I recently had the great honour of being a birth partner for a family member and it led me to reflect on what makes a great birth partner.
All women need an excellent, supportive partner to see them through labour. Time and time again studies have shown that good emotional support in labour can improve birth outcomes for both mothers and babies by reducing unnecessary medical interventions. So who is best placed to provide this support? Of course, your midwife is there to support you and once you are in established labour you should receive one to one care from a qualified midwife. It is also a great idea to take a birth partner along for the ride, this is the person who can massage you, feed you and whisper words of encouragement in the moments the midwife gets caught up taking care of your physical health.
Birth partners come in many shapes and sizes, most hospital protocols allow two birth partners per room. During my career as a midwife, I have seen many examples of great and supportive people helping their loved ones through the birth process. There have been lessons to learn observing husbands, sisters, mums, best friends, doulas, brothers and even the woman’s own children.
I have also seen some dubious, reluctant and sometimes comical attempts at supporting a loved one through birth. I like to think this kind of behaviour stems from anxiety and not knowing where to place themselves in such an alien environment rather than a genuine disinterest in the birth of a child!
Examples of how NOT to behave in the birth room
- DO NOT sit and read the newspaper whilst she struggles through contractions on her own
- DO NOT fall asleep when she needs you to hold her hand
- DO NOT spend all of her labour on your phone (checking sports results is the most common!)
- If there is more than one of you in the room DO NOT spend hours gossiping about last night’s Eastenders episode when she needs you to rub her back.
- DO NOT keep asking the midwife how much longer it’s going to last because you want to watch the match/wet the baby’s head/feed the cat etc.
- DO NOT make inappropriate or unsupportive comments like ‘Oh wow the babies head looks soooo big, that’s really going to hurt’
These may seem obvious to you reading this now, but they are all things I have witnessed! Don’t be put off, there is plenty you can do to prepare for your role as a birth partner!
Based on my professional experience, here are some great tips to make you the best birth partner you can be.
Prepare yourself for Birth
Birth can be a nerve-wracking time, you are trying to support someone through it with no or little experience of the birth process. Watching someone you love in pain is difficult, they may make noises you have not heard before, there will probably be more blood than you expect and it can be challenging to communicate with them. Try talking to others who have been through it recently to help understand their experience of birth. Consider immersing yourself in the world of birth, watch videos (there are plenty of birth video’s available on the internet) of women in labour to help you understand the common behaviours, sights and noises you may experience.
Familiarise yourself with her Wishes and Birth Preferences
A little bit of prep in the pregnancy goes a long way. Find out what her wishes are surrounding pain relief, if she’d like to use the pool, does she want immediate skin-to-skin or would prefer the baby dried first, how does she want to feed the baby. The more you discuss before the event, the more prepared you are to help advocate for her wishes if she is finding it difficult to communicate during labour. Try filling in a birth preferences form together like this one, your midwife will be able to go through it with you.
Ask Yourself if you’re the Right Person for the Job
This is a tricky one but consider the fact that not everyone is cut out to be a good birth partner. Are you squeamish? Did you suffer a traumatic birth yourself that may still be affecting you? Can you not stand the thought of seeing your sister/daughter/wife in pain? Although it may be difficult to say no to being a birth partner, it is much better that a woman has a supportive person around her in labour than someone who is so anxious they can not do anything to help.
Make Sure you Know her Well
This kind of sounds obvious doesn’t it! Find out how she likes to deal with pain, does she like to be touched or massaged? How hard does she like to be massaged? Why not have a little practice at home before labour starts? What kind of food does she like when exercising? Fruit, nuts, energy bars, isotonic drinks are all great for maintaining energy levels in labour. Does she like chatter or is she more of a quiet person? What kind of music relaxes her or gets her energised? Does she like water, does she find the bath or shower relaxing? This will all be useful information at different stages of the labour.
Try not to panic! She will pick up on any anxiety you may have and this may negatively impact the process of her labour. Women have been giving birth for centuries, midwifery and obstetric care has never been so advanced, she will be well looked after. There will always be a health care professional around for you to ask questions.
Look After Yourself
Yes, you are there to support her, but you can’t do that if you are not at your best. Make sure you feed yourself regularly. If you feel faint sit down and don’t look at any medical equipment if you are squeamish in any way. I once looked after a couple where the husband fainted during the epidural procedure, it was 2 am, he hadn’t eaten for hours so had low blood sugar. Unfortunately, he hit his head on the way to the floor and ended up with a concussion in the emergency department. You are no use to her if you have to spend the rest of her labour in A&E!
Be Supportive, not Judgemental
Support her choices, even if she’s changed her mind in labour. You may have started your journey setting up the TEN’s machine for her but now she’s asking the midwife for pethidine despite it not being in the original plan. Try not to be dismissive of her new requests. Think carefully about what language you use. If you are struggling for things to say to her then sometimes its OK not to say anything. Just hold her hand and be there, she will know you are supporting her. Look to the midwife for guidance, we are experts in reading women’s body language. Observe how she interacts, what language she uses and how she uses touch to reassure her.
Enjoy the Experience
Being a birth partner is one of the most rewarding experiences you will have. Enjoy the moments, get involved in supporting her into comfortable positions, passing her food and drinks and she will thank you forever!
Have you ever been a birth partner for someone you love? Let me know how it went and if you have any tips for the birthing room.