The role of a birth partner
Whenever a friend or mum-to-be in class tells me that their partner doesn’t have much to do whilst they’re in labour, I’m quick to correct them! The difference your birth partner can have on your experience, no matter the twists and turns it could take, should not be underestimated.
The main role of your birth partner is to offer you physical and emotional support. Whilst midwives and other medical staff will support you, their priority has to be the welfare of you and your baby and those of others in their care. Your birth partner meanwhile, can give you dedicated, one-to-one support. Of course there’s no way of knowing what your birth experience is going to be like or how you will cope, but evidence suggests that feeling supported can help you to have an efficient labour and your birth partner can play a huge part in how you feel about your experience overall.
Birth partners don’t have to be the baby’s father, although that has become more common. It could be that your baby’s father has to work away at the time your baby is due or you may have other cultural or religious reasons for wanting someone else to be your birth partner. Whether you hire a professional Doula or ask a very close friend or relative, do talk to them about your birth preferences and what you’d like them to do to support you. There are many things your birth partner can do and I’ll share some examples here to help you have that conversation.
Your birth partner needs to reassure you. You will be at your most vulnerable and there may be moments when you doubt yourself so you need someone there to encourage you and tell you what a great job you’re doing. Feeling anxious and stressed can make you feel pain more intensely which you really don’t need!
They should take care of you. Having someone you know giving you one-to-one care and attention can be a great source of comfort. Birth partners can help you to stay hydrated and eat a little food, depending on what stage of labour you’re in. They can also help you to get more comfortable if you need to reposition or need more cushions or are too hot/too cold.
One of the key ways in which your birth partner can help you is to use breathing techniques. Your uterus is a muscle working hard during labour and all muscles need oxygen to work efficiently, so it is very important to keep it - and baby - well oxygenated. For example, in the early stages of labour you can try a calming breath that helps to clear your mind - inhale for 4 seconds and exhale for 8 seconds. Try closing your eyes as you do it. If you’re finding it hard to focus on your breath in active labour, your birth partner can maintain eye contact with you as they breathe consciously and you’ll naturally start to mirror their breath. Birth partners could layer this with gentle touch massage - just know that not every woman in labour likes to be touched! Try stroking down her back, or inside her forearm or even just putting a little pressure on the back of your hips during a contraction to counteract the pressure in your abdomen.
It’s instinctive for women in labour to want to find a private, safe place to give birth. You see it in animals who hide in dark places once labour starts. It makes sense therefore, that labour would slow or even pause if a woman does not feel safe or feels observed. So your birth partner should try to create a ‘nest’ wherever you’re giving birth. At home this can be easy to do using soft, low lighting, relaxing music, essential oils etc. but you may not realise how much you can still personalise a hospital room. It’s worth packing a few things in your labour bag to use on the day: battery candles or fairy lights, extra cushions or blankets, a playlist and music speaker or your phone to play it on, any printed affirmations or visuals you may be using in your birth preparation and close any blinds and avoid any clocks in the room. A few home comforts could make all the difference when you arrive and it could help you get back ‘in the zone’ sooner.
Another significant role is to act as first contact or gatekeeper should you face any choices in your birth journey.
Every baby and every birth is different so whilst it’s good to have preferences, you should also allow for flexibility. Ideally you don’t want to engage your thinking brain so you can remain completely focused on your body. To help minimise interruptions you can ask your care providers to first speak to your birth partner. If you’ve discussed your preferences in advance then your birth partner can often speak on your behalf and then relay only key messages to you and help you to make a decision. I remember this was one of the best things my husband could do to support me during my labour.
If you know you will need to have a caesarean or end up having an unplanned one or need to be induced then all of the above still applies. Don’t write off the role of birth partner in a very medicalised birth, rather see it as an opportunity for them to be more involved and help you to do what you can so you feel empowered and positive whatever journey your birth takes you on.
Most of all, a good birth partner should stay close and be a good listener. If the two of you are in tune with each other then even if you can’t verbalise clearly what you need, your birth partner will see and know intuitively how to help you. Trust each other and work as a team.
What a birth partner needs to pack:
Own water and snacks - look after yourself so you can look after mum
If mum wants to try a TENS machine or birthing ball whilst at home make sure you know how it works
If you’re planning to take Mum to hospital make sure you’re familiar with the route and where to park. Remember if you have to park at the entrance pre-print a sign and leave it in your glove box along the lines of: ‘Wife/friend in labour, will move car asap’
Have mum’s VIP contact details saved should she want you to contact anyone for her
Have a phone charger or even battery pack to keep phone charged if you need to use it to play music
If you haven’t attended antenatal classes with mum, do some homework and ask to talk about her preferences
Be confident and strong for mum and introduce yourself to her hospital care team and tell them to talk to you first so mum isn’t interrupted
Things to have handy for mum: lip balm, flannel or mist spray to cool her down, straw to help her sip water and anything else she has said may help