Q: Should I be with my partner as soon as she goes into labor? I've heard that first babies take ages.
A: It's true that first labors often take quite a few hours, although this is certainly not the case with everyone! When your partner notices signs that labor is beginning, such as a mucousy “show,” the water breaking, or irregular period-type pains, she may want you to be with her. On the other hand, she may be happy to be alone, or with a friend or relative, and keep you updated by phone. Whether or not you are there really depends on how she feels, so good communication between the two of you is the key.

Once your partner is having regular, painful contractions about every five minutes, it would probably be best to be with her, if you aren't already. It is usually around this time that you should be making your way to hospital, if that is where you are planning to have the baby, or contacting the midwife if you are planning a home birth.

Q: I feel panicky about getting my partner to the hospital on time. How can I calm down?
A: Your anxiety is understandable. However, not many babies are born on roadsides or in hospital parking lots—that's why these stories make their way into newspapers and magazines! It is hard to advise on a definite time to go to the hospital since every labor is different and follows a slightly different pattern. However, as a general rule, you should think about going in to the hospital if:
  • Your partner has had any vaginal bleeding.

  • Your partner's water breaks . She may notice this as a gush of fluid from the vagina, or a more gradual leaking.

  • Your partner's contractions (which are often described as strong period-type pains that are accompanied by a hardening of the belly) are lasting around 45 seconds each and coming regularly, at least every five minutes.

If you or your partner are unsure about how to proceed, don't hesitate to give the doctor a call. An experienced midwife can tell a lot about how far into her labor a woman is likely to be just from talking to her about what is happening.

Q: I've heard lots of stories about men in the labor ward—I want to be helpful, but I am nervous.
A: Many men are very anxious about being with their partners during labor and birth. This is often due to the fact that they will be watching their partner experience one of the most intense things a woman can ever do and they may be unsure of how to help.

Probably the best way to help overcome your fears is to talk to your partner about how you feel and try to discuss ways in which you could help. You will probably find that there are plenty of ways in which you can support her, such as being aware of her wishes and speaking for her if she is unable to because of the pain, repeating what midwives and doctors have said if she didn't hear or process the information, offering fluids, rubbing her back, holding a washcloth to her face, switching music on or off, and generally encouraging and reassuring her.

Attending birth preparation classes together can be very useful. You will be able to learn more about the process of labor and birth, which can be helpful, and you will learn about how to support your partner both physically and emotionally. Some classes teach birth partners massage techniques that can be an effective form of pain relief during labor. You will also be shown how you can support your partner in certain birth positions. Your doctor or midwife will be able to advise you on classes available in your area.

Q: I really don't want to be there—how will I tell her and who should go in my place?
A: Honesty is the best policy, so you need to talk to your partner about your concerns well in advance of the big day. Although she may feel disappointed at first that you don't want to be there, she should appreciate your reasons if they are valid ones. Perhaps you could try to reach some sort of compromise whereby you will be with her during the earlier stages of labor, go out for the actual birth (if you are worried about this), and then come back in again immediately afterward to support your partner and meet your new baby.

It is up to your partner who else she has with her during labor. Women often choose their mom, sister, another female relative, or a close friend to be with them. However, if she can't think of anyone suitable, you may want to consider hiring a doula who support women in labor ; there are websites that can help you with this . Your partner may also want to have more than one birth partner, which most hospitals are happy to accommodate.

Q: What should we do when my partner goes into labor?
A: Although it is often hard to define when labor has started, if the signs are that your partner is in the early first stages of labor, you can both continue with normal activities as long as she feels comfortable. Being aware of how labor progresses and how contractions build up can help you to plan your course of action. For example, if your partner's water has broken, established labor usually follows within a few hours (although not always) and it is best to inform the doctor and hospital.

While you wait for the contractions to become stronger and more regular, try to relax as much as possible between contractions. You could make a healthy snack for you both to provide fuel for the hours ahead, practice breathing and relaxation techniques together, or run a warm bath to help your partner relax. Once the contractions are around every five minutes and last about 45 seconds, you may want to consider going to the hospital, if that is where you plan to have your baby. Call first to let them know what is happening and that you want to come in.

Q: Is massage useful, or will my partner find it irritating when she's trying to deal with the pain?
A: Many women find massage, particularly of the lower back, to be very helpful during labor. The sensations of warmth and pressure can be soothing and give some relief from pain during labor. Massage stimulates the body to release endorphins, which are the body's natural painkillers, and also acts as a “distraction” from pain, providing another focus. Communication is the key when it comes to massage. For example, your partner can tell you whether she wants to be massaged during contractions, or just between the contractions, or whether she wants firm or light pressure. You will probably learn simple massage techniques during birth preparation classes, or you may find some classes dedicated to massage techniques for labor. Ask your midwife what is available in your area.

It can be the case that some women find that they do not want to be touched at all during labor. If your partner feels this way, try not to take it personally—this is her way of dealing with the pain.

Q: Besides massage, are there other ways I can help my partner deal with the pain?
A: Every woman's experience of pain during labor is different, and they will have different ways of coping. It can be difficult to know in advance if a particular coping technique will help, but many couples find it helpful to talk before labor about how they might feel, and how the partner may be able to help. While some women find massage beneficial, others will need help to focus on keeping their breathing slow and steady. It's worth practicing labor positions that require the support of a partner before the actual birth . Having some favorite music on in the room may help your partner relax. Above all, most women appreciate encouragement and gentle loving support from their partner, and just the fact that you are there will go a long way in helping her to deal with the pain and exhaustion of labor and birth.
Q: My friend's husband won't be at the birth. She wants me to be her birth partner. How can I prepare?
A: It's a great privilege to be asked to be a birth partner for a friend and there are plenty of things you can do to prepare for the event. Obviously you will need to talk in advance about your friend's expectations for labor and familiarize yourself with her birth plan if she has prepared one . It's important to be sensitive to your friend's wishes, for example does she want you to remain with her throughout, or would she like you to leave the room if she has an internal examination? Talk to her about how she thinks she might react under stress and in pain—is she likely to shout or perhaps become more withdrawn?—so that you can prepare yourself mentally to deal with this. It would also be wise to find out as much as possible about what birth entails—the different stages of labor and what can help or hinder them. You could suggest attending childbirth classes with your friend so that you feel fully informed. It may also help to talk to someone else who has been a birth partner and who may have some useful tips. Bear in mind that you may need to be with your friend for a fairly lengthy amount of time, so you may want to have some provisions for yourself, such as snacks and drinks. You may also need periods of relief during the labor, and there may be times when you feel your morale is flagging, in which case it can be a good idea to have someone on standby who you can phone for encouragement and support.
Q: How will I feel when I see a male doctor examine my partner?
A: If you have chosen a midwife as your care provider labor and birth are straightforward, it is unlikely that your partner will need to be examined by a male doctor. It is only if there is some concern over the well-being of either your partner or the baby, or both, that a doctor's opinion is sought. Even in this situation, an internal examination is not always necessary.

If your partner did need to be examined, you would probably find that you would be too worried to be aware of any feelings of anxiety. Doctors, whether male or female, have only your partner's and baby's health in mind when they are performing any kind of examination.

Q: I secretly want a boy—I haven't told my partner—how will I react if it's a girl?
A: This is certainly not an unusual feeling to have and I think that many prospective parents have a preference, secret or otherwise, for a baby of a particular sex. While it may take you a little while to become accustomed to having a baby of your “less preferred” gender, you may well find that you have no problems at all bonding with the baby if it is a girl. Seeing your own newborn baby for the first time is something that no one can prepare for, and many parents feel a strong rush of emotion immediately. Others take a little longer to fall in love with their baby, and this is fine too.

Whichever sex your baby is, it takes time to get to know him or her. You will probably find that you relish watching every little movement and expression, touching and stroking his or her little body, and will enjoy learning about all the different aspects of baby care. By being involved with your baby from the beginning, you will quickly experience the joy of parenting your son or daughter.

Q: I can be quite panicky in stressful situations. What if I pass out?
A: The image of the father-to-be fainting in the delivery room is often portrayed in cartoons and on cards, but it is far from funny if it actually does happen! Fortunately, it is much less common than you may think.

It is understandable for any birth partner to feel anxious and tense—you are watching someone you care about in pain, and you are in unfamiliar surroundings experiencing probably the most significant moments of your life! Focusing on your partner and attending to her needs may help keep you occupied and less likely to dwell on your own anxieties. Also, developing a trusting relationship with your partner's caregivers will help you feel able to express any worries you are having, and hopefully you will be given the reassurance and information you need.

If you do find yourself feeling even the slightest bit woozy, try and leave the room since the nurse or midwife will be focused on caring for the mother and baby. If you do not have time to leave the room to seek help, and you feel faint, dizzy, or light-headed, try to sit down immediately, with your head lower than your hips, or lie down with your feet raised. Try not to “panic breathe” (breathing quickly and lightly), and take slow, deep breaths. You should find that the feeling passes quite quickly. The nurse or midwife will probably ring the buzzer for assistance. A good tip is to ensure that you are not too hot—take shorts and a T-shirt with you since delivery rooms can be stuffy—and make sure you eat and drink regularly to prevent your feeling faint due to low blood sugar.

Q: Our little boy suffered a lack of oxygen at his birth. He is fine, but I'm anxious about this delivery.
A: Unborn babies are designed to cope with a moderate lack of oxygen during the birth, which is quite normal. Some babies do suffer a greater lack of oxygen, and caregivers are often alerted to this by observing the baby's heart-rate pattern. If there is any cause for concern, the baby can be delivered quickly, either by forceps or vacuum, or by a cesarean section. In most cases, the baby is born in a healthy condition, or responds quickly to resuscitation after the birth.

Every labor is different and there is no reason why your next baby should react to labor in the same way as your first, but your baby's heart rate will, of course, be monitored very closely, so you should feel reassured by this.

Q: Will I be able to help the midwife cut the cord after the birth?
A: It is popular for the baby's father, or another birth partner, to cut the umbilical cord after the birth. Midwives and doctors are usually happy for this to happen, as long as there are no problems with the mother or baby that would necessitate the cord being cut very quickly.

The cord is tougher than most people think, but the midwife or doctor will guide you and show you how to cut it safely. Be warned that it usually takes quite a few attempts to sever it completely!

Q: Will I be able to video or photograph the birth and do I need to arrange this in advance?
A: Most hospitals are happy for you to film or photograph the birth of your baby, if that is what you both want. However, before you embark on this, you should first check that the midwives or doctors who will be conducting the actual delivery have no objection, since some professionals do not wish to be filmed for legal reasons.

While some couples treasure having a visual record of probably the most special and momentous time of their lives, other couples prefer to start filming or photographing their baby after the actual birth. It is important to consider the impact that being filmed or photographed at such an intimate and vulnerable time could have on your partner, and she should not feel in any way pressured to be filmed. Also, it might be worth thinking about how filming the event may affect your actual participation in the birth. If you are concentrating on filming or taking photographs, you may not be as involved in the birth as you could be and may not be providing your partner with all the support that she needs.

When planning how to record the birth of your baby, bear in mind that clear communication between you and your partner before the labor, and with the midwife and doctor once labor has started, is important to ensure that everyone's wishes in this matter are respected.

Q: Can we take food into the hospital?
A: Most hospitals are happy for you to bring your own food and drink into the labor area, although most are able to provide your partner with light refreshments should she want something. It used to be the case that women in labor weren't allowed to eat or drink, but nowadays this is not the case. Research on the subject has concluded that it is perfectly safe for women to control their own food and drink intake during labor.

However, hospitals don't tend to provide food for birth partners, so it would be wise to pack plenty of snacks. There is usually a cafeteria in the hospital somewhere but getting supplies from there may mean you are away from your partner for a time. Alternatively, vending machines may be available.

What and how much your partner eats should be guided by her appetite. She should try, however, to stick to light, easy-to-digest foods that will give her plenty of energy, such as fruit juices, bread and honey, dried fruit, crackers, or bananas. Once labor is well established, it is likely that she won't feel much like eating since her body needs to focus on delivering the baby.

Q: I've heard that natural or water births are best for the baby. Should I ask my wife to have one?
A: Most childbirth experts would agree that a straightforward vaginal birth is the safest form of birth for both mother and baby. It is also generally considered safe to use water as a method of relieving the pain in uncomplicated labors . However, it is sometimes not possible to achieve a straightforward vaginal delivery due to certain situations that can arise during pregnancy, labor, and/or the actual birth. If a problem with either the mother or baby occurs, the medical team will advise on the safest way of delivering the baby.

It is important that your partner herself thinks about the type of birth she would prefer and does not try something she is uncomfortable with. So it is not really your job to make decisions on behalf of your partner, and it's also wise to be prepared to be flexible and to see how labor unfolds.

Q: My wife doesn't remember much about the birth. How much should I tell her?
A: It's best to be honest about your memories of the labor and birth, even if this was a daunting experience for you both. You are likely to be the best person to explain to your partner about how she coped, and sharing your memories may help her to feel comfortable about expressing her own emotions about the birth, particularly if it was fairly traumatic. In this case, an important part of your partner's (and your) acceptance of what happened during the birth is to recall the sequence of events and to try to understand why things went the way they did. This is especially important if you feel that your partner's care didn't go according to the birth plan. If this is the case, you may even want to talk to the nurse or midwife who cared for your partner during labor and birth about what happened. You can ask her to go through your partner's notes with you both and explain exactly what happened. You can also ask for a postpartum “briefing” to discuss the birth by contacting the midwife or doctor who was at the birth.
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