Although Brian Weisner took prenatal classes with his wife, Sarah, before she went into labor last spring, he still felt nervous walking into the hospital to meet their son, Ethan. He tried to stay calm, but as a first-time parent, he had no idea what to expect or what exactly his role in labor and delivery would be.
Unlike many moms-to-be, who do all of their homework and background reading before arriving at the hospital to deliver, support partners, like Weisner, might show up not knowing what they are supposed to do. And they can quickly be overwhelmed by the hospital flurry.
Bring your partner off the sidelines and into the delivery game by prepping him in advance and keeping him involved throughout. Give him specific roles to play, and you’ll have his full support and presence in return.
Your partner might scoff at the idea of having to attend labor classes with you. But Kate Dewey, a DONA-certified doula and childbirth educator in Seattle, says it’s essential for him to come too, so he’ll have all the information he needs to act as your advocate, if need be.
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“Childbirth classes teach partners how to recognize the stages and phases of labor, like when it’s time to go to the hospital or call the midwife,” she says. “The instructor will help you become familiar with what normal medical equipment you might see hooked up to mom and baby. Most labor classes also include accurate (and uncensored) videos of birth that are wise to observe before the big day, so you know what to expect when you see it live.”
In addition, Dewey says partners might pick up some handy tips, like massage techniques, breathing exercises and pain management practice. (Just be clear with your partner about your preferences when it comes to how much you want to be touched or coached during labor—every laboring mom has a different set of rules.)
If your partner prefers to learn on his own, Dewey also teaches a CHAPs (coaches, husbands, and partners) only birth class—no moms-to-be allowed. Over beers, CHAPs discuss topics including hormones of labor and navigating interventions. If this sounds like something your partner would like, look for a similar class in your hometown.
The Weisners didn’t have a specific birth plan in place going into delivery, as some couples do, but Weisner says he continued to ask questions of the hospital staff throughout his wife’s labor and made a conscious effort be there for her.
As her labor contractions became stronger, Weisner reminded her to breathe, held her hand and told her how great she was doing. “I wasn’t sure exactly what I was going to have to do in terms of being ready to support her, I just knew I needed to be there for her,” he shares. “I knew Sarah couldn’t stop and had to do all the work, so it was my responsibility to do as much for her as possible.”
Dewey says that’s the best role a support person can play, especially during labor’s early stages. “‘I love you’ is a lovely, simple phrase that comes easily to partners,” she says. “Mothers in labor have loads of hormones coursing through them that make them feel vulnerable and, at times, like a total failure. Labor is exhausting, and hearing words of confidence from those who know you best can really make a difference in how well a mom copes with the pain of contractions.”
You can give your partner an idea of phrases you think you’ll want to hear during delivery in advance, in case he gets tongue-tied or nervous. A simple, “I’m so proud of you,” for example, can go a long way.
Weisner still describes Ethan’s birth as an “eye-opening” experience, even though he thinks he prepared all that he could in advance. The biggest surprise of all was his feelings of helplessness when his wife was hurting. “Sarah was in so much pain, and all I wanted was to take it away from her,” he says. “While she doesn’t remember the pain from labor and delivery anymore, I seem to remember every aspect of it.”
Many support partners feel this way, especially male partners, whom Dewey says fit naturally into the role of protector. Although your partner can’t take away your pain or do the work of laboring for you, he has plenty of other important roles to play when the big day comes.
Your partner should be prepared to quickly answer questions about his role in delivery when asked by nursing staff. Does he want to cut the cord? What about helping to assist in delivery by guiding baby up to mom’s chest at the moment of birth?
As long as your partner knows your wishes in advance, answering questions about interventions, including pain medications during labor, is a good role for him to play, especially if you are too exhausted to answer yourself.
Weisner says his wife labored for almost 24 hours in total before Ethan was born. Although nearly every second of that was spent by Sarah’s side, he also took turns with her mother and sister, so he could eat dinner and take much needed breaks.
Dewey says its important for partners to realize a lengthy labor could last between 12 and 36 hours. They are going to have to leave the laboring mom at some point. It’s essential that they get rest when they can, so they provide the best support possible. “Being a good labor support person means taking good care of yourself and making sure you’re rested, fed and hydrated,” she says.
Looking back, Weisner shares that despite the stress of the day, he wouldn’t trade the experience of being Sarah’s support partner for anything. “The birth of our son was exhausting and magical, and it was the greatest joy I have ever been a part of,” he says. That sounds like a win to us.