Being asked to be a birth support person is such an honour – it’s probably not something you have been invited to do very many times in your life, if at all!
Don’t underestimate the importance of your support – those who surround the birthing woman in labour can have a huge effect on how the labour goes and what the woman’s experience of birth is, which she will remember for the rest of her life. So a huge thumbs up to you for caring enough to read this article!
So, if you haven’t been a birth support person before or are unsure of what to do to help a woman in labour, here are 10 great tips and suggestions to get you started.
Birth Support Tip #1: Understand What Your Role REALLY Is
One of the most important things to understand is the reason why women seek and need good support during labour: so someone can be there for them in their time of need and vulnerability. Don’t say yes if you only want to be there to witness the birth of the baby, as this will not be helpful for the woman giving birth. It may even be stressful for her if she isn’t getting the support she hoped for when she asked you – and all you seem excited about is meeting the new baby.
The role of the support person is to give support and comfort to the birthing woman throughout and after labour in many different ways, some of which are listed below. You should also confirm with the woman you are supporting as to what her expectations are of your support, as this will vary greatly from woman to woman.
Birth Support Tip #2: Talk With Her About Her Birth Preferences (Birth Plan)
Most pregnant women will put together a written birth plan (also known as birth preferences or birth intentions). Even if the woman you support doesn’t, make sure you have a good chat with her in detail about her wants and desires, fears and emotions around the birth. Does anything scare or frighten her about childbirth? What concerns does she have? What does she truly want? What are the most important things she’d like to happen at the birth? Touch base on this regularly as they can change as she progresses in her pregnancy and learns more along the way.
Listen well with open ears, an open heart and without judgement. This is her birth and as a birth support person you are there to support her choices – whether you would choose them or not is irrelevant. Encourage her to talk about her feelings as much as possible, because it’s only going to give you more information and tips on how you can be the best support person for her. Open ended questions are very useful, for example ‘Tell me about what you imagine your birth to be like…’
Birth Support Tip #3: Choose Encouragement, Not Sympathy During Labour
Sympathy is a wonderful thing to offer, however during labour, encouragement is the key. If the woman you are supporting is struggling to work through a contraction, what effect and outcome do you think you would get from these two scenarios:
a) Scenario one:
Labouring Woman: “It’s all too hard, I can’t do it, it just hurts so much…”
Support Person: “Awwwww you poor thing… I know it’s hard, isn’t it? Maybe you could have just a little bit of pain relief?”
Result: Woman in labour likely says something like, ‘Heck YES! Get the doctor NOW!’ as she’s likely feeling vulnerable in a moment of weakness and fatigue.
b) Scenario two:
Labouring Woman: “It’s all too hard, I can’t do it, it just hurts so much…”
Support Person: “It looks like you’re doing some really hard work, but I can also see that you are doing a really great job. I know you can do this – you are doing this! Let’s do the next few contractions together.” (breathe with her)
Result: Woman in labour likely starts to believe in herself, and that her support team believe in her. Every woman in labour will hit a crisis point or wall, where she feels she can’t go on. This is the most crucial bit for the support team to rally around her.
A great example that I learnt in my birth attendant training from my teacher, Rhea Dempsey, was this: if you saw Cathy Freeman run the 400 metres during the olympic games, by looking at her face alone, you would have seen that she looked like she was pushing past her personal barriers, felt burning pain and was so exhausted running her event the very best she could. She ran for her life, giving it everything she had after years and years of training and preparation. So would you be telling her:
“Oh poor Cathy, I wish I could help you, I wish I could make it stop. You deserve a break from all that pain, you’ve come so far, what will a little rest matter?”
“GO CATHY!!! GO CATHY!!! YOU CAN DO IT!!!!”
What would Cathy have preferred you to have said to her? The same applies in labour. She needs your enthusiasm and encouragement to help her cross the finish line.
Birth Support Tip #4: Attend Prenatal Education With Her
Most prenatal classes allow support people to come along, so if you can go, it’s a great idea. By going, you can get a better feel of what to expect and you may even see a birth video or DVD to prepare you for the event (which you could even look at doing privately if you like – you can purchase and hire such DVD’s). Independent birth education classes are usually much better than hospital classes, because private classes tend to go much more in depth with non-medical pain relief, working with pain and the role of the support person.
Birth Support Tip #5: If You Feel Anxious Or Panicky, Take A Break
Even if you have been in labour yourself, supporting someone else in labour can still have you breaking out in a sweat and wondering what the end result of the labour is going to be. Don’t feel bad – simply give yourself some fresh air and a break.
The labouring woman can quickly tune in on how others are feeling or acting in labour and it can throw her focus off doing what she needs to do – especially if she sees that her support person is looking at her as if she is surely about to die! The labouring woman should only be worrying about herself, not holding her support team together too. So if you think you aren’t coping or need a break, the best idea is to get out of the room until you feel more composed. She needs support people as solid as a rock to lean on.
If you are really concerned about how you’d feel supporting her, you may like to suggest a doula, who is a professional birth support person.
Birth Support Tip #6: Watch Her Face For Signals
Her face is a very good indicator of things she might need.
Watch her lips, if she is licking them or they are dry, offer sips of water, ideally in a drink which has a bendy straw in it, so you can hold it for her.
It’s a good idea to avoid asking her too many questions when labour is getting serious, so with things like offering water, there’s no need to ask, just offer it regularly and she will likely want it – if not she will just not have any or say no. It’s very hot and sweaty work being in labour and fluids are very important to keep hydrated through frequent drinks – alternating between water and sports drinks are ideal.
Other things you can look out for is if she is holding her breath. A gentle reminder to breathe in and a big one out – it will keep the oxygen circulating around her body, and to her baby.
If you see that she looks sweaty, a cool face washer is a great idea. Women in labour are like hot water bottles, so a regular cool wipe down with a face washer is ideal anyway. For an even cooler cloth, put some water and ice in a bowl and put it in that.
If her hair keeps flicking in her face, help her tie it up, clip it back or put it behind her ears.
If she is having a contraction, DO NOT start touching her or talking to her. Intensity requires focus and drawing on inner resources; don’t distract her from that. If you’re already applying pressure with a heat pack or other pain relief method this is usually fine to keep going during a contraction unless she asks you to stop.
Birth Support Tip #7: Watch Her Body Language
It’s a natural reaction to tense up when we feel pain. There is a nasty cycle common in labour:
Fear → Tension → Pain
Some common areas where women tend to tense up in labour which you will probably be able to see is in the jaw, shoulders, hands and feet.
If you see her tensing her shoulders up tight (i.e. scrunching them up), at first instance you can try touching her on the shoulder or running your hand down her shoulder. If this doesn’t work, try the above with a gentle, quiet voice, suggesting to her to relax/let go of her shoulders.
You may notice her knees cross or come together if she is upright, turning her feet in as if she is busting to go to the toilet.
If she is sitting, her feet might be with her toes on the ground but heels off the ground – doing this for long periods can cause unpleasant cramp. You can try placing a pillow under her feet or helping her with a foot/leg massage between contractions.
Watch where she puts her hands – if she has a backache, she may grab at or try to rub her back, but just can’t find the words to ask for a massage. So you can try giving a gentle massage, but I usually find that firm pressure on the lower back works well, especially with a hotpack. A massage might sound good in early labour, but in stronger labour she might not like the idea, especially if she has backache or during contractions, so play it by ear.
She’ll tell you if she doesn’t like what you are offering at the time, but it’s important not to be offended if she yells for you to stop or says no. She might just find it uncomfortable at that moment and might like it later. So don’t give up trying to help. The key is to be as observant as possible and putting together the clues she is giving you as to what she wants. Be in the journey with her, be by her side and be encouraging.
Birth Support Tip #8: Help Keep The ‘Environment’ Going
In her birth intentions, the woman may have specified some environmental factors she might like, for example aromatherapy, music, dimmed lights and quiet voices. In early labour it’s easy to keep these things topped up and going, but later in labour when things are more serious and she needs more of your undivided attention, they can be forgotten, so do the best as you can.
Turn lights off when possible, the darkness is more conducive to labour. Keep voices quiet and if they have music, keep it going even if you are not sure which CD she wants. The little things do matter!
Birth Support Tip #9: Make Sure You and/or Other Support People Take Regular Breaks
While mum has hormones keeping her body going in labour, you have nothing extra to keep you going so make sure you have regular breaks, as do the other support people. Its amazing what even a 5 minute power walk can do, or some fresh air, a coffee – anything to get your body stretched and refreshed. Don’t feel bad taking a break, you are only human and this is the benefit of having extra support people at birth.
Support people can also benefit from giving each other massages, as it can be achy work supporting women with your bodies in certain positions for long periods!
Birth Support Tip #10: Keep Supporting Her After The Baby Is Born
Once the baby is born, lots of attention is on the baby, so make sure mum has lots of attention too. Remember she will still have to birth the placenta, will still be having contractions and may still experience some pain or exhaustion. She may like a drink, her face wiped, hair out of her face and once everything is settled, she will probably be starving! So offer her a cuppa and ask her if she wants something to eat. Mum needs to feel special too – it’s exciting seeing the new bub but don’t forget mum!
Want To Know More About Birth Support?
For more ideas on how you can support her in labour, check out a discussion in our forums about being a non-trained birth support person.
If you enjoy being a birth support person you might like to consider doing it as a job – I can’t possibly think of anything better myself! To read about becoming a Doula or Birth Attendant, see our article here.
© Copyright 2006 by Kelly Winder, All Rights Reserved. Article may not be copied in part or full without written permission.