There is so much focus on what mum is going through during labour – and with good reason – that the role of the birth partner can be over-looked. What is it really like for dads, partners, close family members or friends to be present at the birth?
When mums are about to go through an event as life-changing and unknown as childbirth, it’s no wonder that most of them want their partner, friend or close family member by their side.
But what’s it like for the birth partner themselves? Mums can feel like they’re doing the ‘hard’ bit (and yes, let’s face it, they are!) but the huge contribution that birth partners make to their experience shouldn’t be downplayed.
It’s been shown that having a birth partner present at the birth can lead to a better birthing experience and can even make labour progress more quickly.
However, childbirth doesn’t always go to plan, and while mum is ‘living through’ it, their partner can feel the weight of responsibility of making sure the needs of mum and baby are met.
Sam Jones, member of NCT Fulham and dad to Max and Felix, says: ‘I was worried that I might not do the things she wanted me to do and at the wrong time.
‘Just little things like whether I was being encouraging enough, or helping with breathing – I suppose my main worry was whether I was being annoying!
‘Because we had NCT sessions, we were well prepared. But until the actual birth you don’t know what it’s going to be like – so there was a certain degree of making things up on the spot!’
Because we had gone to NCT sessions, we were well prepared
And Russell Toon, member of NCT Islington and dad to Dylan and Rosie, says of his experience of being a birth partner: ‘We’d all like to know exactly what’s going to happen and what to do for every step, but I think every birth is unpredictable and so no one can prepare you for every eventuality.
‘Nothing can get you ready for the nerves you feel when a machine that’s happily been going ‘ping’ starts making weird noises and there’s suddenly a concerned look on the midwife’s face.’
Of course, although the birth may throw up eventualities you hadn’t bargained for, being prepared is still one of the best ways to feel like you’re in control of the situation.
Like Sam says, NCT classes are a fantastic way to mentally and physically prepare for the birth and get a good idea of what to expect.
Something else that you can do to get ready is putting together and discussing a birth plan. It can help you think through what you both want to happen in what can be a very fast-moving situation.
Be sure to include in your plan that you want your birth partner with you during labour, and what role you’d like them to play.
A birth plan is also great for helping to extract as much information from mum before the birth about what she’d like you to do or not do during labour. You might find she’s not at her most lucid when the baby is imminent!
Of course, no matter how much preparation you do, there’s always going to be a large amount of ‘winging it.’ Sam says: ‘Ultimately, I just got on with it. When you’re in the room you just have to do whatever it takes to help your partner through it, but without the NCT sessions I think I would have been more nervous and less confident that I was doing the right thing.’
Labour can be extremely tiring for the birth partner as well as the mum – so in the weeks leading up to the due date, make sure you get lots of rest.
In a scenario you haven’t been in before and which is largely out of your hands, good advice is to stay calm and remember what you’ve learnt. Making sure you’ve got plenty of drinks and food to hand – for both mum and you – can also help you both keep your energy levels up. Many dads say that they were surprised by how many snacks they needed!
On the flip side, at first labour can be long and dare we say it – boring.
One NCT member recounts being infuriated with her birth partner narrating the progress of a traffic warden slapping tickets onto cars outside while she was in early labour.
So, for both your sakes, also pack easy-to-do entertainment for both mum and you in your hospital bag in case of a long wait. (There’s no excuse to be playing on your phone when mum goes into active labour though!) Put in a comfy change of clothes for both of you as well if you end up staying overnight.
And, this probably isn’t the moment for both of you to start reading up on an introduction to hypnobirthing or working out how pain-relieving aids work.
Rebecca Furlong, from Kingston NCT and mum to Jack, Emily and Dan, says: ‘I hired a TENS machine on the recommendation of a friend, then duly packed it in my hospital bag without even taking it out of the box.
‘Of course, being in established labour isn’t the time to familiarise yourself with new equipment, and so I soon became frustrated with it on the big day. I remember hurling it at my partner, John, and ordering him to figure it out.
‘John took it well and I can’t help thinking he enjoyed administering the electric shocks more than he should have! It did the trick and I delivered a bouncing 10lb baby boy with fairly minimal swearing.’
While you might think you’re prepared for the birth and know how to soothe your partner, don’t be surprised if on the day, mum can react differently in labour to how she did before. One NCT member says: ‘Although I liked my partner rubbing my back in the NCT classes, when he tried to do it while I was in labour I didn’t want him to touch me!’
Of course, try the techniques to relax mum that you’ve been taught or read up on – just be prepared to change strategy if she suddenly seems not to like it.
You might be shouted at, sworn at or just plain ignored – but she still really wants you there
Be prepared too, that she might make noises or act in a way that she hasn’t before, which some birth partners say can be disconcerting or even quite scary. It’s just her way of dealing with what she’s going through. Don’t be put off being comforting and present, as this is probably the time she needs you the most.
Even if you’re shouted at, sworn at, ignored or have your arm squeezed to oblivion during the labour, rest assured your presence is appreciated.
Emma Robinson, member of Wimbledon & District NCT branch and mum to Chloe and Hugo, says: ‘It was reassuring having Giles there, knowing that I wouldn’t be left alone.
‘It was also useful to know that there was someone there to ask for help – like finding a midwife – when I was not up to it. It was nice to have him as part of the experience and yes, to see what I went through!’
There’s no getting round the fact that birth partners can be worried about what they’re going to see ‘down there,’ and how it might affect how they feel about having sex with their partner after the birth. One dad said: ‘I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel about seeing the baby coming out. So we talked about it beforehand and decided I’d focus on comforting my partner rather than staring too hard at the delivery.’
It’s also worth mentioning that although it can seem like a huge feat – which of course it is – the birth is only a very small part of having a baby. While a birth partner’s help during labour is invaluable, it’s just the beginning of your lives with a new baby.
Russell says: ‘There’s so much advice about the birth and that’s your focus for so long, but when it’s over you slowly realise you’re relatively unprepared for everything after!’ Sam agrees: ‘Try to enjoy the birth and the weeks afterwards – babies grow so fast and the first few weeks are amazing.’
So, plan the birth with your birth partner, but remember to (excitedly) think about everything that’s going to come in the future, too.
Oh, and just one final word of warning: for birth partners who might want to cut loose before the baby is born, make sure your nights out in the weeks before the due date aren’t too wild. You never know when your services are going to be needed…
Find out more about how you can prepare for your baby’s birth, including useful tips, positions during labour and coping with pain, here.