Review of NCT antenatal classes

Nothing about bikes here. Nothing at all.

As warned, this blog is diversifying. Firstly because I suspect my cycling time is likely to plummet with the arrival of Darkerside Jr in a few days time, so if I don’t write about some baby-related topics I’m going to have to resort to in-depth reviews of tyre valve caps or similar. And secondly because I quite like getting new readers, and something tells me that more people have kids than ride recumbents…

So, this is the first of the baby stuff. Brace yourselves.

Antenatal classes

Disclaimer – the future tandem stoker that is Darkerside Jr hasn’t actually arrived yet (unless I’m really slow getting this published!). This isn’t as big an issue as you might think for this article.

Antenatal classes are primarily there to try and shift some of a paralysing terror that starts to grow about 25 weeks in, mainly by giving you a slightly more realistic image of the birthing process than that scene in Alien. True, (we think…) we’ve learnt a decent amount about how to cope with those first few days of looking after a new human being (feed, clean, sleep; repeat), but childcare is surely the epitome of learning-on-the-job. At T-minus-six-ish days, I reckon we’re close enough for me to have a stab at assessing how useful the NCT and NHS courses we’ve attended have been.

Second disclaimer – this is necessarily written from the male point of view. The benefit of that is that I’m not being distracted at the moment by a vigorous internal kicking to the lungs, but one of the downsides is that I wasn’t able to attend everything the NHS offers.

What is the NCT?

NCT logo

NCT = National Childbirth Trust, and ‘the UK’s largest charity for parents’. They say:

We’re here to support parents. We give them accurate, impartial information so that they can decide what’s best for their family, and we introduce them to a network of local parents to gain practical and emotional support.

Read more at their ‘about us‘ page. Think: independent research, expert advice, empowering parents through knowledge, slight feel of hippy professor. Not about giving birth in trees without pain relief, whatever your prior conceptions might be.

For those of you not from the UK, NHS = National Health Service, one of the crowning achievements of these fair isles. Free (at the point of use – it’s a major recipient of tax funds) healthcare for all.

NHS and NCT offerings in Glasgow

Big handful stuff: all the NHS stuff is free to attend, open to all first-time parents, and you should absolutely take advantage of it. The National Childbirth Trust (NCT) offer a more extensive set of sessions, but at a cost.

The NHS (in Glasgow) provide four hour-long sessions for mums and dads covering the basics of what is likely to happen, led by a midwife. There were just under forty folk in our group, but that was definitely at the larger end of the scale. Mums also get a breastfeeding workshop and a physio group session. You’ve also got all you usual midwife contact sessions, where you can ask any questions that have lodged in your mind.

There are a few varients of NCT antenatal classes, but we went for the NCT Signature course. This gives you 16.5 hours of before-birth stuff split into four Tuesday evenings, two Saturday mornings and a bonus Thursday evening on breastfeeding; plus a group reunion gathering afterwards where you can all share stories on how little you’re sleeping. This course is not free – we paid £180, but it varies by area. Income-based discounts are available, and everyone has the option of paying by installments (in advance). Nice small group of six couples; mums and dads attend everything (hurrah!); and our course was lead by Anna Richardson (who’s just been nominated for the MaMa awards antenatal teacher of the year and, from the sessions we attended, thoroughly deserves to win…)

Courses from other organizations are available. We didn’t look at them, and therefore I shall say no more.

Comparing the two

The NHS stuff is good, short, and very dependant on the person taking the sessions and the number of people in the room.

Four hours is really only three-and-a-bit once you take off icebreaker activities, taking a register and general faffing, especially when there are forty folk attending. There’s an awful lot of information packed into each session, but it’s definitely geared towards telling you what will happen if you have the standard pregnancy, the standard birth, and go with all the standard options that Glasgow NHS prefer.

As an example, just over 30% of women in Glasgow (stats from the NCT class…) end up having a caesarean delivery. NHS classes mentioned that it might happen and that was it. NCT spent most of a session on it, covering the process, who’d be in the room, reasons it might be required, and a bunch of other stuff that I hadn’t even begun to think of that I’d much rather know now, instead of finding it out at the time. Sure, knowing that information in advance isn’t required for the operation to take place, but I’m glad I’ve had a chance to think it through in advance (and discuss it with my partner) before the disclaimer with all its scary wording is thrust in front of her in an operating theatre.

The NHS sessions are taken by a midwife, whereas NCT use one of their internally-approved instructors. If you have specific, personal medical questions the midwife clearly has the edge, but in terms of providing interesting training sessions, I’d go with the instructor. After all, I’ve got a Masters in Maths, but I guarantee you don’t want me teaching you integration…

This whole teacher / practitioner thing flows into the feel of the sessions as well. The NHS will tell you what is likely to happen. The NCT will do that, but also explain why. What evidence is there that backs up why we do this; what research has been done on the alternatives; is there actually an option here, and if so, how long do I have to make a choice? That sort of thing. If you’re the type of person who finds comfort in understanding the logic behind the method, you might find the NCT offers you something the NHS lacks. Because there’s much more time available, there’s also more opportunity to talk over some of the less common things that might happen.

Let’s talk dads. I’ve come to the conclusion that my role over the next few weeks is some peculiar combination of chief-of-morale, cook, sherpa, automated reminder system, and odd-job man. As such, it’s really handy if Mrs DarkerSide and I have a vaguely similar idea of what’s likely to happen. Take breastfeeding – both the NHS and NCT are fully on board with the whole breast-is-best idea. However, the NHS class on the subject is mums only. It was apparently very good, but if baby isn’t latching on at 3am it’ll be the NCT class that we both went to that I’ll be relying on for any suggestions. It’s also good to know that they’ve got a helpline number available from 8am to midnight, every day.

Final point. Because the NCT classes are a small group and you go through everything together, you do bond in a way that you just couldn’t in the NHS sessions. Two of my best friends through primary school were offspring from the NCT group my parents went to. Our NCT group finished off the last session with a curry (the natural Glasgow bonding method), and are busy swapping photos of baby gear on Facebook.

I struggle to remember the faces of anyone from our NHS classes, let alone the names.

Should I pay for NCT?

It’s hopefully clear that we both found the NCT classes very useful. Our instructor Anna was excellent, but even with a non-award-nominated trainer the material itself is very good. However, £180 is still a decent whack to pay during what is probably going to be the most expensive 12 months of your life so far.

I’m glad we shelled out, for these reasons:

  • NCT has directly led to us both being far more relaxed. Given how little sleep Mrs DarkerSide is getting at the moment anyway, I’d pay £190 for that alone.
  • Some of the research and practical kit put in front of us at the sessions has meant we haven’t bought stuff we otherwise would’ve done. A TENS machine, for example; hilarious to watch someone else use, but not a sensation either of us liked at all.
  • If the big moment has some unforeseen complications, we know a bit about what to expect. I’m sure we’ll still panic – who wouldn’t? – but there’ll be that lifeline of ‘we’ve talked about this before, it works like this’ to hang on to.
  • We will now ask for some things that we wouldn’t otherwise have done, that I think will be better for our baby. Delayed cord clamping, for one. Hadn’t even heard of it before NCT; now we’ve been presented with some research, done a bit of digging on our own, and made an informed decision.
  • The NCT course is tailored to facilities in your area in a way that Googling isn’t. There’s no point getting all excited about the latest birthing device if you can’t get it.
  • We know know five other couples who are in very similar situations. Everyone working, most at some distance from family, everyone’s first child, everyone due within a month of so of each other. I’m not above buying my way into a support group of new friends…

There’s a few things that NCT course doesn’t give you:

  • Definite answers. The idea is to empower you to make your own choices, so if you’re going in the hope of having someone tell you what to do, you’ll disappointed.
  • Any more information than you could find out yourself from the web. You’re paying for someone else to sift through and discard the dross and hyperbolae.
  • All the information you could ever possibly need. But you knew that anyway.

Rounding off, there was only one real negative that I could think of about the NCT course. Despite doing so much to involve dads throughout, the emails with information and handy links that Anna sent throughout the past few months were still just sent to mums. Clearly I do speak to my wife at least once a week so this had no material effect, but it just gave fleeting impressions of ‘this is really a mum thing’.

Final thoughts

Please don’t leave here with the idea that the NHS sessions were garbage; they were so much better than we were expecting, and are streets ahead of what most other prospective parents around the globe will receive. However, if you’ve got the time and funds for the NCT course and reckon you’d feel more relaxed knowing the why as well as the what and when of pregnancy and childbirth, you’ll find it worthwhile.

If you attended any of the other options in Glasgow, or had a completely different experience of the NHS or NCT, please let me know! Comments below…


PS: if it turns out that everything we’ve learnt was a cruel trick and baby actually does arrive in the bill of a large stork, then I’ll be mightily hacked off.

PPS: in a nod to the cycling alter ego of; the south Glasgow sessions are held at Govanhill Baths. Bike parking is distinctly average – either lock at the top of the access ramp, or ask reception nicely if you can leave your bike inside. I had no issues, but then my commuting bike is distinctly unattractive to thieves…


Add Yours →

Ha – superb! Nice colour coordination between the trailer and Radical bag as well…

Thanks for this review. For various reasons, I didn’t do NCT classes but I got involved with them when I saw a poster for a mums-to-be group in my area. There is so much for parents after the classes – groups, coffee mornings, fundraisers, social events. Since then, I’ve volunteered for my branch as Bumps and Babies Coordinator, Treasurer and still Deputy Treasurer, although my kids are a lot older now (they are both in juniors at primary). And I now work for them, working with our amazing volunteers across the UK.

We do our best as an NCT branch to involve dads in our activities and we have parents socials, family events aimed at all and dads are welcome to all our activities but naturally find that during the week, it is largely mums who come to our groups. But I do take your point that everything is addressed to the mother. My husband took out our membership and all the correspondence come with my name first in everything! I suspect that is a “feature” of a database somewhere.

Good luck with the arrival of Darkerside Junior.

Hi Kate

Thanks for the comments (and the good luck). There certainly does seem to be a lot on – I’m not sure if it’s because Glasgow has lots of people involved, or if it’s representative of the UK as a whole?

The level of dad involvement was excellent on the course itself, which was probably why the email thing stood out so much! Still, if I didn’t put some negative points in the review people would just assume I was hideously biased… :)

I’m an nct practitioner, so lovely to read your blog post which certainly reflects how I try to practice. With regards to the women-only emails, until very recently our system only allowed one email address per couple. The couple added this when they booked, and since it is usually (not always) the mother-to-be who makes the booking, it was usually her email address. This has now been changed, you’ll be pleased to know, now we have the option of two email addresses for each booking so both parents-to-be get emails. The other benefit of this is that often mothers-to-be give their work email address and then go on maternity leave, at least now we can still email the family after that point.

As an NCT practitioner myself, just wanted to add that as a charity, the NCT provides a sliding scale of reductions on course fees for anyone on an income of less than (I think) £26,000. Happy to be corrected on exact amount.
Very best wishes for you and your new family.

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