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  • Writer's pictureSusan Martin

All About the Bradley Method

Updated: Jan 17

A happy smiling baby held between two loving parents, a mixed race couple
Happy Family

Taking a childbirth class is a common rite of passage for expectant parents today; there are a variety of types and methods to choose from and you can even find classes offered at your local hospital. However, this was not always the case. Childbirth classes came about in the mid-twentieth century and were a radical departure from the status quo. One of the major players in changing the course of this history was the Bradley Method®, ignited by the work of Dr. Robert A. Bradley MD (1917 - 1998). 

Dr. Bradley became an obstetrician in the United States during the era of Twilight Sleep, when laboring mothers were dropped off at the hospital with no family support, drugged and bound, and robbed of those precious early moments with their newborn, who was separated from them in the hospital nursery. This was truly a horrific time in childbirth normalized by hospitals and medical personnel at the time. Dr. Bradley grew up on a farm and witnessed mammals giving birth successfully on their own with a lack of distress. He believed there had to be a better way than what he witnessed during his training as a doctor. He began developing a method of helping women through natural childbirth based on his ideas of the Six Needs of the Laboring Woman: 

  1. Darkness and solitude

  2. Quiet and not being disturbed

  3. Physical comfort

  4. Physical relaxation

  5. Controlled (diaphragmatic) breathing

  6. Appearance of sleep and closed eyes

Along his journey of helping women give birth without drugs and unnecessary intervention, he made another radical discovery. Women during that time came into the hospital by themselves to give birth and Dr. Bradley spent much time supporting and coaching women during this process. In the moments after birth, the new mothers felt so elated and effusive (which we now know is the oxytocin high mothers experience after a natural birth designed to prime bonding with their babies and to feel reward after the challenges of labor) that they directed their affection toward Dr. Bradley. Determining that those feelings of joy and love should be appropriately directed towards the husband (father of the baby) in order to strengthen family bonds, he was a pioneer in allowing dads to be in the labor and delivery room to support their partners during the whole process. All of this seems like common sense these days, but Dr. Bradley was reviled by his medical peers for his forward thinking ideas. 

He wrote Husband-Coached Childbirth (1965) to share his ideas of how and why to have a natural childbirth and the integral role of new fathers in the whole process. An avid sports fan, Dr. Bradley coined the word “coach” to be used to explain the expectant father’s role as an active participant during pregnancy, labor and birth, and postpartum. This was a very progressive concept in the mid-twentieth century, a time when women were expected to be fully in charge of everything that had to do with children and the household with no partner help.  

Dr. Bradley’s book made quite an impact on Marjie and Jay Hathaway. Unable to find a doctor in the Los Angeles area who would honor their desire to have an un-medicated birth for their fourth child, the Hathways (with Marjie ready to give birth to her baby at any moment) boarded a plane for Denver, Colorado to have Dr. Bradley himself provide the medical care for their fourth birth and first natural delivery. Concerned about their flying over so late in Marjie’s pregnancy, Dr. Bradley told the Hathaways to go and help other families so that others, too, could have the birth they wanted in hospitals near them. Thus, the Bradley Method was born as a collaboration of work between Dr. Bradley and the Hathaways; they founded the Academy of Husband-Coached Childbirth (AAHCC), designed to train teachers (couples who themselves used the Bradley Method to have their babies) to help other expectant families feel empowered to have positive and healthy birth experiences. 

The Bradley Method was a major player in the natural birth movement that arose in the United States in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s as part of the feminist movement’s reaction to the paternalistic medicalized model of maternity care in the United States. It’s still around today - you may have seen it mentioned in popular pregnancy books like What to Expect When You’re Expecting. Bradley Method classes now have second and third generation parents who were Bradley babies themselves who take a Bradley Method series to help them prepare for their own baby (this is one of my favorite happenings as a teacher - I love it when a couple tells me that their own parents encouraged them to take Bradley Method classes to prepare for their new family!)

Why is the Bradley Method such an enduring and beloved childbirth preparation method? From its very inception Dr. Bradley relied upon profound truths that he observed in nature. Modern science has come to prove that the ideas that he articulated are indeed correct. The AAHCC set out to create a childbirth course that did not cut corners and the curriculum was designed to help couples prepare thoroughly for the birth of their new baby and for parenting.

A Bradley Method series of classes is designed to be 12 weeks long (this is based on neuroscience and how long it takes to build skill sets and new neural pathways). Each series spends time on making sure new parents know the actions they can take to stay healthy and low-risk to lower the chance of needing medical intervention. The primary goal is the health and well-being of the mother and baby. Therefore, it teaches about the following concepts: 

  • Natural childbirth

  • Active participation of partner/coach

  • Excellent nutrition

  • Avoidance of harmful substances during pregnancy 

  • Training for the birth

  • Relaxation and natural breathing

  • Tuning into your own body and trusting the natural process

  • Immediate and continuous contact with the new baby

  • Breastfeeding beginning at birth

  • Consumerism and positive communications with birth team

  • Parents taking responsibility for the safety of the birth place, procedures, attendants and emergency back-up

  • Preparation for unexpected situations such as emergency childbirth and cesarean section

Dr. Bradley helped over 22,000 babies be born during his time as a obstetrician. He had a 96% natural, un-medicated birth rate - which is truly incredible when one compares those to statistics in the United States today. He gave the credit to the mothers for birthing their babies and said he merely "caught" those babies. "Delivery" was a term used only for the complications of labor and birth when a mother and baby needed help.

Dr. Bradley's immense respect for the process of birth and the inherent capability of women, his forward-thinking ideas of having fathers/partner involved during pregnancy and birth, and his willingness stand up for his values in the face of ridicule and rejection by his medical peers stands the test of time. His work carries on empowering new families through the curriculum taught in Bradley Method classes. The Hathaways likewise deserve credit for stepping forward into the void and providing the strong framework of the series' design and for their passionate advocacy for the health and well-being of babies and families.

An enduring and effective process of childbirth preparation, the Bradley Method continues to help new families have their best birth and a great start with their new baby. There really is no other preparation course like it, which is why I teach this series of classes. It's practical learning that helps families make the absolute most of this precious time in their lives.

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