Neither Brynn nor Sean Sissman has ever changed a diaper before. That is going to change really, really soon.

The Sissmans, of Somers Point, are preparing for the life-defining start of parenthood - a period of uncertainty that stretches from decorating a nursery into the pain of childbirth, from the habit of nearly-hourly diaper changing and on-and-on, perhaps until college.

And like many others, their experience with babies is extremely limited.

"We're brand new to this," said Brynn, who is expecting the baby April 1. "We wanted as much information as we could get just to be prepared as we can."

The couple is one of hundreds of first-time parents who will take childbirth education classes this year at southern New Jersey hospitals. Suggested by their doctor, they attended a Lamaze-inspired, all-day class at Shore Medical Center on a recent Saturday.

Other classes are offered at AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center in Atlantic County, Cape Regional Medical Center in Cape May County, Inspira in Cumberland County and Southern Ocean Medical Center in southern Ocean County.

Instructors of these courses say they teach parents more than just procedures and facts.

"They're very important, but it's not just about labor and delivery and breathing. They come to classes to reduce the fear," said Ida Hanna, childbirth educator at AtlantiCare.

When will the baby sleep through the night? How will one know when the baby is done breastfeeding? How should the baby sleep? What kind of car seat do I need?

"Both of them (the parents) are concerned about what happens when I come home to this baby," Hanna said. "I think the dads come in thinking it's going to be their biology class from high school."

But there is more to a baby than the process of having one.

There is a lot of information thrown at new parents. There also are billions of dollars in baby products - from expensive bottle heaters to cow-shaped humidifiers to plush-giraffe white-noise machines.

Just online baby product sales are an estimated $6 billion industry in the U.S., according to market research firm IBISWorld.

"There are a lot of luxuries out there that aren't necessary," said Sharon Trombetta, a lactation specialist at Cape Regional Medical Center who teaches childbirth education at the hospital.

"In my class, I say you don't need 90 percent of the stuff out there," Hanna said. "I teach them that what you need is safety and put the money in their kid's college fund."

This is an important lesson because financial concerns about future costs of raising a child often come up, instructors say.

A middle-income family with a child born in 2012 could spend about $241,000 (or about $302,000 when projecting for inflation) to raise a child over the next 17 years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported last year. This includes food, shelter, day care and other expenses, but does not include college.

Hanna asks her class to start planning for the future - if both parents are working, parents should be considering who will take the baby to doctor appointments, for example.

Classes are attended by expecting mothers, husbands, fiances, same-sex partners, relatives, friends and adoptive parents.

At Cape Regional on a recent weeknight, Trombetta sat in front of a small group for the first of a six-week education course.

She sat on a white birthing ball, holding a model pelvis and revolving it to show how the baby will eventually work its way out.

Very few mothers have gone into labor during childbirth education classes locally in recent history. But some have come close.

"We did have someone who started labor right at the end of the class, and went right to the maternity floor to have her experience," said Kristen Rossi, a childbirth educator and lactation consultant at Shore, who teaches the course with colleague Lauren Matalucci.

Charles Scalzott and his fiancee, of Egg Harbor Township, are expecting their first child - a boy - at the end of March. They attended a class at Shore.

"Being a dad, I probably have less insight into what to expect here, so this is good for me. … It has definitely eliminated some blind spots," he said.

The course addresses the practical science of what's happening to women's bodies as they reach full term. It also talked about expectations - such as what happens when a due date comes and goes. The instructors suggest coming up with ways to celebrate the day even if the baby doesn't come yet, perhaps with flowers, a massage or dinner out.

"The science is always the science. That doesn't change," Matalucci said. "Giving them the tips and tools to get through it is what this focus is."

The Shore class had a hands-on experiment about contractions. The class inflated balloons that had ping-pong balls inside, which stopped air from flowing out again.

Squeezing the balloon pushed the ball farther out. As they did this, Rossi explained that a contraction should make your belly feel as hard as touching your forehead. When not contracting, it should feel as soft as your nose.

One by one, ping-pong balls popped all over the room, to chuckles.

"Do not be afraid to give birth," Rossi said, when asked to give a single piece of advice to expecting mothers. "It's not as scary as it seems. Your body can do it. Women are made to do it.

"Our biggest saying is, 'You got this.'"

Contact Brian Ianieri:

609-272-7253609-272-7253

To learn more: More information on various childbirth education classes available at local hospitals is available by searching their websites:

AtlantiCare: atlanticare.org

Cape Regional Medical Center: caperegional.com

Shore Medical Center:

Inspira Health Network:

Southern Ocean Medical Center: