If you are the partner of someone who is pregnant or you have been asked to be a birth support person, you have been given a privilege and a responsibility: to provide emotional and physical support to a woman who will need your help through one of the most significant and vulnerable experiences of her life.
Being the support person for a woman in labour is a wonderful experience, a great honour – and a particularly personal journey if you are the father of her baby. “You walk into the birthing suite with a pregnant wife and you walk out a Dad”.
Being a birth support person is also pretty scary – especially if you have never done this before. Many prospective birth support people report that they worry that they won’t know what to do, that they will be completely useless, that they will panic or faint, that they will be horrified and say or do something inappropriate.
Sometimes they worry about things going wrong and about the health of their partner and the baby. These are all very common fears and it’s often really helpful if you can come out and say (or maybe write down) what you’re most worried about.
It’s OK to be anxious. And a great way to combat this, is to gather as much information as you can about what is going to happen, so that you can help as best you can.
The best person to ask is of course, the pregnant mother. She probably has certain expectations of what your role will be; ask her to explain them to you if you feel unsure. A few minutes of conversation can clear up lots of uncertainty.
Getting ready for the birth
Ideally, you will be able to attend antenatal classes together, where you will be able to be involved in demonstrations of different techniques to help cope with the waves of contractions in labour.
The Birth Plan
Many pregnant women will write down a birth plan that will clearly set out her expectations and the decisions she has made about the birth. If your partner does not have a written plan, make sure that you take time to sit down and talk about some of the decisions she has made.
These are just some of the things a birth plan may or may not contain. Discuss these with her prior to the due date:
- Place of birth – home or hospital birth, when to go to hospital and how to get to there
- Support people – people present while labouring
- Contacting your midwife – when and how
- Pain relief – TENS set up and operation, the use of water, other methods of pain relief
- Surroundings – music and lighting, aromatherapy
- Positions in labour – breathing support, massage
- Nutrition & Hydration – during labour and after the birth
- Baby at birth – skin-on-skin contact
Who will be at the birth?
Birth is an incredibly private and intimate experience. It is strongly impacted by the psychological state of the mother; and it’s really important that the labouring woman feels completely comfortable with the people who are in the room with her.
Mothers, big sisters and mothers-in-law frequently assume that they will be a great help in a birth when actually the labouring mother would be far more relaxed without them there. Be prepared to act as gatekeeper for her.
You may be tempted to use your phone during the long labour to let people know what is happening. For some women, nothing is more annoying than a partner consumed in sending text messages and taking calls while they are dealing with painful contractions! Discuss this before hand and remind yourself to turn off your phone. There will be plenty of time after the baby is born to let friends and family know all is well.
What does a birth support person do?
Labour has distinct stages and there will be different requirements of you in each stage. All women (and all labours) are different, so your role might be just to be there having a chat in the quiet early stages; later, you might have a physically demanding role, holding her upright during painful contractions; you might need to help with showers, massage, getting drinks, ice – or she may want you just to be there, quietly holding her hand.
Although you may feel anxious, particularly when she is in obvious pain, it’s best to keep your own anxiety about the pain she is experiencing lest you discourage her.
If you are feeling panicky, call on another support person or perhaps the midwife, to stay with her and take a few minutes break.
Never leave her alone for more than a minute, but most midwives will understand if you need to take ten minutes out to get some fresh air and pull yourself together and will step in for a while to cover for you.
Bags Packed – if you are birthing at hospital, make sure the bags are ready to go and you know exactly where to find them. If you are planning for a home birth, make sure you know where to locate everything you need.
Car seat – if you are going to a maternity hospital and need to move from one hospital to another, make sure the carseat is correctly fitted into the car (you may need to practice this a few times well before the due date).
Food & Drinks – make sure you have a supply of cold drinks and food at home or to take to the hospital (for yourself and the labouring mother).
During the Birth
The labouring women will tell you what she needs. If you’re not sure – ask, but don’t hound her. Be guided by her mood and fit in with her. Don’t be hurt or offended if she says or does something that is out of character or if she is sharp or aggressive with you – this is usually because she is in pain and perhaps exhausted.
Some women want their partner to stand by quietly through each contraction and don’t want to be touched at all; other women will find comfort from you stroking her hair, massaging her back or holding her hands tightly.
Some women need constant encouragement and want to hear your voice, others prefer to labour in silence. Eye contact and quiet approval may be all that she needs.
Your biggest role is to provide emotional support, positive encouragement and praise. You will be her guide, reminding her of how far she has come, how well she is doing, how proud you are of her; it’s important that you avoid any criticism or negativity.
Remember to think back to the birth plan and the things discussed together. Think about the environment (dim lights, music, hydration, heat packs, massage).
Part of the Birth Plan may include the request for massage. Read the following information:
Don’t Rush Your Massage Strokes
Use gentle, smooth strokes to avoid irritating her. A labouring woman will often find that rushed and choppy strokes are annoying to her. Think about keeping firm pressure and working in long, even lines across her back, belly, hand, foot or leg.
Use Oil or Lotion if Needed
There is nothing more annoying than having your skin rubbed off by rough hands or “burned” from excess friction. Use a good quality massage oil or massage lotion as a lubricant to avoid hurting her skin, or irritating her emotions. Remember that a little bit of lotion goes a long way so just use enough to keep from hurting her skin, but not so much that you make her feel greasy and sticky. Using massage oil or massage lotion can be an excellent way to introduce essential oils that can help a labouring mother feel calm, centred or relaxed. It’s important for the birth partner to make sure the fragrance is pleasing to the mother before using it.
Be Prepared for the Mother to Change Her Mind
A labouring woman can change her mind from contraction to contraction, especially as she enters the transition phase of labour. A birth partner should not take this personally, but rather see this as a sign that things are progressing and the mother is taking control to help herself cope with labour.
A labouring woman may want you to rub her back one second and then tell you not to touch her during the next contraction. Two contractions later she may ask you to massage her feet or legs. A birth partner should just continue to support her and remember that she is working extremely hard – a labouring woman may only use one or two words without typical politeness. “Please massage my leg” might become, “Leg!” during an intense contraction.
Practice Ahead of Time
A birth partner will often have a better idea of what coping techniques a mother find helpful by seeing what she prefers to use during her everyday stresses. When the labouring woman bumps into a chair what is helpful to her? Firm pressure? Distraction? When the mother has had a very stressful day what helps her unwind? When she gets a regular massage, what techniques and strokes does she find most enjoyable? Knowing some of these answers can help give a birth partner a general place to start, but remember the tip above. Stay flexible!
After the Birth
After the baby is born, you and the mother may well be exhausted. Rest and sleep are very important at this time to aid recovery and help with the first few days of being a new mum. When the baby is born and you send out your announcements to friends and family, politely say that ‘mum and baby’ need some rest and that visitors will be invited when they are ready. You then avoid visitors arriving unexpectedly when all the mother wants to do is breastfeed or rest. Be guided by the mother when it comes to who, if and when visitors are allowed.
It is a good idea to put a sign up on the door saying ‘Do not disturb – mum & baby sleeping’ and this will prevent cleaners coming into the room to empty rubbish bins or work colleagues turning up to meet the new baby!
Phone calls, text messages & emails
It is a wonderful time to finally let everyone know that mum and baby are well and announce the arrival of a beautiful baby boy or girl into the world. There is plenty of time to do this, so enjoy the precious time with mum and baby before letting the world know…and don’t forget to check with mum before sending out photos…there may be one or two she wishes to delete first!
Nourishment for the new mum
After giving birth and beginning breastfeeding new mothers declare their hunger loudly! Make sure you have plenty of healthy snacks and drinks available. Hospital food may not be enough, so bring in extra food if requested. Many women need snacks during the night to keep them going!
Many new mothers tend to have an increased sense of anxiety because of the new responsibility a baby brings. Not surprisingly, this anxiety can have a negative impact on her mood. The fatigue and lack of sleep that affects all new mothers only serves to compound the problem. She may also be finding it difficult to breastfeed and cope with interrupted sleep.The baby blues usually occur on day 3 or 4 after giving birth and is attributed to the sudden, quick change in hormones. The emotional and physical stress of giving birth along with any general physical discomfort she may be experiencing can also contribute to her feeling a bit down for the first few days/weeks after birth.
Symptoms of the baby blues are generally mild and can include crying, mood swings, irritability, anxiety, loneliness, restlessness and impatience. These symptoms should ease quite quickly within a day or so, but try to be patient and understanding during this time. Provide support, listen and be as helpful as you can. If the ‘baby blues’ do not seem to be disappearing then speak with your LMC, doctor and partner.
How dads can get involved in caring for baby
Once bub has arrived, there’s plenty of opportunity for doting fathers to offer support:
- When the baby is delivered, if Mum is busy (with the third stage of labour for example) be on hand to hold the baby. Skin to skin contact is just as important for dad and baby, as for mum and baby. Don’t be shy –
take your shirt off if you want to.
- Once your new baby has arrived, take every opportunity to burp and change the baby’s nappy. Don’t feel discouraged if you need a bit of practice to get it right – mum may look as if she’s sussed it, but she’s probably just getting more opportunity to practice than you!
- Have lots of skin-on-skin cuddles with the new baby. The baby not only gets tummy time, but you get to bond too.
- Help as much as you can around the house to lighten the load on the new mum and fend off visitors if necessary, so mum can get some rest and have the necessary time to get breastfeeding going.
- Be as supportive as possible of your partner if she is feeling hormonal, weepy and depressed.
- Look after yourself too – you may feel a bit left out, anxious, angry or moody. Talk to your partner or your friends and get support.
- Acknowledge that you are tired and need to rest too. Don’t try to be superman!
- Claim bath time as your own special time with baby or try bed time reading and daily walks for quality father-son or father-daughter time.
- Put aside some of your own hobbies and enjoy the company of your child while he or she is still young. Golf will still be there, but the baby years will fly past.