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New mothers deserve something better than NCT classes

3 October 2015

8:00 AM

3 October 2015

8:00 AM

When I was pregnant, nearly everyone who’d had children asked me and my husband whether we’d booked our antenatal course with the National Childbirth Trust. Men tended to ask with a gleam of sadistic glee in their eye, and the question was almost always followed by a hurried disclaimer: ‘Ignore most of what they say, but it’s worth it for the friends.’ It seemed like an expensive and boring way to make friends: the courses are usually 17 hours long and they cost several hundred pounds. The NCT offers heavily discounted rates to people who can’t afford it, but for most of its pupils, the full fee is an accepted cost of having your first baby. Each course is different — it depends on the teacher — but it’s safe to assume you’ll be encouraged to give birth without any medical interventions, and then to breastfeed like mad.

The thing is, though, neither of those things is really up to you. Promoting them would be fine if the audience weren’t so vulnerable, but mothers are on a hair trigger to feel guilty — that’s why anyone who recommended that we go to NCT also recommended that we pay no attention to most of what we’d hear there. It’s not that the NCT gives false information or that the teachers aren’t well trained, it’s just that the emphasis is skewed towards the earth-mother way.

The type of people who are attracted to the job are often a little deluded about childbirth. As a senior obstetrician puts it, ‘If you want a very good discussion about politics, you can go to your local Communist party headquarters where they’ll be very well-informed, but they’ll be coming at politics from a particular angle. It’s the same with the NCT and natural childbirth.’ He says his patients have often been warned against epidurals, caesarean sections and induced labour, but not told that the drawbacks of these procedures are often outweighed by the advantages.


Let’s face it: all the ways of getting a baby out of a human are pretty awful. A totally straightforward birth sounds like it might be one of the least bad, but infant mortality has dropped because of medical interventions.‘We were told that everything should be very natural and wholesome and easy,’ says Becca Scott, a doctor who did the NCT course. ‘The role of the father would be to stand up for the wishes of the mother in not wanting any interventions.’ It might be comforting to write a birth plan, but it’s worth remembering that it’s also optimistic. A quarter of babies in Britain are delivered by caesarean and one in eight needs forceps or a ventouse. The last thing you want as you recover from an assisted birth is a wave of unnecessary guilt.

It’s the same with breastfeeding. NCT teachers can be a little gung-ho about ‘the latch’, the connection between a baby’s mouth and mother’s breast, but trying to learn how to breastfeed your baby before it’s born is a bit of a mug’s game anyway. Even if the child is a natural latcher, you really need someone to show you. ‘I was told that the baby comes out, crawls up the mother and latches on,’ says Dr Scott. ‘When that didn’t happen I felt like a failure and went completely mental.’ For four months she didn’t get more than an hour’s sleep at a time. ‘The NCT breastfeeding counsellors were very supportive of that,’ she says. ‘The message was always “Keep at it, it’ll be fine”.’ In fact, painful and difficult breastfeeding is so linked to postnatal depression that a lot of doctors advise women to stop after a few days if it’s not going well.

In London, the NCT’s benign propaganda has prompted some women to set up rival antenatal courses. Lulubaby, the Bump Class and others stay up-to-date with medical opinion by inviting midwives, doctors and other professionals to give classes. These days so much information is available online that if you’re going to pay for antenatal classes, you want some serious expertise in the room. You also want to know what to do with the baby once you get it — something that NCT teachers don’t always cover in detail. It’s worth having a bit of a grounding in nipple shields and birthing balls, but labour, birth and breastfeeding are really up to the baby. Knowing about which rashes to worry about, what colour a baby’s poo should be and how to put your baby in its cot are much more useful.

These other courses avoid some of the worst oversharing of the NCT by only inviting men to some of the classes. I was heartily relieved there were no men present at the Lulubaby class I went to that focused on the pelvic floor. In this time of intense communication, some subjects are still better consigned to dark hints. A male friend described an NCT class where the teacher drew the outline of a woman and each person had to go up and draw something that had changed during pregnancy. One woman scribbled furiously in the pelvic region and explained that her pubic hair was growing more luxuriantly than before. No one could really look at her after that.

At another class, men and women were asked to pick their favourite nipple from a collection of photographs. It seems strange to tap into such a rich vein of potential insecurity and marital strife, but perhaps it helped with something. Other husbands I know have sat awkwardly through hours of breastfeeding lessons, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible while the women ask about how to deal with engorged breasts and nipple thrush. Pregnancy and birth mean coming to terms with quite a lot of unwelcome anatomical detail, but there’s a lot to be said for drawing a veil over most of it.

Antenatal classes are useful and though the NHS provides lessons for free, it’s pretty patchy and the provision is getting worse. The NCT is a worthwhile and kindly organisation and there’s huge variation in the courses it provides, but some of its teachers need to remember that you’re a tiny bit mad after having a baby, so even the gentlest propaganda has an alarming effect.

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Show comments
  • sir_graphus

    NCT classes make a lot of fuss about birth, rightly, but having stood in the delivery suite, I thought, these classes don’t matter, there’s a midwife here, and if anything goes wrong, an army of doctors will arrive.

    Then the baby was born, we were discharged, and we realised we knew nothing, and no-one had thought to include anything about actually caring for a baby in the classes.

  • Oh my god who would be a mother? Sounds like torture. And the children will never be grateful: they won’t know or care. It really IS a mug’s game. I opted out age 9.

  • Phoebebeebee bee

    what an awful, miserable article. My NCT class wasn’t like that at ALL. It was very strongly focussed on support for both partners, postnatal mental health and making your own decisions. My teacher challenged parental guilt all the time.

  • Debbie Slater

    So you attended Lulubaby classes. Did you actually attend NCT classes? If not, your comments would be appear to be based on other people’s opinion rather than any first-hand experience. I’m not sure that is good journalistic practice to present hearsay as fact.

  • Michelle Eshkeri

    What an ill-informed load of drivel. Ask all my clients about my classes and they will rip your assessment to shreds.

  • clare rudd

    What an interesting article. Although all NCT classes differ, my NCT classes are nothing like the kind you describe. As a teacher I talk about ALL kinds of birth and ALL kinds of parenting options. I want parents to be fully informed on the pros and cons of all kinds of birth – and would be very interested to hear how the drawbacks can outweigh the benfits in some of the procedures the article describes. We talk about Breastfeeding, but because the World Health Organisation prevents any organisation from promoting Formula Feeding for babies under six months, we are not able to promote it as an option. Would you prefer we didn’t mention natural birth and opted straight for the “lay down on the bed like a good girl and do as you are told” option for birth? Whilst many medical procedures are there to save the lives of babies and women too, some are actually the cause of complications during birth and those working outside of the NHS remit are able to talk about them with much more autonomy than those working for the NHS. If the NCT is approaching birth from a particular angle, is not the NHS also approaching birth from another particular angle? it’s interesting that all of the people quoted are doctors. Doesn’t it make a doctors (and midwives) life much easier if the woman lays on the bed and is monitored and the machine collects all of the information needed than if she wants to move around and the midwife has to make an effort to listen in to a baby’s heartbeat and monitor contractions? I’m not sure everyone would agree that “all of the ways of getting a human out are pretty awful” – that’s not the feedback I get from some of my class attendees. “The type of people attracted to the job are often deluded about childbirth” – well what a sweeping statement! – I’m very happy to tell you my birth stories which inolved plenty of pain relief and didn’t involve dolphins, hypnosis or eating my own placenta. I am in no way deluded about childbirth but I do know the things that might make birth a little bit easier for women and sometimes those are not the things that women want to hear, or things that they felt they had no control over. It sounds as if the author feels that her NCT classes were to blame for her birth experience, or that they didn’t tell her of some of the things that can happen to women during birth. If they had, most women would not have taken that on board anyway. Often you only hear tyhe bits you want to hear and you deny the rest. Like others running antenatal classes (whether NCT or not) I have very close links with midwives and other Healthcare Professionals and so stay very up-to-date. There are so many sweeping statements in this article that I sincerely hope others don’t read this and think that this is what NCT classes are really like

  • E Smith

    What a disappointing read, frankly as biased as an article I read in the Daily Mail several weeks ago about fathers on maternity wards. A quote from an obstetrician, and (worryingly) a Dr Who knew so little of Childbirth and breastfeeding that she seemingly expected everything to go swimmingly?? And only sought advice/ help from one source – is this likely? Where are the quotes from NCT practitioners, or indeed practitioners from alternative classes about why they set up? The author seemingly has no knowledge of the NCT’s history or its emphasis on evidence-based practice, or indeed the fact that much of the excellent maternity care and freedom of maternity choice available in this country is due to the NCT’s hard work. This could be a really panicking read for new parents, but hey, you’ve had some clicks! Poorly written and a bad choice on the editors part.

  • Liz Earle

    With a large organisation like the NCT you will get the good with the bad – its gonna happen. You cant pick your teacher, perhaps a way for the NCT to move forward from the bad publicity would be to list teachers their experience, allow parents to rate the classes and book with a teacher of your choice. That would weed out the bad from the good. Meanwhile parents should look into local alternatives, there are some great ones about all offreing different types of classes. And PS your BIRTH is WAYYYYYYYYYYYYYY more important than learning about baby poo, it will impact on you and your baby’s physical and mental health for life. Something Doctors DO play down ie only 1 in 6 women have a normal birth with the NHS whereas with a independent, case load or commisioned based MW this rises to 4.5 in 6. Women centered care is everything, policy based care should be thrown out. http://www.partnersinpregnancy.co.uk

    • Sarah Johnson Hypnobirthdoula

      How would the rating work? How would parents know that those who had given ratings had the same priorities and values as them? Interesting idea.

      • Liz Earle

        Im not sure – perhaps something similar to ebay/amazon or just comments rather than an actual rating? I realise that NCT do collate some feedback but this is not done for all teachers, all participants nor is it published, nor does it allow for teachers to shine. The NCT are having a bad time of it with publicity so it seems that with clearer published unedited reviewing this may help sort the wheat from the chaff and stop people commenting who have not even attended classes. This wont happen though so don’t hold you breath!

        • Sarah Johnson Hypnobirthdoula

          All NCT clients are already invited to fill in an online survey and practitioners are contacted if there is a complaint. Practitioners also hand out feedback forms. We take feedback very seriously. Having said that, the feedback is overwhelmingly positive. Sometimes when people have a bad experience they need someone to blame – and the antenatal teacher is an easy target.

          • Liz Earle

            True but not all participants are contacted, feedback forms that are filled in during class are always positive and none of the results are published. Im thinking more of a rated people / free index type thing where it is open and transparent. Taking this further it would be great if FEDANT did something for their money and set this up for registered ANE – not just NCT, with self sign ups for those that are not registered. It would seriously help the whole sector, and in turn help to market and regulate the independent sector. ANE is far to important to play around with and you never know it may help women who think they can google it realise exactly how important this stuff is! In fact i might look into doing this myself

          • Michelle Eshkeri

            Liz Earle, I agree with your suggestion – get FEDANT to provide teacher rating/feedback.

          • Michelle Eshkeri

            Liz Earle, I agree with your suggestion – get FEDANT to provide teacher rating/feedback.

          • Sarah Johnson

            Why do you say not all participants are contacted? I thought they were automatically sent an email asking them to fill in an online survey. The NCT has a whole team analysing the responses. I have just had a meeting with their team leader last week and she says they get thousands of comments to analyse. And as we all know, online comments can be very abusive and personal.

          • Sarah Johnson

            FEDANT doing something? Ooh look, flying pig!

  • Sarah Johnson Hypnobirthdoula

    An article about NCT antenatal courses which appears to be by someone who has never attended one, nor even spoken to an NCT practitioner about how they work, what the training is…absolute drivel

  • Fay Annear

    What was the point of this? Another article having a go at the NCT by someone who doesn’t appear to have been to an NCT course or know anything about the practitioners.

  • Sean Grainger

    Birth rate in Africa is five times that of UK without any misguided self-righteous middle class advice.

    • Sarah Johnson Hypnobirthdoula

      Birth rate is not the point.

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