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It still takes a village

A program for new parents heads to the Internet, but critics says parenting classes are best taught offline and in the community

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When parents-to-be prepare to welcome new life into the world, they feel elation, joy, excitement, anticipation and fear. The feelings don’t discriminate. All new parents have one thing in common: they have a lot to learn.

Up until the end of 2014, Public Health offered prenatal classes to expectant parents in Halifax through the Healthy Beginnings program. Beverly Simpson and her husband Jeff, parents to now 18-month-old Lily, attended the classes. “I wanted to learn everything I could to prepare myself to have a baby,” says Simpson, a graphic designer at an advertising agency in Halifax. “It was also a really great way to get my husband involved since I had done a lot of reading about pregnancy and newborns and he hadn’t done any.”HM-June15-Parental4-BodyGallery

With 2015 came a dramatic change in the way those classes are delivered. As of January 1, the in-person classes shifted to the Internet. Welcome to Parenting is the name of the online prenatal program and families are encouraged to register online for access to prenatal modules.

“We regularly look at all our public-health programs, including prenatal, to make sure that they are meeting the needs of Nova Scotians,” says Susanne Landry, coordinator of family health with the Department of Health and Wellness in Public Health. “Over the last three years we started to notice a decline in attendance at our prenatal classes, or people not completing the series of classes.”

In those three years, women who attended prenatal classes decreased from 42 per cent in 2011 to 2012 to 31 per cent in 2013 to 2014. According to an assessment of the Healthy Beginnings Program by Public Health, families ranked public-health classes eighth on their list of information sources, after doctor, nurse, family and friends, Internet, 811, printed materials, and family-resource centres. “The messages we received from families were they’d like to be able to access information online at their own pace and when they need it the most,” Landry says.

The new program is interactive and covers pregnancy, labour and birth, feeding and breastfeeding through modules customized with Nova Scotia resources, quizzes, videos and printable worksheets to take notes or prepare a birth plan.HM-June15-Parental2-BodyGallery

“The great thing about this program that parents really value is the connection with other parents,” says Landry. She describes a parent zone where people can interact confidentially. Users ask questions to a panel of experts, such as a physician, nutritionist and nurse.

Not everyone agrees pushing parents-to-be to their computers at home on their own is a step in the right direction. “There’s a community support that’s important, a part that people can’t get online that they will get in person,” says Jolyn Swain, owner of Nurtured, a natural parenting shop on Agricola Street. “It’s nice to see and notice the other birthing partners around you, and feeling that network, that support.”

Nurtured is responding with private childbirth preparation classes for couples in Halifax. Their four-week workshop, which Swain says is put together with a “different spin” that approaches birth as a very natural process and includes a baby-wearing component, costs $159.

The public-health online program launched mid-September 2014 and by the end of the year, just more than 600 users were registered. “Families who are challenged in utilizing this program are encouraged to call their local Public Health office to learn from their public health nurse all the resources that are available, which could be with Public Health, could be with the local family-resource centre, could be with a local community organization,” says Landry.

One such organization working in partnership with Public Health and the New Beginnings staff is the Open Door Women’s Care Centre (previously known as Halifax Metro Pregnancy Care Centre) in Halifax, a non-profit providing counseling, practical resources and services that help facilitate successful parenting.

“I think that they were trying to make a cost-effective decision for facilitating public health services,” says executive director Heather Harman. “There are some clients who would use the online prenatal classes effectively. We are offering in-person prenatal classes because I believe there is a segment of our society that won’t go online to learn the prenatal information that they need to know.”

The Open Door Care Centre’s prenatal classes began in January, running once a week for five weeks. “They are really for women who are looking for the in-person instruction and the community that comes from a class situation with other pregnant moms,” says Harman. She specifically hopes those who are coming in with an unplanned pregnancy will take the class.

“They very much acknowledge the need to partner with us and organizations that are offering prenatal classes because they see there are still some women who would strongly benefit from it,” Harman says of Public Health. “They would like to refer specific clients they have to our resources, prenatal classes and counseling, and they have also offered their materials to us free of charge.”

In May, Harman provided a prenatal class instructor course for people who want to begin offering prenatal education services in Halifax. The centre currently has one certified instructor, Sharelyn Stone, who has been a doula in Halifax since 2009.

Stone doesn’t like the move to online classes. “I think it’s disappointing,” she says. “I think there’s more to prenatal education than just the material. It’s really important for parents and moms and families to get together with other people that are in the same stage of life and really build a sense of community in a group setting, which you’re not going to get anymore when you do it online by yourself.”

Stone says while a doula provides a lot of physical and emotional support, they aren’t fully trained to give prenatal classes. She started training as a prenatal educator two years ago to add to her knowledge base. While she offers prenatal sessions to her clients, they are more so based on ways to manage the pain and difficulty of labour. “It certainly isn’t going to be the same as attending prenatal classes but it’s better than nothing.”

Stone believes part of the problem is that Public Health cut the classes and now expects the community to step up and replace them. She says there are lots of options when it comes to finding a doula in the city, with fees ranging anywhere from $850 to upwards of $1,400. “That’s a problem,” she says. “Prenatal classes were always free. It’s getting expensive for parents.”

At the Open Door Care Centre, women who receive the Child Tax Benefit from the Canadian government will receive classes free. Otherwise, there’s a fee.

“Future parents will definitely be missing out if they don’t have the opportunity to go to a group class with a real instructor,” says mom Beverly Simpson. She adds that she would take the course online if that was all that was available, but would prefer to go to a class.

“The questions some of the parents asked were surprising to me,” says Simpson. “It was obvious that not everyone takes the time to read up on pregnancy, labour and newborns. In that regard, I’m afraid that parents-to-be may not take the time to take the online prenatal classes.”

Landry welcomes the feedback. “I know that we’re going to learn more over the next few months,” she says. “We’ve been quite impressed with the number of people that have signed up. It’s exceeded our expectations of where we would have landed by now. I think that speaks to people wanting to see resources online.”

So what about the old adage that it takes a village to raise a child? Jolyn Swain at Nurtured believes there is still community support behind that sentiment. “There’s a really unique facet that Public Health is cutting edge,” says Swain. “They’re being seen as offering this great new portal, and it is clever, but there’s still a component missing and many community partners will be offering it. Natural birth advocates like Nurtured, it’s something we’ve been doing all along but now we’re taking a bigger step into the picture.” 

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