To bookmark:

Login or Sign Up

Fathers at Birth

By Rose Bergen

How to help your partner reduce the pain of labor and open the body through shared conscious breathing

Other than your mountain and warrior presence, your most important contribution to labor is helping your partner keep her breath flowing. Tension and anxiety increase the minute breath becomes shallow or restricted, and they decrease the minute breath becomes smooth and flowing. Breath is the most powerful tool you can use to keep you both centered. It is also the most powerful tool your partner can use to decrease pain.

The first action you take in any situation is a breath. The breath affects the lungs, immediately cueing the nervous system. The nervous system responds by sending messages, which impact the mind-body system. Messages sent from the nervous system affect us physically, emotionally, and mentally. If we alter how we breathe, we alter the constellation of messages and reactions in our entire system.

A focus on the breath keeps you both grounded in the moment, and gives each of you the ability to work with one wave of labor at a time. You cannot breathe in the past or in the future. By focusing on the breath, you help your partner stay focused in the now. Most women can deal with one breath, one wave of labor at a time. When a woman cannot release tension from one wave, she carries it into the next wave. As tension accumulates from one wave to the next, labor becomes overwhelming. Then the mother either accelerates or shuts down the breath in an effort to cope.

Rapid, shallow breathing, hyperventilating, or temporarily holding the breath seems to help the mother cope in the moment. But the result is escalating pain, which creates a during the waves, which reduces pain.

When breath is haphazard, rapid, shallow, or exhibits long pauses, it cues the nervous system to release fright, flight, or fight responses. Then tension, anxiety, and pain levels soar. Getting through labor with recurrent fright, flight, or fight cues is like scaling a cliff that goes straight up with no rope to hold onto. The minute you assist your partner to focus on breath, it is like giving her a rope so she can continue her climb.

One birthing mother, Julie, shared how important it was to have her partner assist her with breath: “I couldn’t have made it through labor without drugs if my husband hadn’t been there to keep me focused on the breath. It helped me to anchor whenever I panicked.”

Effective breathing is critical for your partner, but how you breathe can make a big difference in the effectiveness of your contribution. Your stable presence is anchored in your own fluid breathing.
Alexander, a birthing husband, shared how breath was a key element during his labor vigil: “Labor was like this giant observance of the breath—both my breath and my wife’s. The breath kept us connected. By keeping tabs on my breath, I kept connected to myself and by keeping tabs on her breath, I kept connected to her and how she was doing. And it really is true; there are few things as stabilizing or reassuring as flowing breath.”

Rhythmic, flowing breath helps the mother releAse tension between the waves, as well as during the waves, which reduces pain.

Simply diving into your breath has a profound influence on you both. Breath literally has the power to revolutionize your experience. 

The Great and Simple Teaching of Breath

Breath is the link between body and mind. You can relax a tense body or focus an agitated or distracted mind when you attend the breath and allow it to be:

  • Diaphragmatic
  • Flowing without exaggerated breaks
  • Smooth and fluid, without jerks or restrictions
  • Quiet, refined, without noises (this does not mean your partner should not combine the exhalation with groaning during her waves)

Do not be deceived by the simplicity of this practice. The simplest practices are the most powerful and profound. Fluid, rhythmic, diaphragmatic breathing is so effective that within 40 seconds, a biofeedback machine can record the body’s physiological alteration. I witnessed this when I went through a series of biofeedback sessions as part of a holistic therapy program. Tension levels measurably decrease, and body temperature measurably increases, indicating enhanced levels of relaxation. This is called the relaxation response.

Breath is intimately connected to the nervous system, which immediately affects your entire psychophysiological system. Breath has the power to turn an unnerving situation around in less than a minute. Engaging the relaxation response by rhythmic, smooth breathing is the most powerful tool you and your partner can use during labor.

When breath is diaphragmatic and flows smoothly, without exaggerated breaks or restrictions, it is physiologically impossible to be in a state of agitation. This is not a belief system. It is a practice. I ask my clients not to simply believe this, but to use it to discover whether or not it is true.

Breath to Alignment

The quality of breath is intimately connected to alignment. Misalignment inhibits effective breathing, creates unnecessary tension, detrimentally affects body organs, and requires the body to use additional energy to support its weight and position. If your partner’s breath is constricted because of collapsed alignment, she not only has to cope with the powerful force of labor, but also with the emotional impact of the nervous system firing fight, flight, or fright cues. One way you help ease this impossible cycle is by attending your partner’s alignment.

Comfortable alignment supports the mother to breathe more proficiently, reduces a measure of discomfort, and conserves energy. By keeping the mother as aligned, supported, and comfortable as is practical, you increase her ability to breathe and relax.

The Mechanics of Alignment

The body has three basic weights: pelvis, chest, and head. Observe the mother’s alignment from time to time and help keep these three body weights as aligned, supported, and comfortable as is practical. Think in terms of observing and supporting her whole body, from the crown of her head to the tips of her toes. The position of the spine is pivotal because it reflects alignment of pelvis, chest, and head. She will need periodic support of her head, lower back, and legs. Use pillows or rolled towels for additional support when needed.

However, don’t get trapped in the details of alignment and lose the larger perspective. Too much attention to detail will annoy and distract your partner. Supported comfort is the main idea.

Fathers, when present and focused on offering practical support, can play an extremely valuable part in the family’s birth journey.

Keep Her Body Warm

Another easy way you contribute to your partner’s alignment and breath flow is to keep her warm. A chilly body cannot relax. If the mother gets chilly, her muscles contract, which causes misalignment, unnecessary tension, restricted breath flow, and increased pain. When your partner is in deep labor, she may not realize on the rational level that she is cold. It is your job to ensure she is not.

Warmth conveys nurture and safety. If your partner gets chilly, she releases adrenaline, which inhibits oxytocin, the hormone that sustains labor. The caring act of keeping your partner warm supports alignment, breath flow, and encourages labor to progress with more ease. Cover her with an extra blanket, and offer hot packs.

There may be times when your partner feels hot. Offer an ice pack to place on her forehead or neck. Keeping the mother’s body temperature comfortable is one way to support her.

Fathers, when present and focused on offering practical support, can play an extremely valuable part in the family’s birth journey.