Dear Mr. Dad: My wife is due in about a month and I’m already in a panic. We took a childbirth prep class, but I’m convinced that I won’t know what to do—or, worse still, that I’ll do something wrong—when labor starts. I’m wondering whether I should just step away and let the doctors and nurses do what they do. Your thoughts?
A: Because childbirth is such a female-intensive thing, a lot of guys don’t really understand how important they are to the process. The reality is that you’re absolutely indispensable. Yes, there are doctors and nurses and midwives running around all over the place, but your partner is really counting on you most of all to help get her through this. Your being there—and being actively involved—can make a big, big difference. Women whose partners are supportive during labor and delivery tend to have shorter labors and report experiencing less pain. They also have a more positive attitude toward motherhood.
Here are a number of ways you can help your partner cope throughout the labor and delivery. Some of these are drawn from The Best Birth, which I wrote with childbirth educator Sarah McMoyler.
- Remind her to slow her breathing down. Just taking in long, deep breaths—inhale for five seconds, exhale for five seconds—can be very calming.
- Encourage her to moan during the contractions and rest in between. Screaming isn’t very effective in coping with pain, and neither is the patterned breathing taught in many childbirth prep systems. Instead, go for low, growly, guttural sounds—deep and loud—the kind of sounds you’d make if you tried to lift a car. This is no time to be dainty or to worry about what the people in the next room—or on the next floor—will think. They’re probably making plenty of noises of their own.
- Help her relax. People coping with pain often clench their jaws, make fists, tense their shoulders, or hold their breath. None of this helps. In fact, it does more harm than good.
- Get in her face and be direct. This may seem a little aggressive, but it really does work. In early labor, lock eyes with her and tell her what to do: “unclench your jaw, un-fist your hands, drop your shoulders, breeeeeeathe . . . “ As labor progresses, skip the words and just show her what you want her to do by letting your body melt, unclenching, and moaning. Doing this is especially important between contractions. Staying tense—or tensing up in anticipation of the next uterus-wrenching contraction—will make it harder for her to recover during those all-too-brief breaks.
- Offer sips of water, ice chips, and cold compresses.
- Offer a massage. Back, hands, feet, or whatever she’d like (if she wants anything at all). Sometimes, when massage is annoying, sustained counter-pressure can be just the ticket. Ask her which helps more: high or low on the back, or closer to the tailbone.
- Verbal anesthesia. Tell her she’s doing a great job—it means a lot more coming from you than from a nurse she doesn’t know. Simple things like “Great job!” or “Stay with it” are remarkably effective.
- Make sure she hits the bathroom at least once every hour. If she’s not peeing that often, she’s not drinking enough.
- Get her up and moving around. Being upright, if at all possible, makes gravity kick in and help the baby descend. Walking around keeps her body in motion and maximizes the effect that relaxin (a hormone that does just that) can have on the pelvic joints. You may be able to do this during the contractions in early labor. But once she’s deep into active labor, do it between contractions.
Photo by César Abner Martínez Aguilar