This week, we’re proud to share our interview with Kristine Burneko, creator of Red Tent Birth Support Services. Kristine talks about how childbirth education, combined with a network of encouraging women, can help empower mothers to trust their bodies and make informed choices, resulting in better outcomes.
MA: What benefits can a childbirth education class bring to a woman’s birth experience?
KB: When we give birth for the first time, we really are heading into what I call the “Vast Unknown.” The power to successfully navigate the birth experience comes from several places, chief among them wisdom and knowledge.
The knowledge you receive in a birth education class has a tendency to conquer fears — women get this “A HA!” moment when they realize how perfectly our bodies were designed for pregnancy and birth. You can almost watch the anxiety melt away from them when they accept they were quite perfectly built for birth.
Even more empowering, I think, is the community a childbirth education class provides: a whole room full of other mothers-to-be, all experiencing very similar sensations, emotions, and transitions — friends waiting to be made, and a powerful source of collective wisdom!
MA: Can you speak to the empowerment that informed choices bring to birth?
KB: Absolutely. Let’s use external fetal monitoring as an example. Many hospitals routinely strap electronic fetal monitoring belts to mothers admitted in labor. If a woman hadn’t had the chance to take a childbirth education class, she may make the logical assumption that since the hospital is doing it, it must be a good thing.
Whereas were she informed in a class, she may very well have learned that best evidence shows that routine continuous EFM provides no benefit for babies and increases her risk of cesarean birth significantly — that even ACOG and the World Health Organization encourage only intermittent monitoring in normal labor.
Conversely, a woman who had taken a class and had an induced labor would not be surprised by the constant belt-wearing (or the IV line, or the stronger contractions). She would know what to expect, and probably even have a plan for how to “surf” over these interventions with confidence!
MA: You spent some time as a patient advocate and medical staff educator. What types of things can women do to ensure hospital births have safe and healthy outcomes?
KB: Find a great provider. There are lots of “good” providers out there — but take the extra time, make the extra office visit, to find a great fit for you. Birth is a big deal — spiritually, emotionally, physically, you name it. You want someone with you who is on the same page: who reads your birth plan, who takes extra time when needed, and who is responsive and listens well. Don’t be afraid to change providers, either: better a change in the midst of your pregnancy than a rough birth experience with someone you didn’t trust to begin with!
Don’t fall into the “good patient trap.” Remember that physicians and other practitioners expect you to ask questions. Silence is consent, so ask away! Speak up! It may feel awkward at the time, but you’ll be glad you did once you’re in the postpartum room. Don’t be afraid of doctors — they’re people just like you and me, and you’re more likely to get the care you want if you communicate openly with them. Research the cesarean surgery rates for your practitioner’s chosen hospital on the ICAN Web site. Check your state’s Board of Medicine online to see if they have practitioner records available to the public — you can find some eye-opening stuff! Lastly, know that you have the legal right to refuse any procedure, even if your doctor formally recommends it.
Don’t assume. Don’t assume that a delightful bedside manner translates to skilled medical practice – the two are not correlated in any research anywhere. Don’t assume that a grumpy practitioner is a flop in the delivery room, either: I’ve met lovable OBs who made horrible mistakes, and downright scary midwives who were absolute birth ninjas in the delivery room.
Bring flexibility and goodwill. This sounds silly, but it works. Bring goodwill with you. Believe that everyone helping you in the hospital, from the front desk to the checkout desk, is there because they genuinely, honestly want to help people — you included. The labor and delivery wing of a hospital is almost always the happiest part of the whole place, and for a good reason! Know that even if the technician who straps on your name band is grumpy at the moment, he or she entered the profession to help you. And be flexible! No one can predict the course of their labor before it happens. No one. If you find your labor going down a path you didn’t anticipate, breathe and discuss everything you want to with your provider. Use your birth plan as a tool for decision-making, not an edict to issue the staff.
MA: Can you explain the ‘Red Tent’ concept, and speak to its value when applied to birth experiences?
KB: I first encountered it in the book of the same name by Anita Diamant, and it got me thinking. Women need women; we naturally seek each other out. And mothers especially need mothers and other women. Birthing and raising babies takes a whole tribe. You won’t find everything you need to know in a book, on a Web site, or even in a childbirth class.
We don’t give birth in a void. We give birth surrounded by the stories and experiences of our mothers, sisters, aunts, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, and indeed every woman who has ever given birth. Each of us has a birth heritage to be proud of and learn from, no matter what it looks like. These women and their wisdom — that is the Red Tent.
As far as its value to birth experiences, I work hard to create little “Red Tents” in my classes. If there is enough interest, each group has a ‘celebration of birth’ party after six weeks, where the classmates can get back together and re-connect, but this time as new parents instead of excited expecting couples. It’s a way to give them a sort of built-in community — their babies are all born around the same time, so they’re all dealing with similar things, they already know each other, and they’re all ready to start swapping initiation stories. Friends ready to be made, as I mentioned above!
MA: You’re a mother of two: How did your births inspire you to help other women have the best births possible?
KB: Honestly, I found the training I received through Lamaze so incredibly useful in my first birth (and postpartum period) that I wanted to share! I know the perception is that the Lamaze breathing is for labor only, but it actually turned into more of a life skill for me. The breathing was crucial in the first three months of my colicky son’s life. I found myself using progressive relaxation and focal points when I was stuck in traffic and about to lose my temper, and used the breathing some more when I was about to get punctured with a huge needle, or fighting a huge headache. It was a new, Zen-like power I had over my mind-body connection … I became a zealot. I dove into the training and practice with wild enthusiasm, thrilled to help empower other women and share the wealth.
So my first birth inspired me to include in my classes the unlimited usefulness of Lamaze techniques for stress relief and relaxation (not just birth).
My second birth was an unplanned induction, so it came with a lot of challenges I had not anticipated. I was pleasantly shocked to discover that my Lamaze skills helped me labor all the way to 8 cm with pitocin contractions — and when it came time for the epidural, helped me stay calm (even laughing a little) when the needle was inserted. Powerful stuff!
My second birth brought home to me the need for flexibility in anyone’s birth plans. Our bodies are perfect for birth, but very complex — and the physiological balance between baby and mother is a delicate one, so we need to be educated, empowered, and ready to dance down whatever road our labor presents to us!
B. Kristine Burneko, LCCE, BSIN, is the primary educator and founder of Red Tent Birth Support Services . She holds a Bachelor’s of Science in Health Promotion from George Mason University, and received her Lamaze certification through the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center program. She has extensive volunteer experience in the U.S. and abroad — both with the American Red Cross and crisis pregnancies in Romania. She is the mother of two fabulous young sons and one enormous horse of a dog, and the wife of a sleep-deprived angel.
We love to hear your stories! How have Red Tents inspired and supported you?