Column: Vital help for new parents

IT’S hard to imagine now but only a few decades ago, women got pregnant, had babies and that was it – little fanfare, no special attention and definitely no support groups at their disposal.

Childbirth in particular was something that wasn’t discussed; mothers would - rightly or wrongly – would put themselves into the hands of the health professionals and adhere to their instructions, no questions asked.

The National Childbirth Trust is largely credited with changing this.

Now a successful and prolific charity, the origins of the NCT stem from an advert that was placed in The Daily Telegraph in 1955, calling for people to express an interest in natural childbirth, based on the theories of the obstetrician Grantly Dick-Read.

The interest was such, that the organisation developed into a reputable organisation and won a loyal following as it sought to empower women in childbirth. It was awarded charitable status and the rest, as they say, is history.

Today, the NCT helps thousands of parents each year and crucially, places equal importance on dads as well as mums.

Most couples will admit to initial trepidation in the early days of pregnancy – the NCT, through its courses, membership scheme, newsletters and comprehensive website seeks to address this lack of confidence and provide parents-to-be with the relevant information.

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Louise McCarthy is an antenatal teacher in Harpenden and says the objectives are clear: “Couples will come into a class and I can see right away many are out of their comfort zone. It doesn’t matter where they’ve come from and what their backgrounds are, the fear and uncertainty is clear to see.

“What I aim to do is address that fear and uncertainty so that when they walk out five or six weeks later, they walk out with confidence and, having met couples in the same situation, as part of a real support network; all of whom are fully aware of what lies ahead.”

The knowledge is a crucial element here; few people realise the power they have when it comes to the birth of their child. We are a nation that perhaps puts its faith in the health professionals and hopes for the best. Knowledge creates an informed partnership between the parents and the health professionals to assist the best possible outcome for everyone.

This is continually being challenged where childbirth is concerned; the complications that can arise are seemingly worryingly common while options for pain relief and methods of delivery increasingly complex.

The NCT aims to prepare parents for every eventuality – to empower parents to explore options for pain relief, to understand the best positions and environments in which to give birth and perhaps most importantly, to prepare parents to make on-the-spot informed decisions when things don’t go entirely to plan.

“We want people to know what they’re getting into,” explains Louise. “We want them walking into hospital aware of the possibilities. We make sure they’re armed with information so they can make informed choices.”

In addition to the nitty gritty of childbirth, antenatal classes offer advice and the opportunity to discuss ‘unspoken’ subjects such as baby blues and perhaps importantly, post-natal depression. There is also plenty of insight into life once the baby is born and the inevitable effect on day-to-day lives and routines.

The NCT may strike a chord with many people for its strong advocacy of breastfeeding and while there are specific – and very thorough – courses on this, the advice is supportive, knowledge-driven rather than dictatorial.

The surge in popularity of the NCT antenatal classes is no coincidence – the crippling shortage of resource in the NHS means that while services and workshops are available, they are few and far between and governed by time constraints which often make them inaccessible to new parents.

Yet many NCT teachers work alongside local hospitals to ensure the best possible care is given to pregnant women. Take the midwife-led units which have opened in NHS hospitals across the UK in recent years. Most often located within hospitals, their aim is to offer a more relaxed approach to childbirth; but with the option of transferring for consultant-led care, if needed.

Louise worked closely with Luton and Dunstable Hospital when its unit opened two years ago.

“It’s an important relationship,” says Louise. “They know who we are and what we do, and vice versa. We may not approach things in the same way all the time but we recognise the importance of working together.”

The support doesn’t stop once the baby has been born. Social events, the infamous nearly-new sales, breastfeeding support groups and postnatal courses on subjects such as baby weaning are all available. The NCT also helps create social groups among new mums and dads.

At a time when few people are born and bred in the towns that they settle, the NCT recognises the transient community and seeks to bring people together through social events and support groups.

Local NCT services

• Nearly new sales are exactly what the name suggests: almost brand new quality clothing at knock-down prices. Toy sales are also held. They are well-known for getting VERY busy so make things easier by becoming a member giving you ‘early bird’ status.

• Breastfeeding drop-in cafes are an invaluable source of support for new mums – especially during those first few weeks. Speak to breastfeeding counsellors and share experiences with other new mums.

• Ante-natal courses are popular among expectant parents, with qualified teachers providing the foundations for the early days of parenting, not just the experience of labour and (dreaded) childbirth. They cost money but the courses are usually 10 hours, plus a three hour breastfeeding course, and a reunion once the babies are born - payment can also be made in instalments.

• For more information on the NCT, the service it provides and the cost and details of courses, visit

How the NCT worked for me…

CLAIRE McNulty and her husband Barry welcomed baby Perla into the world on May 25 this year after attending an ante-natal NCT course in Harpenden.

She says: “We were very confident about pregnancy. I used to work for a maternity wear brand so I knew a lot about pregnancy and felt totally comfortable with that. Impending parenthood was altogether different. I felt like it didn’t matter how many books I read or how long I spent Googling, I still didn’t feel like I’d have a clue when the baby arrived. My husband was just in shock for seven out of the nine months.

“Talking to others at the NCT classes and sharing experiences and concerns was invaluable. And then the really practical things like how to bath your baby and how to change a nappy were a godsend.

“By the end of the course, I felt ready for my labour. I knew what I did and didn’t want with regards to drugs and intervention. I still felt nervous about caring for a newborn but much more confident than before.

“Also, I knew very few people in the area and really wanted to create a new circle of mummy friends.

“I’m in touch with my NCT group still and am an avid reader of the local NCT magazine. I’ve heard the nearly new sales are fantastic but I always seem to be away when they’re on.”