Long gone are the days when fathers-to-be are left waiting in the wings to hear the announcement of their child’s birth by doctors and nurses.
Instead, more men than ever are playing an active role in the birth of their child. They are keen to learn all they can, in order to help their partner during labour.
Below is an easy to follow guide for dads-to-be on the stages of labour, including some suggestions on how you might be able to help your partner.
I have also included some personal comments from BellyBelly forum members, who have told us what their partner did for them, which they found to be beneficial.
Before The Birth
Prior to your partner going into labour, it’s a good idea to discuss her birth preferences with her if you haven’t sat down and thought it through with her already. It’s important for you to know what she might like you to do for her in labour – bearing in mind that her preferences may actually change when it actually happens! A massage while she is in labour might sound wonderful now, however during labour, she might not want to be touched at all. So its useful to keep this in mind. When your partner is in labour, you can reaffirm her requests with her then.
If you don’t know very much about the processes of labour and birth, but want to find out, it’s a good idea to go to some great pre-natal classes with your partner. I highly recommend choosing independent birth education classes than hospital classes, for reasons you can read about here, however one of the biggest benefits for partners is that it gives them loads more information and tools on how you can help. Many hospital based classes focus on different drugs available, when you can be the best drug invented!
If you’re feeling particularly nervous or unsure about being the main support person for your partner, it’s important to discuss this with her. It’s perfectly normal to feel this way, so don’t feel bad if you feel that you aren’t comfortable. It’s more important for you to talk about your feelings and ideally find someone else who can support you both during this time.
You might like to consider hiring the services of a professional birth support person (birth attendant or doula) who will support mum-to-be as well as yourself. A professional birth support person will be able to help you understand the processes and situation as they unfold, which can be a fantastic reassurance. They also have proven in studies around the world to reduce intervention rates in a big way, and a review of available studies has concluded that doula support is more effective than hospital stuff.
Birth Support 101 For Dads
You probably already know that labour involves contractions for a period of time (an average of 12 hours of established labour) prior to the baby being born. Contractions play an extremely vital and useful role in labour. During labour, the uterus contracts for increasing amounts of time, in order to help dilate (open) the cervix. The cervix is closed during pregnancy, protecting the baby in the uterus.
The cervix needs to be fully dilated at 10 centimetres for the baby to be born. Once 10 centimetres of dilation has been reached through these contractions, the baby can then leave the uterus and descend down the vagina to be born.
During labour, especially in the later stages, you may find it difficult and/or upsetting to see your partner in pain, and not be able to help or stop it. You might not realise it, but just your presence and encouragement is very important and helpful. As you will see below in our member’s comments, often just your voice or presence will be all she needs and wants to get through.
So, while you may feel ‘helpless’ to stop the pain, you will already be playing a very important role in helping your baby be born, through giving your partner the support and encouragement she needs to keep going. Remember – each contraction is one contraction closer to the birth of your baby.
Yes they might look and sound very painful, but the pain isn’t happening just to make her feel horrible. It’s the contractions doing their job, to bring your baby closer to being born. Men are natural ‘fixers’ and like to fix something they see as a problem, but just remember your partner needs space to go through the motions of birth, including the pain that comes with it. You can’t save her, but you can certainly leave a memory of a lifetime by being the best support person you can be.
I also highly recommend reading BellyBelly’s article: 10 Tips For (Untrained) Birth Support People. It is chock full of important tips for any birth support person – if there will be others supporting your partner during the birth, make sure they read it too.
Early Labour (Stage One, Up To 3cms Dilation)
The first stage of labour begins with what is called, ‘early labour’. In around 10-15% of labours, this stage may commence with the ‘breaking of the waters’. More often, the waters do not ‘break’ until much later in labour. Her contractions may be around 15-20 minutes apart and may last around 30-45 seconds. Her cervix may dilate to around 3 centimetres.
Mum-to-be may notice a discharge of the ‘show’ (a thick mucous plug), which formed earlier in pregnancy. The purpose of the ‘show’ is to seal the cervix in order to protect the uterus and baby from bacteria. If she has already had a show prior to labour, more of the show may appear as her cervix opens.
Contractions will become stronger and closer together as she nears the next phase (active labour). Contractions may reduce to 5 minutes apart and last up to 60 seconds.
First labours are generally longer than second or subsequent labours. For a first labour, the first stage may last from around 12-14 hours at an average. However every labour and every woman is different so you may find that your partner labours for much less or much more than this amount. It really is a case of ‘how long is a piece of string’ and no-one can tell how long a labour will go for.
Symptoms In The First Stage Of Labour
Common symptoms she may experience include mild contractions (often described as feeling like period/menstrual cramps), backache and mild diarrhoea. Emotionally she may be happy, excited and relieved that labour has begun, but she may also feel nervous and experience some apprehension – she may be wondering ‘Am I really ready for this?!’.
During the first stage, positions which best help the progression of labour are upright. She could be walking, standing, sitting on a fitball or kneeling during contractions, then resting between them. It will help the intensity, strength, frequency and regularity of her contractions when you work with gravity. You can imagine how much easier it is for the uterus and baby to work with the forces of gravity, rather than lie down and work against them. Lying down may slow labour and contractions may become more ineffective than being upright. However if its the middle of the night and she can manage it, its best to sleep or rest as much as she can. There’s no point sprinting in the first leg of a marathon – you can imagine what’s going to happen at the end!
What You Can Do
Encouragement (not sympathy) is vital during each stage of labour. During early labour, encourage mum-to-be to rest for as long as possible, especially if labour is overnight. During the day or if she can’t rest overnight, encourage her to change positions often, preferably in upright positions. Propping her up with pillows can help if she’s in bed.
Other things you can do in early labour include:
- Tell her that she’s doing great!
- Keep her company – walk with her, watch television, play a board game etc
- Time a few contractions, keeping a record, but don’t get caught up in it. She needs you, and stressing over how long contractions are can keep mum distracted too. Time a few, then if things seem to be intensifying a bit later, time a few more. Active labour contractions will be getting longer, stronger and closer together.
- If you have planned to use a doula, call them as he/she has requested
- Call the labour ward (as instructed) if you are booked into a hospital, especially if labour began with waters breaking
- Help her to relax
- Offer a massage or pressure on her hips or lower back (most labouring women prefer this to massage, especially as it intensifies). If she has lower back pain, use a heat back on her lower back and press in firmly
- Help her find comfortable positions
- If you will be birthing in hospital, place her pillows, labour bag and any other bags going to hospital in the car
- Pack yourself something to eat, drink and some snacks for hospital
Active Labour (Stage One, Approx 4-7cms Dilation)
The next phase of labour is called ‘active labour’. The contractions during active labour increase in intensity and are closer together. They will now last around 45-60 seconds long and will be around 2-5 minutes apart. Her cervix continues to dilate to around 4-7cms.
She will now notice strong contractions and increased backache. You may notice your partner displays increased concentration and seriousness. She may start to feel uncertain she can do it and feel apprehensive. She may particularly want your company/support during this time.
Again, positions which best help the progression of labour at this stage are upright, walking about or kneeling forwards during contractions, resting between them. This will help the intensity, strength, frequency and regularity of her contractions, and are really helpful now.
Lying down may slow labour and contractions may become more ineffective than being upright – in fact a good tip if you’re caught out at home with labour going too fast is to get mum on her hands and knees with her bum in the air and head down, to get any pressure off the cervix. Avoid any positions on her back, as its more painful for mum-to-be and is not the best for blood and oxygen supply (due to the weight of the baby and the uterus). The uterus contracts forward, away from a woman’s body – lying on her back is the worst position she could be in.
What You Can Do
- S – Supportive environment
- U – Urinate at least once an hour (remind her to go, it gets her moving and an empty bladder makes more room for baby)
- P – Position changes often
- P – Praise and encouragement – this will keep her strong, sympathy can make her feel sorry for herself and want out
- O – Out of bed (walk/shower)
- R – Relaxation
- T – Touch – pressure and massage
Other things you might like to try include:
- Eliminating distractions in the environment (lighting and music)
- Keep her lips and mouth moist
- Offer sips of water often
- Offer a massage or pressure
- Keep telling her how well she is doing
Transition (Stage One, 8-10cms Dilation)
The Transition phase brings the most powerful and intense contractions, which opens up the cervix for its final stretch, from about 8-10cms. These strong contractions lead to the pushing contractions that will birth the baby. While this will be a very intense phase, its also the shortest phase of labour. It may last around 5-20 contractions or 10 to 60 minutes.
The contractions will be around 60-90 seconds long and there will only be 1-3 mins between contractions. If her waters are not yet broken, they will probably break now. This is where most women hit their crisis if they haven’t already, and all your support knowledge will be tested. Here’s where she needs you as solid as a rock, as this is the most likely time to want to give it all up.
During transition, your encouragement and strength is critically important, as mum-to-be gets through these very intense contractions. It can also be a difficult stage for you as her partner, seeing her in even more pain than before, not being able to help take the pain away.
Emotionally, your partner may be highly irritable, frustrated, exhausted and may want to give up or go home. She may feel that she just wants it all to be over with and may start talking about caesareans and epidurals – so help her focus as much as you can and let her know that you’re in it together – and it looks very hard, but she’s doing actually it! Encouragement is so, so important here.
She may experience:
- Very intense contractions
- Nausea and / or vomiting
- Snoozing between contractions
- Hot flashes
- Chills and legs shaking
- Heavy show
- Severe low backache
- Possibly premature urge to push
- Pressure in her bum as the baby descends (may say she feels like she needs to poo)
During the first stage, positions which best help the progression of labour are upright and walking about or kneeling during contractions, resting between them. This will help the intensity, strength, frequency and regularity of her contractions. You can imagine how much easier it is for the uterus and baby to work with the forces of gravity, rather than lie down and work against them.
What You Can Do
Lots of encouragement – encourage her to concentrate on the power of the contractions rather than pain and encourage her to use visualisation. Tell her how great she is doing and that baby will arrive very soon. Tell her that you love her.
Other things you can do include:
- Remind her that this is the shortest stage of labour and the baby will be here soon!
- Remind her to take one contraction at a time
- Squeeze her hand or give her something to squeeze
- Breathe with her – look in her eyes and tell her to breathe with you (deep breaths)
- Apply counter pressure
- Hold her or give her a big hug
- Fan her if she is hot
- Put a cool face washer on her forehead or neck if she is hot or nauseous
- Get extra blankets and massage her legs if she has chills
- Keep her lips and mouth moist
- Keep up sips of water (don’t ask, just offer)
- Help her to relax between contractions
Stage Two, 10cms Dilation / Pushing
Stage two starts from the time the cervix reaches full dilation (10cms) to the birth of your baby. This stage may take 15 minutes or up to three hours. Some women may be lucky enough to have a brief resting phase between the ‘transition’ and ‘pushing’ phases. Her contractions may feel weak to non existent compared to transition.
Contractions in stage two are usually further apart than transition, coming every 3-5 minutes apart and lasting 60-90 seconds. She may feel the urge to push as the contraction builds. Most women find pushing to be much less painful than the contractions experienced in transition. She’s almost there!
She may have a possible quiet spell of up to 20 minutes as her body rests in preparation for pushing. She may also experience:
- An almost uncontrollable urge to push (especially if she has had no drugs, medications can numb this)
- Tremendous back and rectal pressure (may feel that she needs to poo)
- A ‘second wind’ of strength to make pushing effort
- Pins and needles / burning / stretching sensation as baby crowns
- Exhaustion between contractions
- Relief that she can actively bring about the birth of her baby
- Ecstatic sensation as the baby is born
During the second stage, positions which best help the progression of labour are standing or kneeling with the upper body leaning forward during contractions. Towards the end of the second stage, squatting or supported squatting provides the greatest increase of space and pressure in the pelvis – up to 30% more pelvic space than lying on her back. If the second stage is very quick, kneeling on all fours may help.
What You Can Do
- Help her to find the most comfortable and productive position – squatting is a great position for pelvic space and it helps relax the perineum (less prone to tearing compared to when lying down)
- Whisper words of quiet encouragement ’You’re doing a great job!‘, ’I am so proud of you!’, ‘I know you can do this.’
- Encourage her to rest between contractions
- If she holds her breath while pushing, remind her to breathe every 6-10 seconds
- Remind her to relax her perineum
- Remind her to keep her eyes open for the birth
Congratulations dad! You now have a beautiful baby! There’s a little bit to go through, and some things you really need to know, for both mum and baby’s sake.
There is a job right now that you need to be on top of dad. Everyone is going to be focused on the baby right now, but unless it’s an emergency, you need to make sure that baby’s cord isn’t clamped right away. Some hospitals have now made it policy that the cord is not clamped immediately due to the massive health benefits, but many hospitals have a habit of quickly clamping the cord to get things done quickly.
Your baby will miss out on a plethora of health benefits if the cord is clamped right away, so protect your baby’s cord. You can read about delayed cord clamping here as well as our article on 8 reasons not to clamp your baby’s cord immediately.
The Placenta (Stage Three)
The final phase of labour is the birth of the placenta. The placenta detaches from the uterus in around 5-20 minutes.
Apart from the joy of birthing her child and relief that the labour is almost over, mum may now feel mild contractions and fatigue and she prepares to birth the placenta. Some hospitals like to routinely give an injection to hurry it along, but for many women, it will come out on its own with a little bit of patience and putting baby to the breast.
What You Can Do
Give baby to mum to hold for some amazing skin to skin contact or if mum is unable to for any reason, hold baby where mum can see him/her.
Member Suggestions – What My Partner Did For Me That Helped
Here are a few suggestions from our members in the BellyBelly forums:
“He stood there and let my squeeze the absolute crap out of his hand when I was going through contractions!” Astrolady
“He was chatting away to the midwife about all sorts of nonsense as well, I wasn’t too aware of what they were on about, but the sound of his voice was comfort enough!” JOJA
“I couldn’t have done it without him. He got me drinks (then held the sick bag for me when I vomited them back up), gave me massages, dragged me in and out of the shower, encouraged me all the time, made sure that I was always kept informed (even after the drugs kicked in) and charmed all the midwives. During the time that I was in the ante-natal ward he arrived in the morning before I woke up so I opened my eyes and there he was. He bought me food so I didn’t have to eat hospital meals and looked after my cat even though he hates him.” — Dachlostar
“My partner just sat by my bed and didn’t say a word, which is all I wanted. Just a nice quiet room with some relaxation music playing. While in the shower he kept encouraging me and telling me I was doing great etc.” Tegan
“This is no joke, but Andrew stopped for cigarettes on the way to the hospital. I couldn’t believe it!!! But once we were there, he was great – just really encouraging. Didn’t talk to me much (I didn’t want to talk, I just wanted to labour without a running commentary!). He held the bowl as I vomited and organised big towels for me so that I could go in and out of the shower. When I was rushed to the delivery suite he was fantastic. He helped the midwife and the Obstetrician, organised music and lavender oil and let me break his hand with the squeezing. He was pretty in tune with what I wanted/needed, and he was a star. I couldn’t have done it without him.” Lucy
“During my first labour, which was long and drawn out (coupla days!!), even though a smoker, he stayed at my side at all times and didn’t leave. I didn’t want to be spoken to, so he didn’t speak, but anything I needed magically appeared for me (ice chips, massages, going to the shower etc). Looking back, I don’t recall that I realised he was even there, but he was, and without knowing it, just being there got me through.
With my second, I haemorrhaged after and I was not at all worried about Brielle’s safety or comfort, because I knew he was there to make her safe. I could get on with the job of looking after me, because I didn’t have to worry about her.
Just being there is the best thing that he did. I think most men feel completely out of their depths during the experience and are all too happy to do the little things that are big to us when we are in labour. Any other day I wouldn’t class getting me a glass of ice chips deserving of a medal, but on that day in my life, it is!?” — shannonwiththird
“My husband was so wonderful and supportive, he stayed by my side the whole time. Including the first few days at home while I was labouring. Then in hospital, he let me squeeze the crap out of his hand, he gave me drinks, he organised the room with essential oils and calm music playing. He helped me voice my opinions to the midwife, like when I wanted an epidural and when I wanted to see the ob NOW!
He didn’t disagree with anything and let me decide what pain relief I wanted and when.
He told me that he loved me and thanks for going through all this for us to met our son… he was the best and I could not have asked for more from him.
He was also amazing after Matthew was born and I was recovering. Matthew didn’t sleep that first night and he stayed up with him all night so I could rest. He changed his nappy without me asking, I didn’t have to change a nappy for 3 days!
I couldn’t have done it without him in those first couple of days, he helped me have a shower and dried me, he helped me go to the toilet, helped me get dressed, he did all this without questions or fuss.” — Nellbe
“I think DP felt a little useless and out of sorts and he was also sooo bored for a lot of the time we were in the birthing suite, cause it took them over 5 hours to get the syntocinon drip in my hands, and so much of that was just waiting and waiting for various doctors/nurses to come back etc.
He was really sweet though, cause at about the 8th drip attempt (I think), I started getting really panicky and upset and he would come and hold my other hand and distract me from watching how they were butchering my hands up.
He was also really great during the pushing stage, he followed the midwife’s lead and gave heaps of encouragement and praise, and probably contributed to it being such a short amout of pushing, cause he really made me believe the end was near so I would give it my all…” — Ambah
“During Labour Marc was a star, he ran a bath for me at the hospital tried to do whatever he could to help and also tried to calm me down when things started to get out of our control. I never really had much pain so there was no hand crushing or anything like that – I just swayed through my contractions and that was it booooooooring!
I think there must be something to be said for Dad’s after a caesarean – as like Nell’s husband, Marc was the same. He gave Paris her first bath, along with changing her first nappy and so forth. At home he would wake with me with every feed and when she had to be bottle fed later on he would take it in turns with me to feed her and he ended up doing the last feed as he felt it was a great time to spend bonding with her. So at 5 am when she would wake for a feed he would feed her and then sleep with her in the chair till he needed to get ready for work when he’d put her to bed. Do you know what he was soooooo sad when she stopped waking for that last feed! And now everything is still 50/50.” — Cailin