Which antenatal class is best for you?

NCT, NHS or hypnotherapy? We explain the different antenatal classes on offer, so you can choose the best one for you and your partner

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NHS antenatal classes

The philosophy: Normally run by a midwife, NHS classes at a hospital can be quite formal, while classes at a clinic are usually less so. They have a straightforward, common sense approach to their subject and will give you a solid lowdown of birth and beyond.

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Where can I take them? Clinic classes are held at a local clinic, health centre or doctors’ surgery and are usually run by a community midwife. Hospital classes will be held at the hospital where you have chosen to have your baby.

What will I be doing? You’ll be taught how to recognise when you’re in labour, abnormal labour, tips about coming in to hospital for a normal birth, caesarean births, assisted births, breathing techniques and relaxation during labour. You’ll also cover babycare basics, from changing nappies and sleeping to bathing your baby. A hospital tour may be included.

Cost: Free.

How long do they last? “Classes can be a one-off workshop, or a course of up to six shorter sessions,” says our midwife Anne Richley. It depends on funding in your area.

Sign me up: Places go quickly, so get your name down as soon as you can. They tend to start at 8-10 weeks before your baby’s due. The times of classes vary and there’ll probably be around 20–30 people per class. You don’t have to bring your partner along, and some classes (breastfeeding, for example) may be women only.

NHS classes are for you if… you’re on a budget and you just want to learn the basics.

But not if… you’d prefer to be in a small, intimate group.

Find out more: Contact your midwife, GP or local hospital.

National Childbirth Trust (NCT) classes

The philosophy: Informal and with an emphasis on learning through discussion. All labour and birth options are explored and women are guided towards making their own decisions.

Where can I take them? They are run by NCT-trained teachers (who aren’t necessarily medically qualified) and may be held at the teacher’s home or in a church hall or community centre in your neighbourhood.

What will I be doing? You can expect to cover topics such as preparation for labour and birth, where you would like to give birth, self-help during labour (such as different positions you can adopt and being massaged by your partner), pain-relief options and any possible interventions you’d like to consider during labour. There will also be guidance on looking after your newborn and possibly a dedicated breastfeeding session.

Cost: courses of six hours or more cost between £10.80 and £18.10 per hour per couple, depending on location. So expect to pay a minimum of £160. However, parents on low income or benefits, students and under-18s receive up to 90 per cent off the price.

How long do they last? The NCT Signature course is normally 16 hours, which may be split over a number of evenings, weekends or both. There is a shorter Essentials course too.

Sign me up: You’ll need to book NCT classes as soon as you can, especially in London and the South East, where the demand is high. On average, women start attending classes around week 30. Classes are generally small – probably a maximum of eight couples, who are all due to give birth within a few weeks of each other.

NCT classes are for you if… you’d like more individual attention and you want to meet other parents-to-be local to you. Most teachers organise a class reunion once everyone has given birth.

But not if… travelling or timing is an issue. There can be a limited choice of times and venues.

Find out more: Call 0870 444 8707 or visit nct.org.uk

Birth hypnotherapy classes

The philosophy:  Teaches self-hypnosis techniques that can help you relax during labour. Advocates believe that when women are calm rather than frightened, it can eliminate the need for chemical pain management.  Lots of women who’ve learnt birth hypnosis say how effective it is in giving them a positive birth experience and helping them feel in control.

Where can I take them? They are most often held in private venues or in the course-leader’s home. Some birth hypnotherapy experts will come to your home for private sessions. A small number of NHS hospitals now offer hypnotherapy classes too.

What will I be doing? “Birth hypnosis classes help you to prepare psychologically for the birth and to manage pain during labour,” says Maggie Howell, founder of Natal Hypnotherapy (natal hypnotherapy.co.uk). “You’ll learn simple self-hypnosis, relaxation and breathing techniques and focus on how to use natural birthing instincts and positive thinking to encourage a calmer birth.” They also teach you and your partner massage techniques which stimulate endorphins, your body’s natural pain-killer. Some classes teach visualisation exercises and your partner is encouraged to take an active role in the birth by helping you visualise and by talking you through the relaxation techniques. Positioning, how to deal with slowed down labour and techniques for massaging your perineum to reduce the risk of tearing can also feature.

Cost: Expect to pay between £100 and £500 for a course, including materials (eg. CDs) which you get to take home. One-to-one courses are significantly more expensive. NHS courses carry a charge but tend to be less than a private course.

How long do they last? Two to four days, which may be split over weekends, day or evening sessions.

Sign me up: You can start learning hypnosis at any time as it can be practised during pregnancy – and is more effective the more practice you get. Ideally you should take classes no later than 32 weeks and it’s best to start in the second trimester.

Birth hypnotherapy classes are for you if… you are feeling anxious or frightened about labour and are open to meditation techniques and mindfulness. Or if you’ve had a bad experience with a previous birth and want to try something different.

But not if… you want to learn about pain-relief options or have already decided on an epidural. Nor do they cover how to look after your newborn. Ideally, your partner should be on board with learning and supporting this birthing method, too.

Find out more:  A quick search on the internet will list umpteen courses. Look for those which are accredited to large organisations such as ‘Hypnobirthing – the Mongan Method’ or the ‘Hypnotherapy Association’.

Active birth classes

The philosophy:  Teaches active positions for labour, with the understanding that a supported upright position is the best way to give birth. The idea is that your body instinctively knows how to give birth and can learn to work with the power of labour instead of being fearful of it. 

Where can I take them? At the Active Birth Centre in London. There are a small number of trained teachers around the UK too.

What will I be doing? You will be learning and practising key positions, as well as the physiology of labour. Yoga helps with this, so some courses include it. “Classes also tell you what to expect from birth and teach you skills, such as breathing and relaxation techniques, to help you manage labour with your own resources,” says Janet Balaskas, founder of Active Birth.

Cost: An Active Birth weekend course is £190 per person (so £380 for a couple). You can also add on a hypnotherapy weekend course and/or regular pregnancy yoga classes. Private sessions with Janet are £95 an hour per person or £110 per couple. Other teachers may charge differently.

How long do they last? Generally two days, but private classes may only need four hours.

Sign me up: There are a limited number of courses and places on these, so get booked in as soon as you can. You should take the classes in your sixth, seventh or eighth month of pregnancy.

Active birth classes are for you if… you have been able to enjoy an active pregnancy, without limitations to your movement, and are seeking ways to feel more in control during labour.

But not if… you want to learn about babycare and breastfeeding. These classes only cover up to one hour after the baby is born.

Find out more: activebirthcentre.com

Natural birth classes

The philosophy:  Focuses on alternative pain management techniques with the aim of eliminating the need for drugs and the negative effects they can have on you and your baby.

Where can I take them? Classes can be held in hospitals, birth centres or at your home.

What will I be doing? Expect to learn about alternative pain management techniques including hydrotherapy (the use of water), massage, relaxation, breathing exercises, vocalisation, visualisation, and water-birth techniques. Other approaches include movement and different positions (eg. using a birthing ball), hot and cold therapy (eg.  using hot compresses), perineal massage, and receiving one-on-one labour support like that provided by a midwife or doula. Your partner will be encouraged to attend, to learn how to support you.

Cost: Varies, depending on course you pick.

How long do they last? These techniques are taught as a course not a class, but the amount of hours and days will vary depending on which practitioner you pick.

Sign me up: Natural childbirth classes are mostly listed as birth hypnotherapy classes, the Lamaze Technique or Bradley Method. They usually start between 20 and 30 weeks into your pregnancy.

Natural birth classes are for you if… you’re keen on having your baby without the use of any pain-relieving medication.

But not if… you’ve already got a c-section planned or no amount of classes will convince you that labour can be ‘naturally’ pain-free.

Find out more: Take a look at yournaturalbirth.co.uk or lamaze.org

Independent midwife

The philosophy: One-on-one antenatal education by an independent midwife, tailored to suit your needs and budget. Often part of a full package care with a private midwife, who you hire to care for throughout your pregnancy, during birth and even in the early days of parenthood.

Where can I take them? As you are hiring the midwife, these classes will be at a time and place to suit you.

What will I be doing? Depending on your needs and budget, your midwife can cover all the essentials right through to preparing a birth plan, hypnobirthing techniques and breastfeeding support. Some people will take a standard course offered by their chosen midwife, others may opt for coaching in a certain area.

Cost: Varies. For example, Midwife Care (midwifecare.co.uk) has a six-hour, one-on-one class from £325, or specific sessions for £70 per hour.  Neighbourhood Midwives (neighbourhoodmidwives.org.uk) has a deluxe care package with 24/7 access to a midwife throughout pregnancy and for six weeks afterwards, plus tests, private scans and alternative therapies costing £6,250.

How long do they last? Again, this is down to your preference.

Sign me up: From as early as the first trimester if you’re going for a full package, although antenatal classes usually take place after 32 weeks.

An independent midwife is for you if… you want personal, one-on-one care and to develop a relationship with the midwife you will deliver your baby.

But not if… you are concerned about money.

Find out more: Have a look online to find out what independent midwives operate in your area or contact imuk.org.uk

Breastfeeding classes

One of the first things you may do in the moments after you give birth is feed your baby. Many mums want to feel prepared, to try and get feeding off to a good start. It’s impossible to master breastfeeding without a bit of practice but a class should help you understand the basics and the right techniques. Find out more here

Aquanatal classes

These are water-based based exercise classes especially designed for pregnant women in their second and third trimesters. They aim to help you keep gently fit without damaging any joints or ligaments. Read more here

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