With the inevitable focus on the mum during labour, the role of the birth partner can be overlooked. Here's what the birth is really like for partners...
Labour is a huge experience for mums of course, but the role of the birth partner – whether that’s the dad, partner, close friend or relative – is often downplayed.
Dads go though their own huge physiological and psychological changes in the birth room, so don’t underestimate the emotional and physical impact of being a birth partner. It is a massive emotional rollercoaster where your feelings can change from excitement to fear, exhaustion to elation in a few seconds (Machin, 2018).
OK, so mums are obviously doing a lot of work themselves but the role of dads or other birth partners is essential. It’s been shown that having a supportive birth partner present at the birth can lead to a better birthing experience and can even make labour progress more quickly (Bohren et al, 2017). So dads and other birth partners really matter.
Write a birth plan together
The role of dads is so important during labour, that it’s essential to get involved in planning how the birth will be right from the start. Writing a birth plan should be something that you and your partner sit down together and do.
A birth plan can be great for helping to extract as much information from mum before the birth (she might not be at her most lucid when labour starts). It can also be empowering for dads (Machin, 2018).
But being part of creating the birth plan together can really help you feel like you’ve done as much as you could in the birth room. A report by the Care Quality Commission found that 96% of birth partners were as involved as they wanted to be (CQC, 2017)
Familiarise yourself with what might happen
Both you and your partner may feel quite daunted by the unfamiliar environment if you are in a hospital or birth centre (Symond et al, 2011). So it can really help you both to do a tour of where you’re planning to have your baby in advance, then it’s one less unknown to contend with.
Most hospitals and birth centres have room for two birth partners (and you can have as many as you like if planning a home birth). So if you feel you would like someone else there you could consider asking a friend, family member or doula to be with you as well (Which?, 2018).
Although the birth may throw up eventualities you hadn’t bargained for, being prepared is still one of the best ways to feel like you’re in control of the situation.
NCT classes are a fantastic way to mentally and physically prepare for the birth and get a good idea of what to expect.
Of course, no matter how much preparation you do, there’s always going to be a large amount of ‘winging it’. If you’re well rested, it can help you deal with whatever might arise in the birth room. So dads as well as mums should make sure they get lots of rest in the weeks leading up to the due date.
Pack your bags
In case your baby decides they just can’t wait to arrive, pack a hospital bag nice and early. Make sure you’ve got plenty of drinks and food to hand for the labour for both mum and you. This will help you both keep your energy levels up. Many birth partners say they were surprised by how many snacks they needed.
Labour can be long, so for both your sakes pack easy-to-do entertainment in your hospital bag in case of a long wait. Put in a comfy change of clothes for both of you as well if you end up staying overnight.
You might want to pack a TENS machine as well, but try it out first before just putting the box in your hospital bag. They can be fiddly and the pads need to be placed at specific points on your partner’s back so it’s a good idea to practice beforehand (NHS, 2017). And always check if it needs batteries…
If you are planning to use massage or breathing techniques for relaxation then practising in the run up to birth will help you both to relax and enjoy preparing for your baby. It’ll also make it more likely that you will actually do them on the day.
Labour can be unpredictable
While you might think you’re prepared for the birth and know how to soothe your partner, don’t be surprised if on the day, mum can react differently in labour to how she did before.
Of course, try the techniques to relax mum that you’ve been taught or read up on – just be prepared to change strategy if she suddenly seems not to like it.
Be prepared too, that she might make noises or act in a way that she hasn’t before, which some birth partners say can be disconcerting or even quite scary. It’s just her way of dealing with what she’s going through. Don’t be put off being comforting and present, as this is probably the time she needs you the most (Bohren et al, 2017).
Even if you’re shouted at, sworn at, ignored or have your arm squeezed to oblivion during the labour, rest assured your presence is appreciated (Bohren et al, 2017).
There’s no getting round the fact that some birth partners can be worried about what they’re going to see ‘down there’. Some might worry how it could affect their feelings about having sex with their partner after the birth.
One dad said:
‘I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel about seeing the baby coming out. So we talked about it beforehand and decided I’d focus on comforting my partner rather than staring too hard at the birth.’
Have your own birth buddy
After being through such a rollercoaster experience of seeing your partner labouring and your baby being born, you may well need a bit of support yourself. It’s a good idea to have a close friend or relative that you can call to debrief on the birth afterwards, and talk through what happened (Machin, 2018). This can be especially important if the birth was traumatic.
Make sure it’s someone you know you can call if it’s 3am and you’ve been turfed out of the hospital (Machin, 2018). It might be hard to get some much-needed sleep if your mind is still racing about what just happened.
Look to the future
It’s also worth mentioning that although it can seem like a huge feat – which of course it is – the birth is only a very small part of having a baby. While a birth partner’s help during labour is invaluable, it’s just the beginning of your lives with a new baby.
So, plan the birth with your partner, but remember to (excitedly) think about everything that’s going to come in the future, too. Hopefully by being part of the birth, you’ll feel more connected to your baby from the outset.
This page was last reviewed in May 2019.
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We also offer antenatal courses which are a great way to find out more about birth, labour and life with a new baby.
Make friends with other parents-to-be and new parents in your local area for support and friendship by seeing what NCT activities are happening nearby.
Find out more about NCT Doulas and how they can during labour. NCT Doulas provide women, and their partners, with skilled physical and emotional assistance during labour. They have up-to-date knowledge and information about labour and birth and help provide encouragement to woman. This helps enable them to have the type of labour and birth they would like. NCT Doulas are qualified professionals who have completed a professional Doula UK course, developed by NCT in partnership with the University of Worcester.
Bohren MA, Hofmeyr G, Sakala C, Fukuzawa RK, Cuthbert A. (2017) Continuous support for women during childbirth. Available at: http://www.cochrane.org/CD003766/PREG_continuous-support-women-during-childbirth [Accessed 21st May 2018]
Care Quality Commission. (2017) Maternity services survey 2017. Available at: https://www.cqc.org.uk/publications/surveys/maternity-services-survey-2… [Accessed 21st May 2018]
Machin AJ. (2018) The life of dad: the making of the modern father. Simon & Schuster, London.NHS. (2018) How to make a birth plan. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/pregnancy-and-baby/how-to-make-birth-plan/ [Accessed 21st May 2018]
NHS. (2017) TENS Machines. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/pregnancy-and-baby/pain-relief-labour/#tens-machines [Accessed 21st May 2018]
Symond AG, Dugard P, Butchart M, Carr V, Paul J. (2011) Care and environment in midwife-led and obstetric -led units: a comparison of mothers’ and birth partners’ perceptions. Midwifery. 27(6):880-886. Available at: https://www.midwiferyjournal.com/article/S0266-6138(10)00153-1/fulltext [Accessed 21st May 2018]
Which? (2018) Choosing your birth partner. Available at: https://www.which.co.uk/birth-choice/getting-ready-to-give-birth/choosi… [Accessed 21st May 2018]