Giving birth is a stressful process, largely for the person giving birth, but also for the partner standing beside her. For many couples, even the most well-laid birth plans fall to the wayside as situations shift. Going into the hospital with a strong sense of what you both want from the experience is paramount to having a positive and powerful birth experience, says Megan Davidson, a doula and author of Your Birth Plan: A Guide to Navigating All of Your Choices in Childbirth.
Davidson is clear here: In the best-case scenario, a husband or new dad should not be the advocate for his wife in the delivery room. Hopefully, all of the decisions being made medically are according to your wants, needs, and plans. Men, therefore, should be an emotional support system, not a medical support system, which is why she says every birth would be better off with a doula. Sure, she might be biased, but doulas help make the decisions and deal with doctors, residents, and nurses as well as anesthesiologists while you get to sit down and hold your partner’s hand.
But, of course, not everyone has a doula. So here’s what you fathers-to-be should do, and not do, in the delivery room.
DO: Talk About How to Be Supportive Before It’s Time for Labor
Every couple is different, and what might be perceived as emotional support for one couple can be deeply annoying for others. That’s why, per Davidson, it’s important to have a conversation ahead of labor day, so to speak, where you lay out what might be supportive behavior for your wife. Some people want a massage or calming touch, and other people don’t want to be touched at all. Go through that. Be ready to speak your partner’s language in the delivery room.
DON’T: Make Ugly Faces
“It’s really important to think about what you’re doing with your face,” warns Davidson. Birth is a very bodily experience. You might witness things you’ve never seen before. When you do, it’s important to keep in mind how you’re physically reacting to the process of childbirth.
“Sometimes I see partners making really bad faces in response to that, just because it’s their genuine feeling of horror, shock, or gross-out-ness. It’s really valuable to think about what you’re doing with your face — because people in labor look at your face as a reflection of what you’re feeling or what’s going on,” says Davidson.
DO: Know Your Limits
If you’re a naturally queasy person, you’re not going to magically become someone who can handle gore and blood in the delivery room. Set your limits and honor them, advises Davidson.
“If you faint at the sight of people’s blood or are really uncomfortable with these things, that’s okay,” she says. “But it’s important to acknowledge that’s who you are. This is not the kind of thing that you can just tough your way through. If you pass out at blood, there’s often a lot of blood at birth. There’s a role for you still, but we need to be strategic and thoughtful about where you stand in the room.” Don’t feel bad about not cutting the umbilical cord or staying at your wife’s shoulder area. That’s okay. It’s all about being able to participate in the process.
DON’T: Be Visibly Nervous
Watching your partner give birth can, of course, be a stressful experience. But you need to be the picture of calm, says Davidson. “Think about your own energy. If you’re feeling very anxious and jittery, that can be really tough.” Engage in deep breathing. Think calming thoughts. Do your best to not be the most nervous person in the room.
DO: Bring Practical Supports — Not Just Emotional Ones
While figuring out how to be emotionally supportive to your partner is important in the delivery room, it’s equally valuable to have a bag full of practical, supportive items.
“Washcloths, chapstick, hair ties, having something to catch vomit in — I carry these vomit bags that I buy from a medical supply company, they’re super good,” says Davidson. “These kinds of things are things that you can specifically do to comfort somebody,” says Davidson.
DON’T: Just Tell Them To Breathe — Breathe With Them
While telling someone in labor to breathe deeply is an important reminder to mind their breath, it’s far better to demonstrably breathe slowly and deeply,” says Davidson. “In the intensity of a contraction, someone is breathing really fast. Or if your partner is hyperventilating, put your hand on their chest. Take a big, demonstrative breath with them.” Ahead of the delivery room, partners can practice deep breathing together, as well.
DO: Know the Chain of Command in Your Hospital
Unfortunately, not every person giving birth has someone who can medically advocate them other than themselves. If it’s the case that you’re a medical advocate for your partner, make sure you’re walking into the delivery room knowing the chain of command at your hospital, so you know who to talk to if things aren’t going according to plan.
“As a general principle, nurses are the first line of recourse in terms of advocacy. Many of them see themselves as patient advocates themselves, too. They are, quite often, your best ally in trying to advocate for something. You may need to go to the nurse manager. There’s always hierarchies in hospitals. Figure out the best point people talk to, and where to go from there.”
Davidson notes that most hospitals have designated patient advocates. You should also know who the anesthesiologist is, and who to talk to if you are unhappy with the doctor who is helping you deliver your baby.
DON’T: Poke or Prod Your Partner
Engaging in calming touch can be seriously helpful for someone giving birth, but not all touch is good touch, says Davidson.
“When people touch their partners in too frantic or jerky of ways, people in labor respond poorly to that,” says Davidson. “I often suggest that you touch people with your whole hand, not just your fingers.”
DO: Advocate for What You Know Your Wife Wants
Small things — like low lighting, quiet voices, and minimal foot traffic in the delivery room — are things that you can manage as your wife’s partner, and with little difficulty. You’re the one who can walk around, so you can help keep the delivery room calm and quiet if that’s what mom wants.
“My experience is that most people in the hospital really want to accommodate what it is you’re hoping for. Part of that is just asking people for it, and figuring out a way to make that happen,” Davidson says. In other words: Speak up. The people around you should listen. “Figure out what’s important to you, and then figure out who can help you do that,” says Davidson.
DON’T: Wear Flip-Flops and Cargo Shorts — Bring Options!
You won’t know how cold or warm the delivery room will be until you get there, and it’s likely that you will be there for some time. Make sure that you bring layers and options. “Sometimes the room are freezing, and sometimes they are 85 degrees,” warns Davidson. Bringing an extra pair of pants or a sweater might keep you more comfortable for what could be a lengthy labor. Also, per Davidson, never, ever wear open-toed shoes to the hospital. Sandals and flip flops are not recommended, especially if a situation arises where you may have to go into an operating room. Wear sneakers. Seriously.
DO: Rest When You Can — But Not Without a Plan
Obviously, some labors can last days. If that’s the case, it’s really important for both parents to get rest when they can. But don’t go to sleep without a plan for how to wake up if contractions begin or if your partner needs you. So if you’re a super deep sleeper, maybe you can set a timer on your phone for every hour to wake up to make sure that nothing has gone on.
“Often, the person who is in labor, if they have an epidural and you’re taking a nap, they can’t get out of the bed to get you,” says Davidson. “They can’t physically walk over to you. So there needs to be a strategy to rouse you if you need to be roused.”
DO: Eat Well, but Don’t Eat Stinky
Similarly, it’s important to be well-fed during labor. But think of it like an office environment: No one wants to sit next to the person eating fish and onions, as delicious as fish and onions might be. “People are often very sensitive about smells during labor,” says Davidson. “Be thoughtful about what you’re eating and what it’s doing to your breath. Bring breath mints.” In other words: Perhaps a peanut-butter and jelly sandwich is a better meal than that burrito bowl.