It's all in the DELIVERY Health: B&B weekend class lets expectant couples escape weekday hassles, take a deep breath and really learn what to expect from childbirth.

June 18, 1996|By Maryalice Yakutchik | Maryalice Yakutchik,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Alice Alpert used to teach childbirth classes the conventional way: in a hospital over the course of six weeks. She'd lug her teaching materials back and forth each week and watch exhausted couples struggle to pay attention after a long day at work.

Then Ms. Alpert, a registered nurse and certified childbirth educator, decided to try something different, something that is now becoming a hot trend in childbirth education: a getaway weekend for prospective parents.

One weekend a month, Ms. Alpert transforms Frederick County's historic Catoctin Inn into Childbirth Central.

Dolls in various stages of undress are perched on the mantle of the marble fireplace. An antique piano is strewn with sheets of tips about everything from infant massage to breastfeeding. A bone china tea cup, filled to the brim with sample tubes of lanolin, sits daintily among an assortment of newborn caps and nursing bras. "We DO trash the place with baby stuff," Ms. Alpert acknowledges, eyeing a rubber breast atop a big-screen TV.

The inn in Buckeystown is nothing if not accommodating, she says. Owners Sarah and Terry MacIllivray even went so far as to give birth to a daughter, Megan, on the Monday before a scheduled weekend class, thus producing a 4-day-old baby for show-and-tell.

"What a great B&B," enthuses Ms. Alpert, 42, who lives near the bed and breakfast in Urbana. "They even provide real props!"

Ms. Alpert is into props. In lieu of the conventional scientific chart to illustrate dilation, she has created her own using everything from a Cheerio (to depict 1 centimeter) to the lid of a can of Hershey's Chocolate Syrup ("C'mon," she demands, "how many of you are sneaking spoonfuls when nobody's looking?"). A bagel, at 10 centimeters, means it's time to push.

At the conclusion of her Friday evening lecture, seven very pregnant women accept help from attentive husbands as they extricate themselves from rocking chairs and plush wingbacks. Lacey, the resident retriever, is shooed from her spot on the Oriental carpet so that the couples can litter every inch of it with pillows and stretch out.

Ms. Alpert pops a tape into a cassette player and dims the lights. Soft strains of classical music are punctuated by the swish-swish of amplified womb sounds. She works the crowd, testing the heaviness of a leg, an arm. Unsatisfied with mere sighs, she listens for purposeful breathing: "Inhale slowly through the nose blow it out through the mouth," she gently reminds.

A ceiling fan circulates the smell of apple pies baking in an adjacent kitchen -- dessert for lunch tomorrow, predicts Ms. Alpert. Everything about the place conspires to convince couples that they're not really attending a formal class, but visiting a friend's house.

At least half the battle of teaching childbirth preparation is won easily here. Couples actually look forward to attending; even men whose eyes glaze over at the mention of birthing class admit that this is a painless alternative.

'It's a trend'

When Ms. Alpert started holding childbirth classes at a bed and breakfast three years ago, she didn't know of anyone else doing it.

Now similar weekends are offered at inns, hotels and conference centers all over. St. Agnes Hospital, for instance, offers a Lamaze Weekend at the Best Western at the Baltimore Travel Plaza.

"It's a trend," says Mae Shoemaker, president of the 9,000-member International Childbirth Education Association, "initiated by educators competing for business."

In fact, her group will offer a brand new seminar, "Designing Your Own Weekend Class," when it holds its annual convention in Washington later this summer.

The appeal of getaway weekends is easy to understand, Ms. Shoemaker says. Fewer prospective parents are willing or able to commit to the conventional course: traditionally a 12-hour series completed in six weeks. Their schedules are frenetically busy; their work weeks long and erratic.

And those who have the money don't mind paying for a weekend at a place like the Catoctin Inn.

Ms. Alpert's class at the inn costs from $350 to $415, depending on the room: some have fireplaces and whirlpool tubs; all have queen beds and private baths. A full breakfast and gourmet lunch are served everyday. During breaks, there's lemonade, a porch for rocking and four acres of magnolias for strolling; there's time to hold hands and talk uninterrupted by urgent cries of hunger (or is it gas or teething?).

"Who says romance is dead when your big and pregnant?" asks Beth Ward Dutille, 30, who's expecting her first child in August.

As a television reporter for Channel 8 in Springfield, Va., her workday starts at 5 a.m. and often lasts until 7 p.m. Her husband, Mark, is a physician's assistant at Mount Vernon Hospital in Alexandria; he's always on call, she says. Attending childbirth classes seemed like a nightmare until Mr. Dutille heard from a hospital colleague about Ms. Alpert's Bed and Breakfast Weekend.

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