When you’re pregnant, you do what you can to prepare for the arrival of your baby. You tour birthing centers, attend childbirth classes, and study up on breastfeeding basics and newborn care.
But when you’re asked to write a birth plan for how you want your labor and delivery experience to go, it can feel pretty daunting.
Where do you start? What’s supposed to go in a birth plan anyway? What if you change your mind?
It’s totally normal to feel overwhelmed or unsure about what to put down, especially if you’re a first-time mom, says Heather Ranney, chief of midwifery at the Maternal Infant Center at University of Washington Medical Center – Montlake.
“There are a lot of ideas about what a birth plan is,” she explains. “Sometimes birth plans get a bad rap because people come in and think of it as a document of wants, but it’s really an opportunity to have a discussion with your provider about the birth experience you hope to have.”
To help you prepare for your birth experience, Ranney shares her top tips for crafting a personal birth plan that’s perfectly suited for you.
What does a birth plan look like?
“Fundamentally, a birth plan is a way to organize your ideas about what you’re hoping for in your birth,” Ranney explains. “It’s also a way to highlight to me, as your provider, what the priorities are for you.”
If you’re having trouble figuring out where to begin, try imagining how your birth experience would go in an ideal world. Doing this can help you pinpoint things that you absolutely want to happen as well as things you’re less sure about or hope to avoid.
“When I talk to women about birth plans, I tell them to start by picking one to three things that are incredibly meaningful for them,” Ranney explains. “Then, from start to finish, think about what you want your dream birth to look like and put it down on paper.”
You can consider things like the atmosphere in the room, what support people you’d like with you and what pain relief options or medical interventions you’re open to. It’s also a good idea to outline what you’d like to happen after giving birth, like skin-to-skin time with your baby, extra breastfeeding support or even birth control before you go home.
“We focus so much on the birth that we forget that there’s this other element of postpartum care,” Ranney says. “It’s a good idea to talk about what happens after delivery, so you can see what resources are available to you.”
As for the exact format of your birth plan, well, a quick internet search will pull up thousands of fancy templates, checklists and planning tools you can use to create one. Just keep in mind that the format is less important than the content.
“Sometimes birth plans are really detailed and several pages long, and sometimes they’re really simplistic,” Ranney says. “I’ve even seen little pictograms so all you have to do is point to pictures.”
Why are birth plans important?
While your birth plan is a useful tool to outline what you’d like to happen during labor, delivery and postpartum care, it’s also a way for your midwife or doctor to open a conversation with you about sensitivities, concerns or questions.
“I see a lot of personality come out in a birth plan,” Ranney says. “I can see areas where patients are telling me they might need more support so I can talk about that with them. It also gives me an opportunity to talk about things they want that may not be available and then ways we can still make it a great birth.”
She recommends preparing your birth plan around 28 or 30 weeks into your pregnancy. That way you have plenty of time to review it at a prenatal appointment and then make final revisions as needed.
The most important thing, though, is that you do actually discuss it with your midwife or obstetrician-gynecologist so you can feel confident that they understand what you want and also so you can go into the birth with realistic expectations for what’s actually possible.
“A birth plan helps us help you,” Ranney says.
What if your birth plan doesn’t go as planned?
Despite all your research and early planning, your labor and delivery experience may not go according to your birth plan.
Maybe you hoped to avoid an epidural but, after spending hours in active labor, want pain relief ASAP. Or maybe you were picturing a vaginal birth but suddenly need to have an emergency C-section.
“We have ideas of what we hope the delivery will be like, especially for our first baby, but then you get in the moment and everything has changed and that’s OK,” Ranney says.
Your birth plan will still give your labor team insight into your original goals and let them coach you through any major changes.
“If you didn’t want an epidural and then now you want one, we know how to talk you through it and be more sensitive,” Ranney explains. “I can give you extra support to help you make that decision and let you know that you’re doing phenomenal no matter what.”
Ultimately, your birth plan isn’t a roadmap for how things will actually go. It’s more of a way to highlight the experience you hope to have so your midwife or OB-GYN can help you achieve as much of that as possible.
“What we all want is a healthy delivery,” Ranney says. “Even if you make a birth plan and very little of that happens, if you feel heard and well supported in the decisions, you’ll hopefully still feel positive about the birth.”