What Is the Bradley Method?

The Bradley Method of childbirth preparation is one of many educational options parents can consider if they are hoping to have a medication-free childbirth experience. The Bradley Method’s official website claims that 86% of its students go on to have an unmedicated birth. (There are no outside research studies to confirm or refute this claim.)

The idea that a woman could give birth without medication and only with her partner by her side to support her during labor was radical and revolutionary in 1947, when Dr. Robert Bradley invented the method. At this time, men were not invited to the birthing room at all. They stayed in the waiting room and only entered after the delivery was complete.

The Bradley Method is sometimes also referred to as husband-coached natural childbirth, and the name of the business that trains and certifies Bradley Method instructors is the American Academy of Husband-Coached Childbirth. Though these names are somewhat dated, the approach can be an excellent birth preparation course.

As long as you have someone to support you during birth—whether it’s a romantic partner, friend or family member, or professional doula—the Bradley Method can work for you.

The Bradley Method
Illustration by Brianna Gilmartin, Verywell 

History

Dr. Bradley grew up on a farm where he witnessed animals giving birth on a regular basis. Later, when he became a doctor and began to see how humans gave birth, he was surprised. The animals he saw birthing babies seemed calm and didn’t appear to be suffering. In contrast, the women he saw giving birth appeared to be in tremendous pain. Why would animal birth be so different than human birth?

In Dr. Bradley’s time, birth was treated very differently than it is today. Dr. Bradley referred to it as the “knock ‘em out, drag ‘em out” method of childbirth. Women would be given strong drugs that caused increased panic or confusion, or even rendered them practically unconscious.

This meant women could not be active during labor and delivery, and they certainly couldn’t push their babies out. Episiotomies (surgical incision of the perineum) and traumatic forceps deliveries were common.

Many mothers couldn’t remember the birth of their babies. Sadly, maternal and infant deaths were also common.

Dr. Bradley noticed that animal births rarely required intervention. In hospitals, though a doctor's intervention during birth was the rule. Dr. Bradley studied what animals seemed to do instinctively and tried to apply the same principles to techniques that humans could use during birth.

Testing the Theory

Dr. Bradley found some nurses willing to be test subjects for his methods, and the results were astounding. The women were able to labor without pain medications, participate in the delivery of their babies, and avoid interventions like forced episiotomies or forceps deliveries—in fact, they could go home relatively quickly after birth.

As told in Husband-Coached Childbirth (Fifth Edition): The Bradley Method of Natural Childbirth, Dr. Bradley coached and supported one of his patients through the labor and delivery process. Being filled with gratitude and appreciation, the patient hugged and kissed Dr. Bradley. Dr. Bradley thought of her husband waiting outside and thought he should be the one receiving affection and appreciation.

This gave him the idea that the partner of the laboring mother should take a more active role in the birthing process. This is how the Bradley Method and “Husband-Coached” Childbirth came to be.

How the Bradley Method Works

Dr. Bradley believed that only a small percentage of births require medical intervention. He believed that the vast majority of women can give birth without drugs or intervention, and that the role of the doctor is to be present in rare cases of an emergency.

He also believed that the mother should put her baby to breast immediately after delivery to facilitate breastfeeding and mother-baby bonding—the mother is the ideal “baby warmer." He also contended that a mother who gives birth without complications should be able to go home within a few hours of delivery.

According to the Bradley Method, to have an intervention-free birth, a mother needs a variety of things in place.

Dark or Dim Lighting

Very different from the bright lights of most hospitals, Dr. Bradley felt a laboring mother needs dim lighting to give birth in a relaxed state.

Solitude

This doesn’t necessarily mean a woman needs to be alone, but having a crowd of onlookers would not be beneficial. Distant relatives such as a mother-in-law or extended family, in other words, may not be the best guests for the labor room. Only the people who must be present should be: the person or people with the closest relationship to the mother.

Comfort

Dr. Bradley emphasized that the mother should be completely comfortable so she can focus on laboring and relaxation. That means if she has cold feet, someone should get her socks. If she’s hot, someone should get a fan. The idea is that she shouldn’t have to work hard at coping with additional stress beyond what’s already required for the laboring and birth process.

Familiarity

Being in a strange or foreign environment may cause labor to stall and increase feelings of anxiety. For hospital births, this means that taking one or more tours of the facility before the actual birth is highly recommended. 

Sense of Safety

To completely relax into the birthing process, the mother must feel safe. The role of the labor coach is essential here. Knowing someone is keeping guard and catering to the laboring mother’s needs helps build that sense of safety.

Confidence

The mother needs to believe that her body is capable of birthing the baby and that she is capable of doing so without intervention or drugs. The socialization that women “can’t tolerate labor and delivery” without medication is part of what makes it more difficult for women to believe they can do it.

Dr. Bradley acknowledged that for a mother-to-be, there comes a time of natural self-doubt and a sudden concern that maybe she can’t do this. He taught that this is a good sign that the end of labor is close. The labor coach’s job is to reassure the mother to get past this natural stage of questioning.

Physical Relaxation

Physical relaxation is key in the Bradley Method of childbirth. The mother should be in a position that allows her to completely relax her entire body. Tension causes labor pains to feel worse.

Controlled Breathing

Dr. Bradley believed that natural (but controlled) breathing is best for the laboring mother. Breathing that is similar to sleep-breathing is the ideal. Some birthing methods encourage focusing on breathing patterns to distract from labor. Dr. Bradley thought that the laboring mother doesn’t need to be distracted from the process, but she needs to be free to focus inward. Calm breathing helps her do so.

Sleep-Like Relaxation

Especially when labor gets intense, a mother using the Bradley Method may appear to be sleeping. The mother is not, in fact, sleeping, but intensely focused inward and remaining calm and relaxed. You can’t feel free to close your eyes if you feel unsafe or uncared for. This is another reason why a labor support person is essential.

Learning the Bradley Method

Bradley Method classes are typically more comprehensive than other childbirth preparation classes. They don’t only focus on birth, but also discuss in depth how to have a healthy pregnancy and what you can do to be successful with breastfeeding.

When considering childbirth instructors and classes, you can ask for a curriculum outline to get a better idea of what may be covered. You can expect to learn about:

  • The birthing process and how it works
  • Why birth is a natural (not dangerous or medical) event
  • The risks of interventions and medications
  • Prenatal nutrition
  • Prenatal exercises to prepare for the birth (tailor sitting, squatting, pelvic rocking)
  • Relaxation techniques (with time to practice during class)
  • How the coach can ensure the comfort of the mother
  • Positions for labor and delivery
  • Practical advice on preparing for the birth
  • Breastfeeding and infant bonding
  • Basic infant care
  • Detailed instructions for the partner, friend, or family member—whoever will be the coach for the birth
  • How to create a safe, supportive environment for the mother
  • Time to practice techniques in class and lots of encouragement to practice outside of class

You can take a Bradley Method class with a certified instructor, or you can try to teach yourself by reading books on the Bradley method and by looking for free information online.

Advantages of an In-Person Class

Seeing someone demonstrate the positions and exercises can be helpful—pictures in a book or reading descriptions aren’t always enough to understand. You'll also get personal feedback during practice sessions, the opportunity to ask questions, and more encouragement for your partner to learn how to be a better coach for you.

An in-person class also may form a community with other parents taking the course—you may find that you even become friends with your classmates. You also may find more motivation to practice the techniques (since you’re accountable to your instructor and classmates).

Disadvantages of an In-Person Class

It's more expensive and time-consuming to attend a class than to teach yourself. You’ll also need to find a certified teacher offering a class in your area, which may be challenging depending on where you live.

How to Find a Class

Most hospitals and doctors' offices will direct you to a Lamaze childbirth class. Labor and delivery hospital departments frequently host or sponsor Lamaze courses. The majority of the Bradley Method courses, however, are taught privately.

The first place to look for a class is at the official Bradley Method website. They have a directory where you can look up instructors in your area. You should also ask local childbirth professionals for referrals. Local midwives and doulas are most likely to know of local the Bradley Method instructors, though your OB/GYN may also be able to refer you as well.

Criticisms of the Bradley Method

There are currently no outside, independent studies on the effectiveness of the Bradley Method. The 86% success rate quoted on the company’s website can’t be considered an unbiased source. No one really knows how effective the method is over other methods. (However, childbirth methods have not been well researched in general.)

The Bradley Method books and courses spend a significant amount of time on the risks of medication and intervention. While it's useful to have the information so you can make informed decisions, all the focus on risks and dangers can increase anxiety and fear. In addition, some women have reported feeling like “failures” if they don’t have the medication-free, intervention-free birth after the course.

It's also important to mention that not every mother wants to have an unmedicated birth experience. They may want to consider having an epidural. Also, some mothers may know they will have to have a Cesarean section birth due to previous or known complications.

If you don’t want to dismiss considering pain medications during labor, or you know you will need a Cesarean section, you might want to consider other childbirth preparation classes.

If the Bradley method isn’t for you, there are other methods of childbirth preparation to consider.

  • Lamaze (private classes may be different from hospital-based courses)
  • HypnoBirthing
  • BirthWorks
  • Birthing From Within
  • CAPPA (Childbirth and Postpartum Professional Association) classes
  • Classes with an ICEA-certified (International Childbirth Education Association) childbirth educator

Before you sign up for any course, ask to see a curriculum overview and find out what the instructor’s philosophy is regarding childbirth preparation and education.

A Word From Verywell

If having a medication-free birth is important to you, studying the Bradley Method could be a step towards achieving that goal. Some women swear by the Bradley Method. But there’s no one method of having a medication-free birth that has been shown to be “the most” effective or “the most” successful.

Know that whether you choose to try the Bradley Method, another style of childbirth preparation, or study on your own, whatever time you spend learning about your body and the birthing process will be time well spent.

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