FORT HOOD, Texas (Army News Service, June 3, 2009) -- Are you really ready for a baby' If so and itAca,!a,,cs your first, perhaps you don't know what to expect, like hormonal and body changes or mood swings and you have a multitude of questions'

No doubt; pregnancy can be overwhelming and a bit frightening but thatAca,!a,,cs where Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center can help with the answers by connecting you with other women who are also pregnant.

The Women's Health Center at Darnall offers the Centering Pregnancy Program to give pregnant women and their partners information about medical and lifestyle issues related to a healthy pregnancy.

Set up by the Henry Jackson Foundation with guidance and support from the March of Dimes Foundation, the program is offered to civilian and military hospitals. At Fort Hood, 14 certified mid-wives, 14 certified nurse assistants, and two physicians have received entering pregnancy training that helps reduce the risk of low-birth weight and birth defects in newborns.

The program curriculum, established by the Centering Health Institute in collaboration with the March of Dimes Foundation, is designed to encourage pregnant women to adopt healthy behaviors during pregnancy. Areas of focus include "Eating for Two" nutrition, hygiene, contraception, and post-partum care.

Women also learn exercise routines to develop strength; breathing and relaxation techniques; how to take care of the baby before and after delivery; and the benefits of breastfeeding.

"One of the good things about the program is that moms get to bond with other moms while their husbands are deployed. They can build a support system," said Sgt. 1st Class Livier Lazaro, noncommissioned officer-in-charge at the Darnall OB/GYN department.

Support groups consist of 12 moms-to-be that meet for 10 two-hour sessions during their pregnancy. In the first meeting, women focus on common concerns and establishing goals before and after pregnancy.

Each session starts with a routine checkup, also known as "baby and mom check," to make sure blood pressure and weight are okay. Each woman receives a private consultation with a health care provider to talk about the pregnancy and her state-of-mind.

Depression can cause low birth weight, so developing a bond and friendship can help fill a void when a husband deploys.

"Soldiers are deploying back to back; we have a lot of lonely moms, and this can cause depression," said Lazaro. "We don't want our moms to feel alone, they are part of our group and their babies are part of our family."

"I'm glad to be in the class, I don't have family here, my husband is deployed, and I felt alone. I've met lots of people and the classes have given me tools that help me be a lot calmer. Just knowing the answers to my questions keep me from being on edge all the time," said Sara Cantu whose husband is deployed.

"The Centering Pregnancy program is great. It's not like reading a text book. If you're in the program you get a whole new point of view of what it is to pregnant," she added. "My doctor is very informative." she said.

Expecting her first baby in August, Cantu is excited about the support and answers she gets from the program during her husband's current deployment to Iraq.

First-time mom Sgt. Arelis Encarnacion, a rear detachment food service specialist with the 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, echoes that sentiment.

"I've learned so much at Darnall," she said. "Everything from breast feeding to how to treat stretch marks, and what side to sleep on so that I'm comfortable and not hurting myself or the babyAca,!A| itAca,!a,,cs great."

Encarnacion's doctor suggested the program would be a good learning experience and would add a support system for the single mom.

During the support sessions there is an exchange of maternity experiences. Moms-to-be can talk about any worries, learn about the stages of pregnancy, have their stomachs measured, listen to the baby's heartbeat and learn about the development of their baby.

"In the classroom, it's me and one other mom that are first-time moms; everyone else has children," Cantu said. "It's good because I'm not alone, and I learn from all the veteran moms in the room. I've learned everything I wanted to know. Listening to the heart beat is great because I've learned what to listen for when I hear the baby's heart beat to know if the baby is healthy.Aca,!A?

The first few sessions concentrate on eating, which is especially important during the first trimester when the baby starts developing. Women learn how to use exercise to relieve discomfort and relaxation techniques to help manage stress.

Journal entries are encouraged to remember ideas that may have inspired them during each session.

At about the seventh or eighth month, all moms have the option of having their stomachs molded using casting material. Later, they can decorate the casts and keep them as treasures to remember.

"Belly casting and belly dancing have been incorporated into the program and have been successful among the groups," said Lazaro. She added that centering pregnancy makes a difference.

"It's a great program, I've seen the difference in the patients from their first day in the program, they build such tight bonds with the other moms, I see them in the PX shopping with each other and having a good time and that's great," said Lazaro.

"It's also a great way to ensure you're baby is healthier and to build a support system," Cantu said. "If I get pregnant again I'm definitely coming back to the program. The nurses are so funny and very upbeat all the time. I love having them in the group because we laugh a lot. The staff is great and I've learned a lot from them; we all have a good time."

"I recommend the program to everybody single or married. The program really helps prepare you with the tools you need to plan ahead of time," said Encarnacion. "I really look forward to going to the Centering Pregnancy program, I like it so much that I often call my doctor to double check on the day," she added.

(Jasmine Morales serves with Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center Public Affairs.)