Being There In Labor
It’s important to be present for your partner during labor and birth. Here’s how to prepare for the big day.
Becoming a parent is the psychological equivalent of combining your wedding day and your first sexual experience into a 12-hour marathon. You will never forget it, whether you’re the one physically giving birth or not. Your experience on that day informs how you see yourself as a parent: chemically, relationally, and psychologically. If you and your partner do it together, you’ll be more equipped and more confident about parenting together. If she does it alone, she’ll feel alone.
During my first labor, my partner was uninvolved. He was there, but as far as I can recall, he didn’t say or do anything. We had no plan and didn’t talk much about what he could do, or wanted to do.
The birth went fine. I was overcome with the intensity, in the self-absorbed time-warp that comes with being in labor land. I remember thinking, “I am doing this. I am doing it all by myself. These people could all leave and it wouldn’t make a difference to me.” It was such an internal process, so deeply visceral, that it seemed no one could touch it.
I was right. And I was wrong.
Since that day, I’ve spent almost 12 years attending births and teaching birth preparation classes. I’ve come to realize that, while your people can be an enormous physical and relational help in labor, saying and doing is not all there is. While my partner didn’t say or do anything of note, his presence did make a difference.
The whole time, whenever I looked at him, I could see that he was unconcerned. That might sound callous, but I knew that his normal, impassive face meant he knew I could do it, he trusted birth to do it, and he was unafraid. I was unaware of it at the time, but his calmness was a kind of neurologic anchor.
The presence of men at birth is new. In the recorded history of people, men have regularly attended the births of their own children in a tiny faction of the cultures across time. In the United States, fathers started staying at the hospital sometime in the 1970s.
What that means is that, while your father was probably at your birth, his father was almost certainly not at his (unless you are quite young). We have almost no pattern or cultural expectation for what fathers are supposed to do, aside from being there.
If you have no idea what to do in a labor space, congratulations! You are normal.
How can you find out what to do?
You can ask.
Ask your partner. Ask around. Ask the midwife or doctor. Ask the doula and birth class teacher. You can even ask the Internet. But you have to ask. Communication is key.
Great partner support in labor comes from great communication before labor starts—long before labor starts. You can get into this via a good, partnership-focused birth class. You can also get it by spending the time talking, asking the right questions, and working on communication and birth skills together. (Spoiler: Almost no one makes the time for this. It’s too vague, it feels like work, and it reads a lot less thrilling than Netflix. It’s why you pay for a class.)
The Four Elements of Effective Labor Support
You can labor with your partner when you do things, say things, and be a certain way. But in order to feel prepared to do all this, first you need to plan.
Plan what to say, do, and be by having shared birth prep experience. Surprise! Take a birth class. Maybe two. The more you know, the more relaxed your partner will be able to get, because she trusts you to notice, remember, suggest what might help, and participate in decisions.
A six- to 12-week birth class commits you to each other and your baby, as you set aside the time to work together and dream together and focus on your family. You’re more likely to make the time if you commit to a class, and it’s more fulfilling and fun with other people!
Whether you find a good class or not, you can plan the birth to make it more comfortable and intimate for both of you. The shared experience of reading books, doing activities, watching (positive) birth videos, listening to instruction, and hearing (positive) birth stories creates a foundation for understanding each other in labor. For example:
If I begin mooing like a cow on all fours, I can feel comfortable doing it because I know my partner knows it is within the realm of normal labor behavior. We both saw a video where a woman in labor did pretty much exactly that. The shared experience saves you both.
If the doctor comes in and starts talking about supplementing with synthetic oxytocin, I will feel more confident responding to the suggestion because my partner and I roleplayed this very scenario in class. We’ll both stay more relaxed than if I had once read about the pitfalls of Pitocin augmentation in a book and now feel like I have to make a decision on my own, or relay all this information to my partner between contractions. Sharing discussion and information before labor begins allows labor to be a shared experience.
If I start to feel overwhelmed in labor, I know my partner can suggest a course of action and assist with some of my labor skills, or use his own comfort measures to get me over the hurdle. Because I know he knows how to read me and step in, I can lean on him and trust. Shared responsibility means you’re a reliable support.
Know what to say, what to do, and how to be by developing communication skills and a shared language.
One simple step you can take is to develop a shared language, including facial expressions, movements, and sound. She should be able to tell you YES and NO with just her face, just her body, and just her sound (6+ variations). You’ll also need a way for her to ask for your help or ask for certain comfort measures without a lot of words.
In labor, it may be too much to say “Do that thing where you put your hands on my low back and press down and in….no not like that, over to the right, woah that’s too much…” Practice this in pregnancy, so when she’s in labor she can just take your hand and put it on her back and you know.
It’s not always comfortable to say “help me” or “I need something.” Have a code word or look or gesture that means “I need you to do something” or “be close” and a small list of things you can try. If you both do it, it’s a safe way to ask for love for years to come. (At birth, though, your needs take a backseat to the person in labor.)
Once you can communicate well, you need birth knowledge and birth skills to use in response to her communicated needs.
Most people have no idea what to do to help themselves or their partners in labor. This knowledge and wisdom has passed out of mainstream culture and been replaced with the expertise of the medical establishment. If you go to the hospital, they’ll tell you what to do and take care of it all.
That plan works to get a baby out, but it doesn’t work to have a shared labor experience. To share the birth, you both need to know what to do.
As the support person, you are responsible for the environment. How can you adjust the space to make it more conducive to oxytocin, the hormone of love and birth? Think of the environment she needs to make love— that’s what you’re going for. The lights, the smells, the sounds, and especially the behavior of people should all feel good.
It’s your job to put on the music, stop or change the music, spray the aromatherapy, and dim the lights— hopefully without explicit instruction every time. It’s also your job to usher insensitive staff into the hallway and calmly explain that their tone and demeanor is not helping— or just ask for a new nurse.
If you have developed birth skills and comfort measures, you’ll be able to use them. Even doing just a little can make the difference between feeling useful and feeling uninvolved. You might learn massage techniques, positions to take, directed touch, or guided relaxation. You might just hold her hand.
First of all, say something. Please say something. Your partner will be making up what you are thinking and I guarantee it will be worse than what you are actually thinking. Periodically say something lovey or encouraging that isn’t weird for you to say. Even if all you do is whisper “I love you” or affirm “I’m here” once an hour, it’s better than not.
Second of all, you don’t have to say much. Unlike regular life, she doesn’t want to talk about it. She needs you to “get it” in some fashion, and she needs to know that you get it. The low brain waves ideal for labor are not conducive to language. We’re trying to turn off the neocortex as much as possible, so fewer words are better.
You can use words to help her relax. She might just like the sound of your voice, its comforting familiarity and calm cadence. In this case, you may find yourself talking like a guided relaxation recording or a sleep story. She might not be listening to your words, but the sound could be a kind of anchor.
If you have a plan, you can use agreed-upon words to help her remember to relax certain parts of her body or to relax under your touch.
A well-timed joke is a godsend. Laughter helps the good labor hormones and releases muscle and chemical tension. If you can make her laugh, you’re winning. Attention to her body and facial language will help you know when a laugh is most likely to land and not be insensitive or annoying. And as with anything, if it doesn’t work, don’t take it personally. Labor is weird for both of you. And it is not about you.
Finally, if you can’t think what to say: Think of labor as the longest, most intense foreplay of your life.
The most nebulous, but most important aspect of birth support is the energy and mood you bring to the labor. Recall that at my first birth, we were both woefully unprepared (which is normal), and my partner didn’t say or do anything. But it wasn’t a disaster, because of the calm energy he brought! Here are some tips to help you be a stable emotional support.
Be positive. If you are not having positive thoughts about your partner or the labor, leave the room. Step out (say you need to pee) and go for a brisk walk or call your dad or say a prayer and come back when you sort it out.
Tell yourself over and over, “She is so beautiful,” and “This is the hardest thing she’s ever done, and she is doing it!” When you find your thoughts straying to worry or negativity in any way, just say one of those things in your mind.
Be calm. Keep a calm, loving, positive expression on your face. This may not come naturally to you, and you may need some practice to develop some skills to help you stay and seem calm. She has plenty of things to practice in anticipation of birth, and so do you.
People in labor are very permeable. It is a vulnerable time and they’re sensitive to any sign of trouble or danger (which makes sense, right?). Your demeanor will affect her ability to birth the baby. If calm and loving emotions do not come naturally to your face, practice. And if it comes to it, you can always resort to the idea a dad in my class had: “I’ll bring my Power Rangers mask.”
Be steady. Learn some breathing techniques. You can do them together to help her stay calm and oxygenated. You can do them yourself to control your nerves. You can be the strong, calm presence for her to anchor to.
Labor is a naturally unstable time. Unstable support makes unstable people feel worse. She can feel your instability, your freak-out, and your judgement. Check that mess at the door. It’s okay to be uncomfortable…but it’s your goal to be comfortable being uncomfortable.
You’ll be a lot more comfortable with the discomfort if you have a plan about what to say and do. When in doubt? Smile, put a reassuring hand on her body, and say “I love you.”