Birth plans are a hot topic these days. Some people think that you can't have a baby without one, while others insist that encouraging women to plan an event as unpredictable as birth will automatically set them up for disappointment.

Personally, I think a birth plan is a valuable tool that can help expectant mothers to explore their feelings about birth and determine their individual goals and priorities. But, I also think that if you have strong feelings about the kind of birth you want, you'll need a lot more than just a piece of paper to help you meet your goals.

I'm not suggesting that birth plans are unnecessary, or that there aren't situations where they really can make a difference. But if you're about to give birth, there are three things that I believe you need a lot more than you need a birth plan.

What Do Pregnant Women Need More Than A Birth Plan?

1. Childbirth Education

If you don't know your options, you don't really have any. And there are very few first-time expectant parents today who know much about childbirth. As a consumer, you have to educate yourself in order to ensure that you receive the care you deserve.

Start by reading a book like The Birth Book or The Thinking Woman's Guide To A Better Birth, or by watching a movie like Ricki Lake's The Business of Being Born. And I highly recommend childbirth education classes, particularly those taught by independent instructors who are not affiliated with a doctor or hospital.

Birth is unpredictable, and childbirth education can help you to be prepared for the unexpected. If you understand how labor progresses, and are knowledgeable about the risks and benefits of various interventions and the different types of pain management, you will be better prepared to make informed decisions. You will also be better able to cope if your actual birth experience deviates from the birth plan you've prepared.

2. Support

Once you're in active labor, it can be difficult to think clearly or make any kind of decision. Proponents of birth plans argue that this is why it so important to have your desires written down. But, instead of relying on a piece of paper, doesn't it make more sense to have a real, live person who will support you and advocate on your behalf?

Before your birth, talk with your husband or partner about the kind of experience you hope to have. If you don't share the same expectations, it might be time to find another support person. Or you could consider hiring a doula to join you at your birth.

A doula is an experienced birth professional who is skilled at providing non-medical support to a laboring woman and her partner. Most doulas are excellent at facilitating communication between doctors and patients, and the presence of an extra support person can help to alleviate some of the pressure and anxiety that your husband or partner may feel. Because of these benefits, many women find that hiring a doula can be far more helpful than writing a birth plan when it comes to achieving the birth experience they want.

3. The Right Birth Attendant

You can write the best, most detailed birth plan in the world, but if your doctor or midwife won't read it or doesn't support your goals, a birth plan won't get you very far. When you are interviewing potential doctors or midwives, ask them about their philosophy of birth, and make sure that it matches your own. If you are hoping for a natural birth, an obstetrician with a high c-section rate might not be your best choice. Conversely, if you think you might want an epidural, it probably isn't wise to plan a home birth with a midwife.

If you find yourself with a care provider who won't support your birth plan or doesn't share your birth philosophy, find a new provider. It's almost never too late to switch to a new birth attendant; see the Parenting Squad article Prenatal Care and Doctor Wars: Standing Up For Yourself And Your Child to read about one mom's experience switching doctors at 38 weeks.

Giving birth is one of the hardest things you'll ever do, and you don't want to be fighting for your choices or second-guessing the motives of your doctor or midwife while you're in active labor. Choosing the right birth attendant is one of the best things you can do to ensure a positive birth experience.

How have you prepared for birth? Did you write a birth plan? Take childbirth education classes? Hire a doula? What do you think expectant parents need to do in order to prepare for a positive birth experience?

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