Sheena Webb had her first child in November.

But instead of feeling the first-time-mom-to-be jitters, she felt relaxed, confident and informed.

Webb is part of the Spectrum Health CenteringPregnancy program, a new prenatal care option for women in West Michigan. Soon-to-be moms with similar due dates attend 10 two-hour sessions during the course of their pregnancies, instead of individual office visits.

Moms begin each session with a private exam in a discreet corner of the room with their health care provider. They can ask questions and hear their baby’s heartbeat.

Webb said the CenteringPregnancy experience was invaluable.

“I learned a lot about my body, how it was changing, what to expect and what to do in case of emergency,” said Webb, who gave birth to Paul Jr. on Nov. 1. “They taught us how to make smoothies and encouraged us to drink fruit water.”

Webb admits she could have been nervous if she felt like she were going through this experience alone.

“Coming here is like assurance,” Webb said. “It’s kind of like ‘everything is OK,’ that what you might be worked up about is normal. I could get my questions answered.”

She also enjoyed the camaraderie.

“I liked the fact I could have conversations with other people who were pregnant,” Webb said. “I’m very excited about this journey.”

After individual exams, the women form a circle in the middle of the second-floor conference room at Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital.

On one Tuesday, group leader Courtney Hilbert, CNM, a Spectrum Health certified nurse midwife, introduced the day’s topics: stress management and breast feeding.

She launched the group into a game of charades, asking participants to act out something they do to relax.

Laughter erupted as the women attempted to portray actions such as praying, singing, dancing and yoga.

It’s like that in this group—lots of laughter, lots of sharing and lots of kinship.

But that day, the focus remained on relaxing.

Learning to exhale

Hilbert dimmed the lights as Mickey Jensen-Hower, case manager and social worker from Spectrum Health’s Maternal Infant Health Program, talked the women through an exercise.

“Take a deep breath in, now a deep breath out,” Jensen-Hower said. “Raise your eyebrows real high, then relax. Clench your jaw tight, then relax.”

The guidance continued until all muscles were talked through a gentle calm.

Monica Dean, of Wyoming, Michigan, said she would highly recommend the program to any mom-in-the-making.

“It’s always nice to have support, especially from people going through the same body changes and same emotional roller coaster that you are,” said Dean, who gave birth to daughter Aria last fall.

Dean said the CenteringPregnancy facilitators have taught her how to take her own blood pressure and recognize what symptoms are normal and what ones aren’t.

“I’m learning to be more sociable as well,” she said. “I talk to some of these women on the phone and on Facebook.”

Melissa Green is an experienced mom. But she’s learning, too.

“There’s a lot of information I don’t know even with this being my fifth pregnancy,” the Grand Rapids, Michigan resident said. “The relaxation exercise was very helpful. I pictured myself on a beach. This is an experience that I’m so much enjoying.”

Mingling with moms

Expectant moms at the Spectrum Health OB/GYN Residency Practice are given the choice to enroll in the CenteringPregnancy program for their prenatal care or to continue seeing their obstetrician or midwife in the office for their care.

Green said she enjoys the social element of CenteringPregnancy.

“When you’re waiting in a (doctor’s) waiting room, you don’t see a lot of people,” Green said. “It’s nice to be able to be around other people who are expecting around the same time. It makes it more enjoyable.”

Hilbert said studies have shown that the CenteringPregnancy program offers more than just social benefits.

A five-year study led by the University of South Carolina and published in the Journal of Maternal and Child Health showed that participating in a CenteringPregnancy program reduces the risk of premature birth by 36 percent. Every premature birth prevented means an average savings of $22,667.

The study says program participation also reduces the risk of neonatal intensive care unit stays for newborns by 28 percent.

“We have very few interventions available to decrease the risk of preterm birth and we have made very little progress in this country in reducing the profound racial disparities in rates of preterm birth,” Hilbert said. “With the assistance of the March of Dimes, we were able to start CenteringPregnancy and make an impact on the women of this community.”

Why is the program so successful?

“It is believed to be associated with the increased education and support, decreased stress and increased access to health care providers that participants in this program experience,” Hilbert said.