Birth Plans: Essential, or Waste of Time?

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Desiree of Hitting My Stride recently asked about birth plans--should she write one? If so, what to put in it? Is it too presumptuous to plan for an event that includes a lot of unknowns and uncontrollable factors? (She has two rare blood clotting factors that make hospital birth a necessity and induction fairly likely if the baby doesn't come by 38-40 weeks.)

I was thinking about what I'd say in response, and my first thought was: let's back up a bit first. Before even thinking of writing a birth plan, or list of birth preferences, or whatever else you want to call it, you need to know what is routine practice at your specific hospital. The last thing you want to do is write up a birth plan full of things that are totally irrelevant at your hospital. That will make the staff laugh or roll their eyes or label you as a control freak.

So first off, before you even think of writing up a birth plan, head to your hospital and talk specifics with the L&D nurses. For example, if you really want immediate, uninterrupted skin-to-skin contact after the birth, ask the nurses how likely it is to happen. What about skin-to-skin after a cesarean? If the mom or baby needs additional attention after the birth? If something is not routine practice, ask them what you need to say or do to make it happen. Go through all of the things that really matter to you. Ask the nurses which things won't be an issue and which you'll need to clearly communicate ahead of time.

Some things will need advance planning, such as wireless and/or waterproof telemetry. Some hospitals have telemetry, while others do not. If you know you'll be having constant monitoring (for example, for an induction) but want to have more freedom of movement, ask about wireless monitoring now, while you're still pregnant. If they don't have it, insist they order it! Ask to speak to the person who is in charge of ordering equipment and see what you can do to ensure they have the proper equipment in time for your birth. Or let's say you want to have access to nitrous oxide (aka gas & air or laughing gas) or TENS units for pain relief. These are both rare in North America, although quite common in other countries such as Great Britain. You'd definitely need to inquire about them in advance.

My next advice--which Desiree seems to have down already--is don't worry about including any of the little things that you shouldn't even be asking permission for. The don't ask, just do kind of things. Eating and drinking if you're hungry, moving and changing positions, music, lighting, unhooking yourself from the monitors to move/go to the bathroom/etc (especially if, like most women, you have no specific reason to be on constant monitoring). Just do these things and don't take any flak from the nursing staff. Make sure your birth partner knows about these things and can buffer you from the nursing staff if you deviate from their policies or routines.

A third suggestion would be having two separate plans: one for the hospital staff with your most important preferences, and a longer, more detailed one for your partner, husband, or support person. Write down all of the things you want your support person to remember for you, so you don't have to remind them when you're in the middle of labor. Things like keeping the room lighting low, keeping you hydrated, helping you into different positions, asking you if you've had enough time to make X or Y decision, reminding both you and the staff of your preferences.

Now let's get back to the birth plan for hospital staff. Once you've eliminated all of the things that are irrelevant to your specific hospital and/or provider, write down the most important things in the briefest possible way. Keep it short and easy to read. Use lots of bulleted points, rather than long, wordy sentences. Don't go into any long-winded preambles. When I say short, I mean short. If you can make it fit onto an index card, all the better. Here's an example of how to communicate your pain relief preferences:

Pain relief:
~ Do not offer or suggest pain medications. If I want something, I will ask.
~ Do not ask me to rate my level of pain; please make up a number if required for your charting.
~ Please offer or assist with non-pharmaceutical comfort measures (showers, warm baths, birth balls, movement, changing positions, etc).

Instead of going into detail over every separate procedure, think of writing a general directive to ensure you are giving full informed consent. Something like this:

Please ask for my permission before every procedure, examination, medication, or intervention (including vaginal exams, AROM, episiotomy, routine infant procedures, etc).  If it is not an emergency situation, ask if I have had enough time to consider my options and review the alternatives before consenting to the procedure. 

When you arrive at the hospital, you can request a nurse who has experience with unmedicated labors (if, like Desiree, this is important to you). Have your birth partner talk to the admitting nurse and say something like "She really wants to labor without pain medications and labor and push in upright positions. Could you assign us a nurse who would be excited to help make this happen?" They might be too overstaffed to meet your request, but they might also be able to arrange nursing assignments to give you a nurse who loves working with unmedicated moms. This doesn't mean you are locked into having a "natural birth," just that you'll have more support for your initial desire to labor without pain medications.

My final thought is that planning for birth is like preparing proactively for breastfeeding. There are the individual choices you make and have control over during pregnancy, such as provider or place of birth. There are the institutional protocols and provider preferences that will influence what happens to you during labor and birth. And then there are the unpredictable, uncontrollable events that may throw you a curveball during labor. Birth plans are primarily for the second category of events--navigating institutional routines and employee protocols that may or may not be what you want, and may or not be beneficial for your or your baby.

Birth plans also help ensure that you remain more in control over your individual, personal choices. Because if you really want an unmedicated birth, but the hospital staff and routines all push you towards having an epidural, you're going to have a hard time accomplishing your goal. Or if you want lots of uninterrupted skin-to-skin contact, but the hospital routinely takes babies to the warmer and only returns them after examining, weighing, bathing and swaddling, you'll probably find your arms empty after the birth. The birth plan itself does not ensure that your wishes will be followed. But it is a starting point for communicating what is most important to you. 

Labor and birth have unpredictable, uncontrollable elements. We cannot make these magically disappear simply by waving a birth plan around. But a lot of what happens to women during labor doesn't occur because of Mother Nature, but rather because of hospital routines, employee protocols, liability protection, and providers' preferences and training. This is where planning and preparation can make a difference.


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