I had no reason to believe my husband would be anything but a superstar in the delivery room. During my first pregnancy, he checked all the boxes for a supportive partner: He came to the appointments, painted the nursery, rubbed my back and swollen feet, and talked me through every worrisome symptom. The hospital internship he did as part of his training to be a dental specialist even had an obstetrics rotation, which only boosted my confidence in him as a labour coach.
As it turned out, however, he was like a deer in the headlights.
During the first part of my labour, he held his own. We stayed at home as long as we could, and he was right beside me while we walked around our neighbourhood and timed the contractions. When we finally arrived at the hospital, he helped me breathe and get through the pain. But I noticed he became less talkative when the labour got really hard, and I could feel his panic when I entered the transition phase and started to get loud and more agitated. At that point, my midwives had to remind him that the string of swear words I was screaming may not have been typical behaviour for me, but it was expected for a woman giving birth. Every time I shouted “I can’t do this!” he’d look back at me with an expression that told me he couldn’t do it, either.
After pushing for two hours, I developed a low-grade fever and our baby’s heart rate became elevated. By the time an emergency C-section was called, he had completely disappeared into the background. I was so glad to see the relief on his face when he finally brought our daughter to me.
We talked about all this afterwards, and chalked it up to the totally-derailed birth experience. We hoped it would be better the next time. But the same thing happened during the birth of our son, two years later, despite it being a more straightforward delivery. In fact, his anxiety seemed to kick in earlier. He never left my side, but he let my midwives take over as soon as we arrived at the hospital. For our third and fourth child, we agreed it would be best to hire a doula.
Seeing me go through labour made him feel helpless. He’s always been great at empathizing with me, but this skill worked against him in the delivery room. And his health care training also made him overly focused on what was happening around the room, instead of concentrating on me. Ultimately, I learned to accept that being in the delivery room was just really hard for him.
Once I was being coached through my labour by a doula (who could reassure him, too), he was more relaxed and able to be there for me.
Here are some helpful strategies for your partner to be a great support during childbirth:
This way you'll both have a clear idea of what to expect. Being surprised can mean feeling scared about things you don’t need to fear. Knowing what the stages of labour look like (early labour, active labour, transition, pushing, and then delivering the afterbirth) will help you both feel better prepared. While my husband and I did take a prenatal class, we chose one that focused on breastfeeding and newborn care, thinking we would be OK for the labour.
Having an experienced support person, who is very educated about the birth process, can help relieve some pressure and allow your partner to experience the birth with less stress. Although a doula will not give medical advice, they can help with managing pain, breathing, and finding comfortable positions during labour. Bonus: most doulas continue care and home visits into the postpartum period.
This should outline your preferences during the birth process and include details about pain management, but also things like the atmosphere in the room (music or lights), so your partner can advocate for you. We had prepared a birth plan, but didn’t talk about how we would feel if we had to let go of some of our wishes—which is actually very common. Discuss how to support each other if things don’t go as planned, because often, they don’t.
They're on their own when it comes to distractions, finding food, and keeping family and friends updated. Add snacks, gum, a book, a laptop or tablet and deodorant to the hospital bag. (This is something we did get right.) We also learned, after four kids, that packing a clean t-shirt for my husband to put on after the birth was always a good idea.
And declare your partner the official photographer. Decide before the birth how much detail you’re both comfortable with having on film. It was a relief for my husband to be given a task he could handle, and he did a great job capturing the experience.
Labour can be a long and incredibly intense experience, not only for the mom-to-be but for your partner as well. There will be periods during the labour when emotions will erupt; remind your partner not to take it personally. While they may not always know what to do or how to help, just having them there is what you need most.