What First Time Parents Need to Know About a Birth Plan

What First Time Parents Need to Know About a Birth Plan - Illustration by Alison Czinkota

Verywell / Illustration by Alison Czinkota

Giving birth is a momentous occasion. The focus, of course, is on bringing a new life into the world as well as the exciting transition from person to parent. However, the process of having a baby is often considered special in and of itself. Many people have specific ideas and preferences about how they want that experience to go. Writing a birth plan is one way to help guide your birth and inform medical providers and other caregivers about your desires for this unique rite of passage.

Not every new parent needs or wants to write a birth plan. However, for many people it is an opportunity to think about and articulate their preferences about childbirth so that on the big day they can just focus on the experience and be ready for whatever may happen.

What Is a Birth Plan?

A birth plan is an optional document that many first-time parents use to establish their preferences for their labor and delivery experience. This document is something that expecting parents may write on their own or in collaboration with their childbirth medical providers, which may include obstetricians, nurses, midwives, and/or doulas.

"We refer to birth plans as 'birth preferences,'" says Vera Hyatt, a certified doula, childbirth educator, and co-founder of Wildwood Birth Collective in Portland, Oregon. Hyatt recommends thinking of the document as intentions, a wish list, or a set of options so that clients take to heart the fluid nature of these preferences.

This document can be as simple or complex as you'd like it to be. For some people, it might just highlight a few key points, while others may choose to articulate their preferences in greater detail. However, a birth plan can cover any desires or guidelines you want your birth care providers to know or consider at every stage of the childbirth process. This can include what types of pain management you intend to use, who you like in the room with you, and what kind of support you desire during labor.

Do I Need a Birth Plan?

It's important to note that you do not need a birth plan. You can show up at the hospital or birthing center in labor and have a wonderful birth experience without having written out your intentions. Taking on the step of writing a birth plan is entirely optional. However, many people do choose to create one and feel that it adds to their special day, by helping to set intentions and make them more informed about all the possible ways childbirth can go.

Hyatt says she and her coworkers recommended all people create a document that expresses their birth preferences. "A way to ensure that the parents are making informed decisions during labor and birth is to refer to the birth preferences document when options are being presented, and ask 'This option is different from what you indicated on your birth preferences document, it is okay with you to shift this preference, or would you like to discuss alternative options?'" 

Having a birth plan written out can serve as a reminder for both you and your birth care providers of your preferences and any backup options you want to be considered. Remember you are always free to change your mind about any aspect of your document, says Hyatt. For example, you may think you don't want to use pain medication, but then decide to get an epidural—or vice versa. "Many times, it is reasonable to take a wait and see approach."

Why You May Want a Birth Plan

The process of creating a birth plan can help you become more knowledgeable about childbirth itself. You'll be thinking and learning about various possibilities like C-sections, tears, pain medication, how you want to spend the various stages of labor, and who you want by your side. Writing up this document will help you get more comfortable with what to expect and may prompt you to ask questions you didn't even know to ask.

"The range of normal when it comes to birth is vast, and the journey to meeting one's baby can take some wild turns, and one of the points of creating this document is to envision and process the 'what ifs,'" explains Hyatt.

Benefits of Having a Birth Plan

Like just about everything relating to pregnancy and parenthood, there are pros and cons to creating a birth plan. One big benefit may be that you get to know your doctor, midwife, or doula and their way of practicing on a deeper level. You are also likely to become a more effective communicator and better advocate for your childbirth desires. These documents may also help prepare you in case complications arise during your birth. You will already have thought through your preferences should these issues come up.

"The benefits of writing a birth preferences document are to help parents prepare for the process of labor and birth, be educated to make informed decisions, and envision different options and/or interventions that may arise," explains Hyatt.

Potential Drawbacks of Having a Birth Plan

Possible drawbacks of writing a birth plan include that you'll need to make time to write one and share it with your medical team. For some people, this may build stress or a feeling of pressure to create a "perfect" birth or birth plan, so doing so may not bring the vision or comfort that other expecting people may gain from the process. Also, others may simply not really know what their preferences for childbirth are or prefer to just go with the flow on the big day. All valid feelings.

Another possible con of having a birth plan is you might write up what you envision as your perfect birth but then feel deflated or like a failure if your actual experience doesn't go as planned. While some people do have a baby in a way that aligns with their birth plan expectations, not all do. The reality is that you won't really know how your childbirth will go, or the decisions that will need to be made, until it's happening in real-time. So, your birth plan, if you write one, is never set in stone.

"A possible negative of having a birth plan is that parents might get their hearts set on a particular path, and there is so much in labor and birth that we can have influence over, but cannot control," explains Hyatt.

Hyatt also notes that referring to it as a "birth plan" rather than your birth preferences can set you up for disappointment once your due date arrives. "If the birth doesn't go according to 'plan,' it can cause upset or even trauma for parents. The language we use is important and we strive to use language that is trauma informed." So, aim to consider your "plan" a set of intentions rather than a specific script for your birth. 

Tips for Writing a Birth Plan

If you do decide to create a birth plan, start by getting informed about what childbirth is really like, what your childbirth choices may look like, and how you hope your experience will go. You'll want to consider all the parts of the labor and delivery process as well as the many possible complications and outcomes. Paramount in the process is aligning your plan to your personal medical situation and those of your baby. Also, talk to your birth team to know what is possible and what is not.

Various hospitals and birthing centers have different rules and protocols that need to be followed. You can definitely make requests but know that not all of them may be able to be accommodated. Also, of course, the safety of you and your baby will always need to come first.

Personal Considerations and Preferences

Just like every person, every pregnancy and childbirth experience is unique. Your birth plan will also be tailored to your specific needs and desires. Aim to talk to you doctor as early on in pregnancy as possible to make sure your wishes will mesh well with their typical labor and delivery practices, suggests Robin R. Brown, MD, FACOG, obstetrician-gynecologist in the department of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive science at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City.

"A brief discussion during one of the early visits about the specifics of the delivery, including the desired delivery course, is warranted so everyone is on the same page during the later stages of the pregnancy," says Dr. Brown.

What works best or is possible for one person's birth plan may differ drastically from yours. That's to be expected. Some people may want a water birth or a natural childbirth experience, while others prefer to get an epidural in their hospital's labor and delivery ward or need to schedule a C-section. Your specific situation may require induction, bed rest, or an emergency c-section. There is no right or wrong, just what is needed and works best for you.

"It may be difficult navigating all the different aspects of prenatal care and delivery," says Dr. Brown, who suggests finding an experienced doctor or midwife you trust who can help you navigate this process and all the choices that may come your way.

Know if your pregnancy is low or high risk and how that may impact your childbirth options. Are there any special medical, emotional, or practical considerations that need to go into your birth plan? Explore your preferences in terms of pain medication, induction, support for coping with contractions during labor (such as using a birthing ball, walking the halls, getting in water, various birthing positions, music, or breathing techniques), who will be in the room with you, and anything else that matters to you.

Practical Considerations

"Keep it to one page and be brief and direct," recommends Hyatt. Additionally, consider how you best express yourself. "You can use words or visual icons to communicate your preferences."

What to Include in Your Birth Plan

Every birth plan or preferences will be unique but be sure to touch on the following topics, advises Hyatt:

  • A paragraph introducing you (and your partner, if applicable)
  • Basic information about you, such as your name, age, and any pertinent medical information
  • Care preferences for managing labor pain, normal labor and birth, unexpected events, such as complications and cesarean birth, postpartum procedures and care, newborn feeding preferences and lactation support, care of a healthy newborn, and how to address any complications with the newborn
  • Include any possible issues, fears, or concerns you may have

Review Your Birth Plan

"Share with your care team and talk through the options," recommends Hyatt. So, once you have a draft of your birth plan, review it with your doctor, midwife, doula, and/or partner, as well as anyone else that will be in the room with you. Be open to the suggestions and feedback they may have, particularly when it comes to your health and safety, while also aiming to remain true to the spirit of your labor and delivery wishes.

Embrace Flexibility

"Approach with flexibility and envision options A, B, and C," advises Hyatt. A birth plan is a spring board or guide rather than a strict formula that you and your medical team can use to inform decisions on your big day.

Ultimately, your health and safety and that of your baby will take precedence over any preconceived wishes. So, it's important to think of your birth plan, if you choose to have one, as a living, fluid document. Think about how you might feel if you write up your ideal birth but then have to abandon those intentions if your actual experience requires something else. Aim to make peace with this possibility before labor begins, suggests Hyatt.

"Patients should also be open minded about changes that have to be made to keep delivery of their baby safe," says Dr. Brown.

Feel free to dream up your ideal birth but also embrace a flexible mindset so that you can feel good about any ways your actual childbirth experience may differ from your expectations. While the process of labor and delivery can be a very special, transformative time, remember that the real childbirth magic is what comes at its close—the baby in your arms.

"We encourage parents to approach writing this document with flexibility and be open to the many paths of birth, and embrace the unique experience of how their baby will be born," says Hyatt. The bottom line is that whether or not your birth goes as planned is nothing to feel bad about. All that really matters is you and your baby's safety and comfort.

A Word From Verywell

While having a birth plan is not required for having a baby, many first-time parents choose to write one. Having this document on hand, and the process of making it, can help expecting parents think through their preferences for their childbirth experience. Also, a birth plan can facilitate the communication of your intentions to the medical providers assisting you on the big day, Essentially, your birth plan can do the talking for you, so that you can put your energy into the big job of bring a new life into the world.

2 Sources
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  1. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Approaches to limit intervention during labor and birth.

  2. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Labor and delivery.

By Sarah Vanbuskirk
Sarah Vanbuskirk is a writer and editor with 20 years of experience covering parenting, health, wellness, lifestyle, and family-related topics. Her work has been published in numerous magazines, newspapers, and websites, including Activity Connection, Glamour, PDX Parent, Self, TripSavvy, Marie Claire, and TimeOut NY.