Though most births last 24 hours or less, that day will likely be packed with so many experiences -- physical and emotional -- that you need a six-week course to cover them. Here's what you'll learn.
The Biology of Labor and Birth
If high school bio made you nauseous, hang on to your seat. Your instructor will cover labor and birth from start (it's thought that the fetus sends a chemical message to the mother's brain, which gets the process going) to the delivery of the placenta (a one-and-a-half pound organ that looks so big, you won't believe that it and a baby could fit in your body).
In detail, your instructor will describe the thinning and opening of the cervix, the three stages of labor, and delivery, including what you'll feel, when, and why. For example, very early labor contractions can be so mild and so infrequent, you may feel like you're having mild menstrual cramps every 45 minutes. Your teacher will also detail how the baby descends from the pelvis to the birth canal, and the different ways babies present themselves at birth; some come out headfirst, facedown; others come out faceup.
Though it may seem like some of this falls into the too-much-information category, "it makes you feel like you're more a part of the labor instead of an outsider looking in," says Theresa Rudder, a childbirth educator at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. And knowing what's going on in your body will help you feel more confident and in control.
During this portion of class, you may be shown a video of an actual birth -- not a PG-13-rated version, either. Not surprisingly, some people choose to use this time to take a bathroom break.
How much will labor hurt? It's probably the biggest question on the mind of the first-time mom. To answer it, childbirth classes go over everything modern medicine has to offer -- epidurals, analgesics, narcotics -- and discuss the pros and cons of each pain-relief method. Epidurals, for instance, are very effective at blocking pain, but they can make it tougher to push out the baby. Your hospital class may also cover alternative pain-relief methods, such as breathing techniques, visualization, or massage. (In general, the more medically focused the hospital, the less you'll learn about nondrug pain-relief methods.)
A class that emphasizes natural methods will run down different laboring positions that can help relieve pain and make labor progress, such as sitting on a birthing ball or in a warm bath.
Unfortunately, not every labor is completely uneventful, so your instructor will go through the most common labor and delivery issues, along with their resolutions. If your labor stops progressing, for example, your doctor may have to give you a drug called Pitocin, which can cause intense uterine contractions.
And if your baby is having trouble fitting through your vaginal opening, doctors may have to cut it, a procedure called an episiotomy. Your instructor will also talk about c-sections: the events leading up to one, such as fetal distress, and what happens if you have to have one. It all sounds scary, but most of these procedures are routine, and your teacher should be able to answer any questions or concerns you may have about them.