Behind the headlines: Do natural childbirth classes work?

Relaxation and breathing classes do not ease the pain of childbirth, according to media reports.

Women taught 'natural' birthing techniques have similar levels of stress during labour and are as likely to request epidurals as those receiving standard care, research suggests.

researchers found that classes did not reduce the need for epidural analgesia

What is the research?
A team from the Karolinka Institute in Sweden randomised 1,087 first-time mothers and their partners into 'natural' or standard antenatal classes. In the 'natural' classes, couples were taught 'psycho-prophylaxis', a combination of relaxation, massage and breathing techniques.

The standard antenatal classes provided information on childbirth and parenthood but did not include any form of psycho-prophylaxis.

The epidural rate was 52 per cent in both groups and participants reported no significant difference in the stress of labour or adjustment to parenthood.

What do the researchers say?
Malin Bergstrom and colleagues at the Karolinka Institute commented: 'Our conclusion is that natural childbirth preparation with psycho-prophylaxis does not reduce the need for epidural analgesia or improve the birth experience.

'Furthermore, we conclude that inclusion of parenthood preparation has no effect on parental stress in mothers and fathers in early parenthood.'

What do other researchers say?
Belinda Phipps, chief executive of the National Childbirth Trust, pointed out that the study did not look at the value of antenatal education as a whole.

'A more useful study would be to look at the impact of antenatal education and improvements in service delivery together and separately to be able to disentangle the effect of education and the way services are delivered,' she said.

In the UK, parents often received limited or no antenatal preparation, she added. Antenatal classes can provide peer group support and assistance navigating NHS services.

Informing patients

  • Natural relaxation and breathing techniques may not reduce the pain of labour.
  • Antenatal classes providing assistance in navigating health services can benefit couples.
  • Many couples in the UK receive little or no antenatal preparation.

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