In early pregnancy,
you're probably thinking of baby names and shopping for baby clothes. The reality
of labor and birth may seem far off — but now's the time to start planning for
your baby by creating a birth plan that details your wishes.
What's a Birth Plan?
The term birth plan can be misleading — it's less an exact plan
than a list of preferences. In fact, the goal of a birth plan isn't for you and
your partner to decide exactly how the birth of your child will happen — labor
involves so many variables, you can't predict exactly what will happen. A birth plan
does, though, help you to realize what's most important to you in the birth of your
While completing a birth plan, you'll be learning about, exploring, and understanding
your labor and birthing options well before the birth of your child. This can also
improve your communication with the people who'll be helping during your delivery.
A birth plan isn't a binding agreement — it's just a guideline. Your doctor
or health care provider may know, from having seen you throughout the pregnancy, what
you do and don't want. But, if you go into labor when there's an on-call doctor who
you don't know well, a well thought-out birth plan can help you communicate your goals
and wishes to the people helping you with the labor and delivery.
What Questions Does a Birth Plan Answer?
A birth plan usually covers three major areas:
1. What are your wishes during a normal labor and delivery?
These range from how you hope to handle pain relief to fetal monitoring. Think
about the environment in which you want to have your baby, who you want to have there,
and what birthing positions you plan to use.
2. How are you hoping for your baby to be treated immediately after and for the
first few days after birth?
Do you want the baby's cord to be cut by your partner? If possible, do you want
your baby placed on your stomach immediately after birth? Do you want to feed
the baby immediately? Will you breastfeed
or bottle feed? Would you like the baby to sleep
next to you or in the nursery (if the hospital has one)?
Hospitals have widely varying policies for the care of newborns — you'll
want to know what these are and how they match what you're looking for.
3. What do you want to happen in the case of unexpected events?
No one wants to think about something going wrong. But if it does, it's better
to have thought about your options in advance. Since some women need cesarean
sections (C-sections), your birth plan should probably cover your wishes in the
event that your labor takes an unexpected turn. You might also want to think about
other possible complications, such as premature
Things to Consider
Before you make decisions about each of your birthing options, you'll want to talk
with your health care provider and tour the hospital
or birthing center where you plan to have your baby.
You may find that your obstetrician, nurse-midwife, or
the facility where they admit patients already has birth-plan forms that you can fill
out. If so, use the form as a guideline for asking questions about how women in their
care are routinely treated. If their responses are not what you're hoping for, you
might want to look for a health provider or facility that better matches your goals.
And it's important to be flexible — if you know one aspect of your birthing
plan won't be met, be sure to weigh that against your other wishes. If your options
are limited because of medical needs, insurance, cost, or geography, focus on one
or two areas that are really important to you. In the areas where your thinking doesn't
agree with that of your doctor or nurse-midwife, ask why he or she usually does things
a certain way and listen to the answers before you make up your mind. There may be
important reasons why a doctor believes some birth options are better than others.
Finally, find out if there are things about your pregnancy that might prevent certain
choices. For example, if your pregnancy is considered high-risk because of your age,
health, or problems during pregnancy (current or previous), your health care provider
may advise against some of your birthing wishes. You'll want to discuss, and consider,
this information when thinking about your options.
What Are Your Birthing Options?
In creating your plan, you're likely to have choices in the following areas:
Where to have the baby. Most women give birth in the hospital.
However, most are no longer confined to a cold, sterile maternity ward. Find out if
your hospital practices family-centered care. This usually means the patient rooms
will have a door, furnishings, a private bathroom, and enough space to accommodate
Additionally, many hospitals now offer birthing rooms that allow a woman to stay
in the same bed for labor, delivery, and sometimes, postpartum care (care after the
birth). These rooms are fully equipped for uncomplicated deliveries. They're often
attractive and have gentle lighting.
But some women believe that the most comfortable environment is their own home.
Advocates of home birth believe that labor and delivery can and should happen at home,
but they also stress that a certified nurse-midwife or doctor should attend the birth.
An important thing to remember about home birth is that if something goes wrong,
you don't have the amenities and technology of a hospital. It can take a while to
get to the hospital, and during a complicated birth those minutes can be invaluable.
For women with low-risk pregnancies who want something in between the hospital
and home, birthing centers are another option. These provide a more homey, relaxed
environment with some of the medical amenities of a hospital. Some birthing centers
are associated with hospitals and can transfer patients if necessary. It's a good
idea to find out what happens in case of a complication: How would you get to the
hospital? How long would the transfer take?
Who will assist at the birth. Most women choose an obstetrician
(OB/GYN), a specialist who's trained to handle pregnancies (including those with complications),
labor, and delivery. If your pregnancy is considered high-risk, you may be referred
to an obstetrician who subspecializes in maternal-fetal medicine. These doctors have
specialized training to care for pregnant women with medical conditions or complications,
as well as their fetuses.
Another medical choice is a family practitioner who has had training and has maintained
expertise in managing non-high-risk pregnancies and deliveries. In some areas of the
United States, especially rural areas where obstetricians are less available, family
practitioners handle most of the deliveries. As your family doctor, a family practitioner
can continue to treat both you and your baby after birth.
And doctors aren't the only health care providers a pregnant woman can choose to
deliver her baby. You might decide that you want your delivery to be performed by
a certified nurse-midwife, a health professional who's medically trained and licensed
to handle low-risk births and whose philosophy emphasizes educating expectant parents
about the natural aspects of childbirth.
More women are choosing to have a doula, or birth assistant, present in addition
to the medical personnel. A doula is someone who's trained in childbirth and provides
support to the mother. The doula can meet with the mother before the birth and
can help communicate her wishes to the medical staff, should it be necessary.
Your birth plan can also indicate who else you'd like to have with you before,
during, and immediately after the birth. In a routine birth, this may be your partner,
your other children, a friend, or other family member. You also can make it clear
at what points you want no one to be there but your partner.
More Birthing Options
Atmosphere during labor and delivery. Many hospitals and birthing
centers let women make some choices about the atmosphere in which they give birth.
Do you want music and low lighting? How about the freedom to walk around during labor?
If possible, would you like to eat or drink during labor? You might be able to request
things that may make you the most comfortable.
Procedures during labor. Hospitals used to perform the same procedures
on all women in labor, but many now show increased flexibility in how they handle
their patients. Some examples include:
enemas. Used to clean out the bowels, enemas used to be routine
when women were admitted. Now, you may choose to give yourself an enema or to skip
induction of labor. At times, labor may need to be induced or
sped up for medical reasons. But sometimes, practitioners will give women the option
of getting some help to move things along, or giving labor a little more time to progress
on its own.
shaving the pubic area. Once routine, shaving is no longer done
unless a woman requests it.
Other procedures that you can include in your birth plan are preferences about
fetal monitoring, extra birthing equipment you'd like in the room, and how often you
have internal exams during labor.
Pain management. This is important for most women and is something
you have a lot of control over. It's also something you'll want to discuss carefully
with your health care provider. Some women change their minds about pain
relief during labor only to discover that they're too far along in their labor
to use some methods, such as an epidural.
Also ask about other forms of pain relief, including massage, relaxation, breathing,
and bathing. Know your options and make your wishes known to your care provider.
Position during delivery. You can try a variety of positions
during labor, including the classic semi-recline with the feet in stirrups that you've
seen in the movies. Other choices include lying on your side, squatting, standing,
or simply using whatever stance feels right at the time.
Episiotomies. When necessary, doctors do episiotomies (when the
perineum — the area of skin between the vagina and the anus — is partially
cut to ease the delivery). You may have one if you risk tearing or in the case of
a medical emergency. But if there is an option, you can discuss your preference with
Assisted birth. If the baby becomes stuck in the birth canal,
an assisted birth (i.e., using forceps or vacuum extraction) may be necessary.
Cesarean section (C-section). If you need to have a C-section,
you'll have to consider a few things. Do you want your partner to be present, if possible?
What about viewing the birth — do you want to see the baby coming out?
After the birth. Decisions to be made about the time immediately
after birth include:
Would your partner like to cut the umbilical cord?
Does your partner want to hold the baby when the baby emerges?
Do you want immediate contact with the baby, or would you like the baby to be
cleaned off first?
How would you like to handle the delivery of the placenta? Would you like to keep
Do you want to feed the baby right away?
Communicating Your Wishes
Give your health care provider your reasons for creating a birth plan —
not because you don't trust him or her, but to help ensure cooperation and to cover
the possibilities if something should go wrong. If your caregiver seems offended or
is resistant to the idea of a birth plan, you might want to reconsider whether this
is the right caregiver for you.
Also, think about the language of your plan. You can use many online resources
to create one or you can make one yourself.
Here are some tips:
Make your birth plan read like a list of requests or best-case scenarios, not
like a set of demands. Phrases such as "I would prefer" and "if medically necessary"
will help your health care provider and caregivers know that you understand that they
might have to change the plan.
Think about the other personnel who'll be using it — hospital staffers might
feel more comfortable if you call it your "birth preferences" rather than your "birth
plan," which could seem as though you're trying to tell them how to do their jobs.
Try to be positive ("we hope to") as opposed to negative ("under no circumstances").
When you've made your birth plan, schedule a time to go over it with your doctor
or nurse-midwife. Find out and discuss where you agree or disagree. During your pregnancy,
review the birth plan with your partner periodically.
Try to keep the plan as simple as possible and put your wishes in order of importance.
Focusing on your priorities will help ensure that the most important of your wishes
Make copies of the plan: one for you, one for your chart, one for your doctor or
nurse-midwife, and one for your birthing coach or partner. And bring extra copies
in your labor bag, in case your doctor is not on call when your baby is born.
You can't control everything that happens during your baby's birth. But you do
play a role in the decisions made about your body and your baby. A well thought-out
birth plan can help you to do that.