When you are pregnant with your first baby, you usually have more questions than answers. You start to hear terms that you may have never heard before, words like episiotomy (avoid one if at all possible) and doula (get one if at all possible).

Somewhere along the way, someone will also probably ask you if you've written a birth plan. And you will probably wonder how you're supposed to write a birth plan when you have no idea what to expect or what a birth plan really is anyway.

What Is a Birth Plan?

A birth plan is exactly what the name implies: a plan for your child's birth. There are lots of options in childbirth today, and routine practices vary widely depending upon what kind of health care provider you choose and whether you decide to deliver your baby in a hospital, a birth center, or at home.

When you create a birth plan, you think about the various birthing options available to you and then write down your preferences. A birth plan can give everyone who will be present for your birth a good idea of what your ideal experience would be, and what kinds of procedures you are hoping to avoid. It can be as long or as short as you like, and often includes information about some of the following aspects of labor and delivery:

  • Spontaneous start of labor vs. induction
  • Intermittent vs. continuous fetal monitoring
  • Whether or not you will be allowed to eat and/or drink
  • Pain relief options
  • Pushing positions
  • Feelings about episiotomy
  • Whether you will be breastfeeding or formula feeding
  • Baby care decisions such as delayed cord clamping and circumcision

If you are interested in writing a birth plan of your own, it is often helpful to look at sample birth plans in order to get an idea of the type of information that you want to include. You can find an interactive birth plan at Childbirth.org, or if you're hoping for a natural birth there are several sample birth plans at Birthing Naturally.

Do You Need A Birth Plan?

Opinions on this subject vary widely, even among doctors, midwives, and childbirth educators.

Some childbirth educators believe that a birth plan is an important tool in communicating your needs and getting the birth you want, while others feel that a piece of paper won't make much of a difference in the outcome of your birth. And while some hospitals and care providers welcome birth plans, others dislike any requests that deviate from standard labor and delivery procedures.

In fact, it's a common joke among obstetricians and labor and delivery nurses that the longer a woman's birth plan, the less likely she is to have the birth experience she's hoping for. Sadly, women who write birth plans are sometimes considered high-maintenance and labeled as "difficult" patients.

Even mothers themselves make jokes about birth plans. According to mother and popular humor blogger Jenny Lawson:

"Making a plan for the birth of a child is like making a plan for decorating your Christmas tree in the middle of a house fire. Until you're actually in the heat of battle, you have no idea whether you're going to want drugs or whether you'll have to have a c-section or whether you'll be stuck in traffic and the baby will be delivered by a cab driver who will burn off the umbilical cord with his cigar."

Lela Davidson also mocked her own birth plan on her blog, After the Bubbly:

The Birth Plan consists of detailed instructions for how your baby will enter this world. It is formulated in the comfort of your living room while you and your doula sip tea and admire each other's pedicures. The actual birth takes place in a greenish room where instead of chamomile, you would accept heroin from a street dealer should one conveniently appear.

Preparation Is More Important Than a Plan

All jokes aside, birth plans can actually be valuable. Writing a plan can be a great way to start thinking about the kind of labor and delivery you would like to have. In some circumstances, a written summary of your desires really can help to ensure that you have a positive birth experience. But the simple fact is that you can never plan all the details of your birth, and a birth plan isn't some sort of magic bullet that will ensure that you get exactly what you want.

In fact, if you have strong feelings about the kind of birth you want, a birth plan alone just isn't enough. Personally, I've given birth twice, once in a hospital with an obstetrician, and once at home with a midwife. My birth experiences were very different, but they both went very much as I had hoped. And they also had one other thing in common: I didn't have a birth plan.

Just because I never wrote a birth plan, though, doesn't mean that I didn't prepare for my births. I took childbirth education classes and read books and researched the birthing options available to me in my community. I learned how birth works, and about the advantages and disadvantages of various interventions. By the time I went into labor, I was thoroughly prepared. I knew what kind of birth I wanted, and what kind of birth I wanted to avoid.

I didn't have my birth preferences written down on paper, but I knew what they were. I was prepared to advocate for my choices on behalf of myself and my baby, and I was also prepared to accept that, depending on the circumstances, those choices might have to change.

How to Prepare for Your Birth

Don't waste your time worrying about whether or not writing a birth plan is the "right" thing to do. If it feels right for you, then go for it. If you don't think it will help, then skip it. But even if you choose not to write a birth plan, it's still a good idea to prepare yourself for birth.

Consider touring different hospitals and birth centers, and interviewing different doctors and midwives to make sure you've found a good fit. Read books about childbirth, network in your community, and talk to other mothers who have already had babies. And if you're looking for even more information on how to prepare for birth, the following are some of my favorite websites.