the birth as well?
Did that mean anything to you at the time?
Well yeah, I can't remember it all now, but we had like these, we were split into groups and she gave us little exercises to do. And then we'd have discussions, and she'd write down how every, sort of how people thought they'd, how the baby would change their lives. And, and she'd do things like diagrams showing how much, how much your day was broken down in sort of, at the moment into work and your leisure time and everything, and then when the baby came along how much time you'd be actually, have to yourself, which was like this miniscule slice on a pie chart and the rest was sort of baby time. So you know, those things were quite interesting I suppose.
She really enjoys being pregnant and seeing her body change shape.
It worried me because I'd always been reasonably slim and looked after my appearance. And I think the, at the beginning, you know, sort of you get to 3 to 4 months and you don't, you don't feel pregnant, well, I didn't feel pregnant at all. And I just felt that I looked like I'd put on loads of weight, you know, there wasn't a specific tummy shape or anything like that and nobody really knew I was pregnant. And I think that hit home a little bit. And I was finding it really hard to do my jeans up and I was like, 'Oh, no' which sounds silly but, you know, it was just, but the more I've progressed and the, you know, obviously the, the more shapely I've got as far as my bump is concerned, I've just loved it, absolutely loved it. And now I just, I just love being in maternity clothes and I, I just really enjoy being pregnant. So, yes, so it hasn't really bothered me at all.
Some antenatal teachers invite past members of the class to come back with their babies and share their experiences, and people found it interesting to hear real birth stories and what life has been like since.
Convenient access to classes is important. The time of day when classes are run can be a problem, for example when they are held on a particular evening over several weeks. As an alternative to this, in some areas a whole day course is offered. This fits with some people's work schedules better, and a few people said they felt too tired in the evenings.
Evening antenatal classes would be tiring for her and difficult for her partner. They will go to...
Money to pay for non-NHS classes is also a consideration for people on low incomes. One woman had to miss NCT classes because her wheelchair would not fit in the teacher's house.
She could not attend NCT antenatal classes because her wheelchair did not fit in the teacher's...
So you have lots of mornings where you can go and talk to people in the same position as you then, yeah I've got a couple of friends who had babies at the same time so we meet, occasionally, but as far as having a, a culture of young mothers, then that didn't happen.
So did the NCT make any efforts to try and get round that or was it just a no?
That was largely a no, really.
Mmm. So nobody said, 'Well, we could come and hold the class at your house' or anything like that?
No, no that would have been a good idea, no [laughs].
Although most people felt glad they had gone to classes, some people had found them boring or a waste of time, and some decided not to go at all. Some thought they would not learn much at classes, and some were embarrassed by the idea of practising breathing and birth positions in public.
Antenatal classes were not very useful. She found some of the activities a bit strange.
I did, yes.
What were those like, tell me about those?
They were okay. They didn't really tell me anything I didn't know already. I mean it was nothing that you couldn't read out of a book or, or anything like that. I wouldn't suggest to anybody to go to them, to be honest.
Right, so what was going on at the classes, can you describe it to me?
There was a lot of, it was mostly like trying, for you to make friends with other couples with babies, basically. That was, that seemed to be the main aim, as far as I could tell. And lots of sort of group activities and silly games and, and things like that.
What kind of group activities?
Just like communication activities and I mean, obviously, the theme was, was pregnancy and giving birth, and lots of word association games and [laughing] things like that. It was quite strange.
What was the point of that?
I don't, [laughing] it was like pregnant, words about pregnancy and I don't know, it was quite a strange thing.
Did they explain why?
Oh yeah, they did, they did. It was - oh God, like she had a thing with missing words and you had to put the words in where you thought they should be, you know, and obviously about, about pregnancy and, and oh God, really, I can't really remember [laughing].
What, so to see if you knew'
what that meant?
Yeah, and what the words were and, you know, it was, I suppose it was fairly, fairly interesting but, like I say, I wouldn't, you know, suggest it to anybody else to go, to be honest. Even if, on a first pregnancy.
Single parents sometimes also felt awkward if they had no partner to go with. One single parent preferred to rely on her mother's experience and advice, and another preferred the support organised by her local Sure Start programme, which meant she was with people who were in the same situation as her.
She found antenatal classes embarrassing, especially as she did not have a partner to go with.
I went to some, some birth preparation classes with my first pregnancy. But with my second I knew I was going to have an elective caesarean anyway so I didn't bother with that one, no.
The first time round did you find the classes helpful?
I didn't find the classes helpful for the birth prep. because I found them embarrassing, actually. I don't, [sigh] when I was actually in labour I'd forgotten all of it. I'd forgotten when to breathe in, when to breathe out, I was just sort screaming blue murder, just in so much pain, so I didn't really remember any of it. I didn't find them particularly helpful.
Are you able to say what was embarrassing about them?
The funny, it was a bit embarrassing because of all the funny positions you've got to get in and also, I suppose it made me feel a bit awkward that everybody was there with their partners. Everybody had taken their husbands along and there's me, my mother, my sister [laughing] and I, I think it drew a lot of attention, yet again, to the fact that I was single and young. Seeing all these couples here and then there's, you know, me with my, my sister and my Mum that it just sort of drew attention to me, I felt.
Were people sort of awkward or unpleasant with you about that or was it more a feeling that you had?
People weren't awkward with me, it was more a feeling that I had. It was more, it was more me worrying about what they were thinking inside. I don't worry about what people think of me any more because I, I do my best for my children and I've learned that's all you can do and you make the best of your situation. But I did used to worry a lot about what people thought of me because, obviously, when I fell pregnant with my first daughter I wasn't going to be in that situation. I was engaged to be married and, and everything was planned out perfectly. And to be in this situation I was in, it, it took a bit of getting used to. And it wasn't until I was in this situation that I accepted, actually, that I'm no different being a Mum than anybody else; I try my best and, hopefully, it will be good enough.
She would have felt embarrassed at antenatal classes, and preferred the support organised by her...
Yeah, they suggested it and they give me leaflets. But I didn't want to go.
I don't know, I just felt a bit embarrassed.
Were you uncomfortable because it was going to be all probably married couples?
Probably. I thought about it, but then it wasn't that that'd like embarrass me. It's when they tell you to like kind of pretend and go through all your breathing, breathing and things. I think that's what made me embarrassed a bit, just thinking about it. So I didn't want to go. But the midwife, the SureStart midwife, she took us round the hospital and showed us like the delivery wards, and told us about all different deliveries you could have and pain relief and things. So that was helpful, knowing what it was like in the hospital, and knowing that there was somebody going to be there all the time, even during the night. So I was glad that somebody was going to be there.
Tell me more about the SureStart and how they help you or helped you?
They've got like loads of groups on that you can go to. There's like the Teen group, and Bumps and Beyond, and they sort out the Maybe group. They've got loads of learning classes where you go to learn about things in pregnancy and afterwards. They have like the Fathers' group as well.
Did you like it when you were going?
Yeah, I liked it at the Maybe group because it was people that I knew that was the same, in the same situation and things. And in Bumps and Beyond that was kind of the same, like there was still people my age going, there was people who's older going. So that was a good help, like listening to other people's pregnancies. And it's kind of learning a bit of what yours is going to be like - well, you're not quite sure what it's going to be like.
Some of the learning disabled mothers we talked to, were not told about classes, or were told when they were close to their due dates (see Learning disability and pregnancy). Being with people you can feel comfortable with is important in choosing an antenatal class. Sometimes this might mean trying to find a class with people who have similar physical or social needs, for example classes for people expecting twins, or for those who know their baby has a health problem - although these may not be available locally. But some people just wanted to be with other pregnant women and not be singled out as different. A woman who knew her baby was likely to die shortly after birth noticed that no-one asked her if she wanted to go to antenatal classes, but she found a yoga class helpful. (See also 'Pregnancy with another condition or disability' and 'When something is wrong with the baby').
Even though she knew her baby Oscar might not live, she went to antenatal yoga classes for his...
I still went to pre-natal yoga and stuff, and I was doing all my pregnancy exercises and things.
So did the people at the yoga class know [that the baby might not live]?
Was that hard going to classes?
Well, in a way I had avoided being around other pregnant women because I thought it would be hard, but actually it was nice. But it was, I went for Oscar, really. I thought I would be nice for him. I think I was, I was trying to make his life with me nice, because it wouldn't be that long.
She would have found it easier to attend women-only antenatal classes with other women from an...
I don't know [laughs]. I don't know, to be honest, but it's, it's a personal preference, being Asian, being pregnant as well. But it's like the [specialist antenatal project] classes, I would have felt more comfortable with people who know about the background as well - because our whole background, the way we view pregnancy, the way we cope, the family circumstances, everything with - the Asian community knows certain, the problems and everything surrounding pregnant Asian women, rather than if you go to a white class that they won't actually be able to kind of understand a certain way, you know?
On the other hand, another Muslim mother went to regular NHS classes with her husband. Although on occasion they felt uncomfortable, they were glad they went.
She and her husband enjoyed NHS antenatal classes, although at times they felt uncomfortable. A...
I think what was helpful, they would tell you each week what, what subject they're going to cover, and I think if you didn't find it useful, then you ring and say that you don't want to come in or you won't be able to come in. That was useful. And in general I thought it was fine, we had a laugh, you know, and it's, you know, we were well catered for with teas, coffees, drinks, biscuits. And we had, everyone seemed to get on well and the midwives who were doing it had a brilliant sense of humour, so that sort of helped along with things as well. And they would test the partners [laughs] on, on the baby stuff as well, to see how much they know. And the best bit was when they got all the men together and they had to put in order of what happens when a, a woman starts her contractions and they had to put it all together. We couldn't do it because we'd been told that we read magazines so we would probably know already. And they had, they got it, and they got it the wrong way around then that was quite, it was quite good fun. I think my husband enjoyed those classes as well because he learnt quite a bit. But we both were quite, a bit, “Ooh, don't know whether to go or not.” But I did learn, and I am glad that I went.
What was the thing that you were worried about whether or not to go?
I don't know, actually. I thought that this is like, that - oh, you sit there and then they're, your breathing, they tell you how to breathe - you know, all those things that you see off the TV? And it's nothing like that whatsoever. In fact we didn't get big floor cushions. We got hard chairs to sit on [laughs] so it was none of that.
It was all like information.
Right. Why wouldn't you have liked to do like breathing exercises?
I think - well, I didn't find them useful anyway. So it didn't really help me in any sense. I, I don't know. It's just not my sort of thing. I'd rather have hands-on information that's going to be useful, rather than relaxing techniques I can sort of do by myself, I think.
How did you feel about the fact that it was mixed, you know, that you had men and women there? Obviously, your husband was there, but how did you feel about having other men there as well?
I found it embarrassing, when they were talking about the birth and then they were showing you - can I say the word vagina? Yeah, and they're showing, and they're showing things like models of that. I found that quite embarrassing, actually, I think, and so did my husband at first, but once that bit was over and done with and we got the actual information, then we were okay with that. Because I think we sort of, we both thought if it were going to carry on like that we might not keep, might not go…
…because we just found it embarrassing and uncomfortable really.
But then that bit was out the way, and they were doing the nitty-gritty and explaining the things, that, we were okay with that.
Would you have preferred a women-only class or did you, did you want it to be so that your husband could come as well?
I think it would have been nice to have just a women's only as well, for choice, as well. And then you can sit, and then just talk to other women about your experiences, as well. I'm sure there prob
Last reviewed May 2017.
Last updated May 2017.