Antenatal classes aim to prepare you for the arrival of your baby, covering what to expect in pregnancy and birth, as well as some basic parenting skills to help you in the first few weeks.

Refresher classes too

It is a good idea to start thinking early in your pregnancy about whether you would like to attend a course, as popular classes can get booked up.

Your local hospital and often your GP surgery will run free antenatal classes (or parentcraft classes, as they are sometimes called), led by specially trained midwives.

The hospital ones can be very useful if you are planning a hospital birth, as they give you the opportunity to ask questions to midwives who work there, as well as to other obstetric staff who may help to run the classes. By the time you arrive at the hospital’s maternity unit to give birth, you will probably feel much more relaxed about the labour ward and your delivery and may even recognise a few faces.

Private, independent classes, such as active birth classes and National Childbirth Trust (NCT) courses, have different, very specific philosophies. They will not necessarily be run by midwives, but could be led by teachers that are trained in a particular approach to labour and birth and who will have had a child themselves. There is also a wealth of antenatal advice available on the internet and even classes are offered online.

All classes get booked up a long way ahead, especially private ones where the groups tend to be smaller. Start researching what is available in your area in your first trimester and aim to sign up by the start of your second. You will discover which one will suit you best by finding out for yourself what they offer and also by talking to people who have attended the various classes.

Your decision should be based not only on your own personality and budget (independent ones charge a fee), but also on the type of birth you are planning and other practical aspects, such as when and where the classes are held.

Whichever option you choose, you should check that the classes cover the following:

  • specific exercises to do in the lead-up to the birth to help with your flexibility and strength during labour
  • the physiology of labour (what happens to your body during the birthing process)
  • the different breathing techniques to help you during the various stages of labour
  • pain control options
  • Caesarean sections (more than lip service should be paid to this method of delivery, as it accounts for 25–30 per cent of births)
  • induction procedures
  • water births
  • assisted deliveries
  • caring for your baby immediately after the birth (including information on how to breastfeed, bath and change your baby)
  • You should also ask:
  • Is there is any particular emphasis in the course?
  • Who are the teachers (midwives or lay people)?
  • What are the various start dates and times?
  • Do partners attend your classes or do they run a specific one-off session for partners (this can be very useful if your partner can’t attend the regular classes with you)?
  • Generally, a course lasts for six to eight weeks, so it is best to start it around the 30th week of pregnancy, which should give you time to complete it before giving birth. Remember that you are legally allowed to have time off from work to attend antenatal classes (although many are run in the evenings).However, it is better to book one that is near to where you live rather than to where you work, so that you can meet women who are local to you and who are due to give birth at around the same time. That way, it will be easier to stay in touch during your maternity leave and, because you have something in common, this network of women will be invaluable for providing support in those (sometimes difficult) weeks and months after the birth and beyond: antenatal classes are well known for being the start of many life-long friendships, not only for mothers-to-be, but for the fathers, too.Finally, even if this is not your first pregnancy, I still would advise you to sign up for classes. Refresher courses are very helpful for reminding you about the various breathing techniques and what happens during labour. It may also be that the hospital you are giving birth in is not the same as the one where you had your previous children. Even if it is, the facilities and labour ward may have changed since you were last there. Refresher courses are often shorter than those for first-time mothers, but they will give you the confidence to go into labour fully prepared and in a relaxed state of mind.This is an edited extract from One Born Every Minute: Expecting a Baby? by Dr Penelope Law (Quadrille, £25).Text © 2013 Dr Penelope Law