Seconds out! My take on Kirstie Allsopp versus the NCT

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Earlier this week, TV presenter and all round ‘yummy mummy’, Kirstie Allsopp, took to Twitter to vent her anger about the NCT (National Child Birth Trust in case you haven’t heard of it – in which case you’re probably not a parent so the rest of this will be very boring for you!).  Here’s what she said:

 “More NCT bollocks as usual though. Lots of people have good NCT experiences, but many don’t. This is a very politicised, dogmatic and in my experience, scary organisation”

She’s since explained exactly what it is she dislikes about the organisation in a lenghty blog post which you can read here .  The gist of it is that they try to push mothers into a natural birth (i.e. vaginal with no drugs) and breastfeeding and are anti Caesareans and bottle feeding.  This she says makes many mothers feel guilty and inadequate.

Because Kirstie’s a celebrity, her comments were picked up by a lot of the national papers (no doubt fueled by the fact that one individual NCT teacher decided to threaten legal action against her).

So does the NCT deserve this bad press?  Or are Kirstie’s comments, about a charity she has no real first hand experience of, a misuse of her celebrity status?

Well, I’m all for freedom to mother however you like (God knows I do whatever it takes to get through it!) but I can’t help but feel Kirstie”s got it wrong and here’s why.

I did NCT classes before my first baby.  They were fun – silly at times and hysterical at others – but never scary.

At the outset we were asked what we wanted to cover and told that the course would be tailored to our individual needs. – one of the couples attending had opted for an elective C-section (in the super swanky Portland hospital no less) and the teacher was in no way judgemental about it.  In fact, we were told that as there is a 20% caesarean rate, at least one more of us would probably also end up having a C-section too so they are always covered.

The information we were given about C-sections was detailed and comprehensive. One of us had to lie on the floor while we all acted out what would happen.  We were told about the types of anaesthesia available, that a screen would be put up so you couldn’t see what was happening, where the cut would be, stitches, catheters and recovery afterwards.

It was actually much more accurate than the information we were given about vaginal delivery – presumably because these vary so widely from woman to woman.

Yes, we did the comedy stuff you expect: pushing a melon through a model of a cervix, the men being shown how to rub our backs to help ease the pain (because of course that would really work!) even practising encouraging things to say to a labouring woman whose only response will be a string of expletives.  But we also did the more serious medical stuff: pain relief options, episiotomies, forceps, ventouse, induction and on and on….

I really didn’t feel there was any bias against C-sections.  They were a smaller part of the course certainly but that was because they took less time to cover as what will happen can be accurately predicted and precisely taught.  That can’t be done with vaginal birth so the information given has to cover all options, hence it takes longer.

But my main problem with what Kirstie has said is that  she’s completely missing the point about NCT classes (perhaps because she didn’t actually do them?) or any antenatal classes for that point.

We, as expectant parents, don’t really go for the information.  As soon as you give birth you realise that no class on earth could prepare you for it – it is totally personal and in no way predictable.  We go to become more confident, to reassure ourselves that it will be OK and to make friends. They are a placebo given at a time when we are at our most anxious and if they help to reassure us then all well and good and, it is a cliché but true, you really do make great friends who will become your very own support network in the post-birth months.

If antenatal classes really told the truth about birth they would last 5 minutes and we would all leave in tears:

“Welcome expectant parents.  Here is what you need to know about childbirth (whichever way you do it):

  1. it is terrifying
  2. it will hurt more than you can imagine
  3. there is nothing you can do to change that barring taking lots of lovely drugs
  4. afterwards you will have a baby – which is amazing but again terrifying
  5. you will worry about said baby for the rest of your life
  6. in return they will bring you endless joy and fun so it is all worth it (really, it is)

Now do help yourselves to tea and biscuits and get to know one another”

And it is point 5 here that Kirstie should remember.  It’s not the NCT that makes us feel inadequate or guilty.  Those feelings are at the very heart of motherhood.  Birth is really only the start of it.  Guilt over the precise details of birth transpose into guilt over whether you breastfeed or not.  Then comes guilt about what food you feed your toddler (especially if you happen to have one who will only eat Pom Bears like I did).  Then guilt over going back to work, or not going back to work.  Then comes guilt over your educational choices (and this is a big one that runs and runs)…  The point is that once you have a child, no decision is ever easy.  You are never sure you’ve done the right thing.  This is why we feel inadequate – not because a well meaning woman pushing a Galia melon through a synthetic birth canal said ‘breast is best’.

The real issue we should be looking at is the lack of help women get after birth.  Beforehand there are Doctor’s appointments, midwives checks, antenatal classes if you choose to do them.  Afterwards you get one visit from a midwife, one from a Health Visitor and then you are pretty much on your own.  With my first baby (who was both early and very small), I was sent home from the maternity unit after 3 nights and did not see another health professional for over a month and then only after making repeated phone calls.

Yet this is the exact point at which information would benefit us – whether it is help with feeding the baby, our own physical recovery (remember the stitches – ow!) or about PND.  Post-natal support services have taken hefty cuts over the past few years: lots of Sure Start Centres were closed, funding for health visitors and community care services were reduced…  So here is where the real need is and this is where the NCT does it’s best work.

Their unpaid volunteers run free breastfeeding clinics that anyone can attend. Aha breastfeeding again, I hear you shout and, yes there is a definite preference for it in the NCT, but visit any maternity unit and you will see tens of posters telling you ‘breast is best’ so it’s not only an NCT issue.  Plus again, breastfeeding is a technically tricky thing to do where lots of information can be given (latching, supply, sore nipples, mastitis etc…).  Bottle feeding is wonderfully simple by comparison (I know, I’ve done both).

They run post-natal classes, second-hand baby wear sales, coffee mornings, exercise classes, playgroups, children’s parties and even baby discos.  All of it done by unpaid volunteers at a local level.

So while Kirstie is right that antenatal and postnatal care in the UK needs to change her aim is off.  What we really need to focus on is improving what hospitals, health visitors and local councils offer to new parents.  The NCT is having to fill the gap that has been left as government services have been cut.  Let’s not attack them for trying!

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