Perfect partners

We hear from birth partners about their preparation for, feelings about, and experiences of, labour.

Birth partners have an invaluable role to play. Research has shown that women who receive continuous support in labour are more likely to give birth spontaneously, less likely to use pain medications, more likely to be satisfied with their birth experience and have a slightly shorter labour.

But while people often feel honoured to be asked to be with their partner, friend or relative during birth, they can also find it emotionally draining and hard to see someone they care about in pain.

Vicky McNicholas, mum to Euan and Molly and previous Head of Operations at NCT

‘‘The first time I was asked to be a birth partner I was 21 and my flatmate was pregnant and single. I’d never had a baby and didn’t know anyone else of our age who had either. I hadn’t been to any classes and had no easy access to information.

‘When she was in early labour, I asked what her pain relief plan was. She said she hadn’t looked at those pages in her pregnancy book so I read them out to her. It was the blind leading the blind.

It was rewarding to be part of the most amazing thing to happen – a new life coming into this world.

‘However, I knew my role involved being supportive and encouraging and, when the midwives suggested an epidural as she wasn’t coping with the pain well, I ensured she understood what was happening and was happy with the decisions being made. The most difficult part was not being able to help with her pain.

‘It was far more demanding than I thought it would be and emotionally draining. But, it was rewarding to be part of the most amazing thing to happen – a new life coming into this world. It’s truly wonderful to be asked to share that with someone.

‘The second time I was a birth partner I was 42, I had two children and I’d worked at NCT for five years. A friend was pregnant and unexpectedly on her own.

This was poignant as she had lost her first husband when five months pregnant with her first child and she suddenly found herself doing it on her own again.

‘This time around I knew what to expect. We discussed most things about the birth plan. I did everything I could to give her the confidence to have a natural birth (she’d had a caesarean with her first baby due to a placental abruption). But after much agonising a caesarean was booked.

‘We also discussed cutting the cord, taking photos, skin-to skin contact and whether I should go with the baby should he have to be taken away for any reason.

‘Before the birth I did have a few worries and questions. Did I have enough emotional strength to support her through the birth? Was I the right person to be there with her?

‘The best part was holding that tiny baby after he’d arrived safe and well and knowing I genuinely  did make a difference to how she felt about the birth and becoming a mother again.

Vicky's advice to other birth partners

  • Read up about it beforehand and have some frank conversations about the expectations of the mother.
  • Don’t underestimate the emotional energy it will require.
  • Bring tissues – lots of them!
  • Don’t be surprised if unexpected feelings about your own births and relationships with partners and parents come up.
  • If you’re asked, do it. It’s an amazing experience!

Emotional support

Gail Werkmeister, NCT antenatal tutor since 1989 and mum to William, Charlotte and Georgina talks about what the word support means.

During the birth of the baby this can be emotional support. Being kind, loving and encouraging; telling the mother what an amazing job she is doing; as well as calming her and offering distraction. This also includes not being offended or hurt by verbal abuse or physical rejection if the mother is finding it hard to cope.

Physical support

Physical support includes assisting her to get into comfortable positions; helping her in and out of the bath if that’s what she wants; soothing her with massage; offering drinks and food; holding her hand; prompting her to empty her bladder; helping her relax; and reminding her to breathe.

Sometimes, for example after a caesarean birth, the partner might give skin-to- skin contact to the baby. Occasionally, they might go with the baby to special care if he or she needs to be transferred.

Practical support

There’s also practical support – getting the mother to the hospital or birth centre, or potentially taking her home again and keeping her morale up if it’s too early for her to be admitted.

Wherever she is in labour, the birth partner needs to protect the birth environment – keeping it calm and relaxing, dimming the lights, playing music and reducing disruption and stress to the mother. This is to enable increased oxytocin levels in the mother by minimising her adrenaline levels – all of which will better enable normal birth.

Being an advocate

The birth partner also acts as the mother’s advocate with the midwife and other healthcare professionals. It’s important for the birth partner to build a relationship with the maternity care staff and ensure the mother’s wishes are known and adhered to, where possible.

If decisions are needed the birth partner can help the mother and ask questions using decision-making tools, such as the BRAIN acronym (benefits, risks, alternatives, instinct/intuition and what would happen if we did nothing).

Preparing for labour

Visit the hospital or birthing unit to find out what to expect and how to get there.

Birth partners can talk to the woman, discuss her feelings about the birth, undertake research with her and think about attending an NCT antenatal course to discover options.

If the birth is not at home, visit the hospital or birthing unit to find out what to expect and how to get there.

If you are going to be there with a couple, discuss your expected role before the birth with both parents.

Fear of the unknown

Birth partners may have a fear of the unknown or concerns about their role and what it involves. Some birth partners worry they may not be able to cope, or that they’ll be unable to help when their partner is in pain.

But remember, afterwards the mothers often say the most important thing their birth partner did for them was just being there.

Ken Hamilton, dad to Edith and Ivor, 18 months, and member of Isle of Ely NCT branch

‘Before our twins were born, we drew up a birth plan and discussed it in depth – with each other and the consultant. We were having twins, so my concerns were that everyone got out safely and that we wouldn’t be railroaded into a decision we didn’t want to make at a vulnerable time.

‘On paper my role involved massage and calming music, but I also operated the TENS machine,  provided energy drinks and helped keep Rebecca focused and breathing.

I provided an impartial head when eventually an epidural  became inevitable and ensured the caesarean was absolutely necessary when it happened.

I identified the genders, cut the cords, and dressed and weighed the babies. Sitting with the babies on my chest as soon as they came out was so rewarding.’

Simon Cornish, dad to Martha, four, and member of NCT Norfolk branch

‘I needed to know where I fitted in before the birth as I wanted to have as helpful a role as possible. With the midwife, there would be three people and I was worried I’d feel a little like a spare part. I relaxed when I got the idea that I just needed to be there to support Karen.

‘Before the birth I did some reading and we had discussions about what we could do to help Karen  feel comfortable, mentally and physically. This helped her to feel prepared. I was supportive of Karen’s ideas and tried to contribute my own. Above all, I listened and was never dismissive.

‘During the birth, just being with Karen and supporting her was a crucial role. Early on I busied myself with inflating and filling the pool as we had a home birth. The most difficult part was being on  full alert all the time, so towards the end it was exhausting.

‘Being supportive was rewarding in itself, but of course the end result was our beautiful baby girl. My advice is to listen and be supportive – this will help your partner feel prepared.’

Kelly Mitchell, NCT Doula

‘Having had three children of my own, I had a strong desire to offer support to others. I love pregnancy and labour. So I trained as a Birth Doula with NCT at the University of Worcester and  enjoyed every aspect of the nine-month university certificate.

Many clients have told me they gained confidence from my confidence in them.

‘My preparation involves meetings with clients to get to know their birth wishes. Building trust is  extremely important.

My knowledge can prompt discussion and open up my clients’ minds to options they may not have been aware of before. I’m on call for four weeks over the due date period and offer support on the phone.

‘The best part is when clients say you made a difference to them. It’s worth the sleepless nights waiting for “the call”. And witnessing the birth of a new little human is great in itself.

One piece of advice I would give to birth companions is to be confident in a woman’s ability to birth her baby. Many clients have told me they gained confidence from my confidence in them. I love my job – it’s a privilege to be a part of this experience.’

More information

For information and support, call NCT’s helpline on 0300 330 0770

Read more about birth.

Learn about NCT Doulas.

Find out about NCT antenatal courses.