Creating Community While Preparing for Baby

CenteringPregnancy is a national program offered at UNC Health that brings together women and their partners who are expecting babies at the same time. Through this program, patients experience better health outcomes, more time with their provider, learning, support and friendship.

What is CenteringPregnancy?

CenteringPregnancy is offered through the UNC Midwives practice in Chapel Hill. Instead of a one-on-one visit with a provider, women who are due the same month receive prenatal care together in a group setting throughout the duration of their pregnancies. The model is intended to build a sense of community among the mothers and their partners, all while learning about a wide range of topics they’ll need to know for a healthy pregnancy and the early months of parenting.

The sessions start between 16 to 20 weeks gestation, in the early second trimester, and there are up to 10 participants, plus one support person, in each group. Sessions last two hours, much longer than a typical one-on-one visit.

Following the standards of routine prenatal care, the parents-to-be meet every four weeks for the first four sessions, and every two weeks for the next six sessions.

Autumn and Ellen Banning took part in CenteringPregnancy in 2017, the year they welcomed their daughter Alivia.

“I thought CenteringPregnancy was a really cool concept,” Autumn Banning says. “It was really neat to build those relationships. It was great to hear how some people in the group were first-time moms like I was.”

Of course, not everything about the sessions is in a group: Women receive individual assessments in different parts of the room when it comes to checking their weight, blood pressure, having blood drawn, measuring fundal height (the bump), and listening to the fetal heartbeat. Those who have private questions can meet alone with a midwife after the Centering session finishes. Anything that requires a patient undress or be examined, such as cervical checks, happens in a private room.

Here’s what’s different: Part of the visit is reserved for women and their support person to sit in a circle to learn from a midwife or nurse, and to openly discuss their questions and concerns. Topics include breastfeeding, labor preparation, parenting, stress reduction and nutrition. Right now, during the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, the group sessions are virtual.

“I love it as a provider because there’s lots of resource sharing. We make sure the families leave with research-based information, and we create an environment where people can share their thoughts and feelings,” says UNC Health certified nurse midwife Meg Berreth, MSN.

The Benefits of the CenteringPregnancy Model

This group model has proven results for moms and babies, and many parents are taking advantage of the opportunity. Nationwide, the program serves 70,000 patients a year.

Since 2015, more than 250 women selected CenteringPregnancy as their prenatal care through the UNC Midwives practice in Chapel Hill. So far, the program has seen 97 percent of babies born at or after 37 weeks, 99 percent of babies leaving the hospital breastfeeding and 100 percent of patients reporting high satisfaction.

The program also has been shown to reduce the risk of preterm birth, Berreth says.

“That’s why I wanted to have it at UNC, because we are an academic medical center. If the evidence tells me that this model of care improves outcomes, then I want this to be available for families here.”

Finding Comfort Together

During the program, each parent gets the opportunity to guide the discussion about any concerns or information he or she would like to learn more about.

“During pregnancy, you have a lot of anxiety and discomfort, and taking part in these sessions helped me normalize my pregnancy symptoms,” says Brianne Tomaszewski, who joined CenteringPregnancy in 2017 while pregnant with her son, Teddy.

For Jennifer Mestril, who joined the group before welcoming daughter Tilly in 2019, it was a great way to find comfort in knowing she wasn’t alone when learning about motherhood.

“It’s an open discussion where you can ask questions, and fellow moms can answer the questions, not just the providers. I think that was really helpful,” she says.

Through sharing common experiences and learning what to expect throughout each trimester, parents became more informed, confident and empowered to make healthier choices for themselves, their children and their families.

Spouses also felt a sense of community while expressing their experiences.

“During the first couple sessions, the spouses were pretty quiet, but we all eventually became a group of friends who knew each other,” says Andy Tomaszewski, Brianne’s husband. “While the moms were able to relate, the partners were able to relate to one another as well, which was great to experience.”

CenteringPregnancy Goes Virtual

Of course, during the pandemic, expectant parents need community more than ever. Virtual CenteringPregnancy sessions take place online, where participants get to know each other and hear from guests such as a lactation consultant, a pediatrician and a doula. Each woman receives individual prenatal care in person.

Brianne Tomaszewski, who had her second child, Arabella, on August 6, joined CenteringPregnancy again—this time virtually.

“I wanted to join a second time because I wanted more of an opportunity to bond with moms and keep growing my community with families whose children were the same age as my own,” Tomaszewski says. “That was one of the reasons why I joined Centering in the first place, because when we first moved here I didn’t have that huge support system.”

Now during the virtual meetings, she is sharing her experiences in hopes of helping the new families in her group.

“The first time I joined, we had a couple of third-time and second-time moms and hearing about their experiences with their children was really helpful. I feel like I have that role now this second time around,” Tomaszewski says.

“We’ve received a lot of positive feedback from patients ever since going virtual,” says Helen Schachinger, RN, CenteringPregnancy coordinator and co-facilitator. She wants people to know that CenteringPregnancy is inclusive to all parents-to-be, no matter marital status, sexual orientation or how many children you’ve had before.

“I know these patients still need that connection, and we don’t want them to feel isolated, especially during this pandemic. It’s amazing to still see the friendships flourish.”

Once all babies from the same group are born, six weeks later a reunion with the parents and their newborns is held. This reunion is virtual for now but still exciting for these friends eager to share their babies after sharing their pregnancies.

If you’re interested in learning more about CenteringPregnancy, talk to your provider. If you don’t have one, you can find one here.