It’s your choice who you want to be with you at the birth of your baby. The touch and the mental support of your birthing partner are vital, so you need to think very carefully about who will be the best person to ask. It won’t help you to have a birthing partner who is very unsure or anxious about the whole event.
Fathers have not always been welcome at the birth, and who you choose will depend a lot on your culture, your relationship and your personal feelings. Keep your options open until near the end of your pregnancy, and consider whether you might want a friend, or your mother, or even a professional birth supporter as your back-up.
Having a supportive partner present at the birth makes the biggest impact when you are giving birth in hospital or at a birthing centre — if you ‘re planning to give birth at home, your partner is likely to be around anyway.
Job description for birthing partners
Potential birthing partners need to understand that it’s a full-on job. Mental and physical preparation are vital, as the birthing partner may be called upon to undertake a variety of roles: advocate for the woman, masseur, waiter, face-sponger, breathing guide — and they’ll need to be sensitive enough to the woman’s needs to identify which role they are being called upon to perform at any given moment. Wimps need not apply!
So what are the actual tasks the birthing partner may be expected to undertake on the day?
- Setting the pace with breathing and holding the rhythm
- Supporting different positions in labour
- Ensuring the woman feels strong and good about herself
- Running baths and preparing hot water bottles
- Helping the woman to stay focused on herself, the process of birth, and the baby
- Holding the space for her so she can open up and be herself
- Helping her to relax, find her voice and make sounds
- Offering drinks, nice food, dextrose and sips of energy drinks or water
- Reminding her to empty her bladder frequently
- Speaking a positive language
- Maintaining the cycle of breathing, baby breathing and resting between contractions
- Encouraging her to try different positions
- Being prepared to go along with whatever she wants at the time
- Asking for help, and
- Above all, giving her a feeling of being loved.
Supporting Comfortable Positions in labor
You are in this together, which is why it is so important that you discuss your plans with your chosen partner. You need to be speaking the same language when the day comes.
Massage and breathing: a winning combination
Partners need to create rapport during childbirth, and breathing and massage are non-verbal ways of doing so. We can communicate well with our hands, especially as sensitivity to non-verbal communication can be very high around the time of birth.
Here is a very simple basic massage: apply a natural oil onto the lower back and rub it in with a circular motion, remembering to include the hips and the tailbone area. You can massage with the palm or the knuckles of one hand, or with two. During labour, the focus is mainly on the lower back, as there are five major ligaments connected to the iliosacral joint here. This is where the woman will feel the sensation of pulling most intensely. Make sure you find a good oil that both of you like the smell of, as the massage may go on for several hours!
An effective way to get the most out of massage is to combine the rhythm of deep breathing and slow movements while massaging the lower back, encouraging the woman to pace her breath with it, to relax and to stay focused.
Some women enjoy a firm massage, others a softer touch. Sometimes just applying gentle pressure onto the sacrum towards the tailbone might be enough, and in the later stages of birth women often enjoy a delicate massage of their inner thighs, their shoulders or face. One effective technique is to massage, either with your fists or your hands, or still in rhythm with slow birth breathing, in a figure of 8 across the lower back.
And some women might not want to be touched at all . . . their birthing partners should respect that.
Types of massage
Practice this together in different positions to develop awareness and relaxation.
- Place your hand on a spot on her body, letting it sink in to it.
- Your partner then consciously breathes in to the spot where your hand is.
- Lift your hand gently and move it away.
- Your partner then just lets the feeling of touch at this spot melt away, taking any tension with it.
Some women may enjoy just having a warm hand or gentle pressure on their lower back.
Hands in motion
- Place one or two hands, palms down, on your partner’s back. If you’re using two hands, circle them in opposite directions.
- Breathe in rhythm with your moving hands.
- Move your hand(s) in big circles over your partner’s hips and buttocks.
Practise easing the pressure as you breathe in and applying a bit more pressure as you breathe out.
Touch and relaxation
Gentle stroking with each slow inhalation and exhalation can help a woman to relax. You could do this kind of soft stroking on your partner’s back, shoulders, or outer or inner thighs, or maybe a loving touch of her temples, her forehead, or elsewhere on her face. Start practising this every day, whenever you catch your partner looking tense, so it becomes almost like a reflex, and will happen spontaneously at the birth.
Gentle stroking is in fact a skill worth developing, as anyone can benefit: your child, your lover, an old person.
More, baby, more!
Once the baby’s head is engaged and moving further towards the tailbone, some women experience great pressure in their lower back, and may want to bend forward, circling their hips and pelvis, or they may enjoy firm external pressure to relieve it, or a very strong massage, demanding more and more depth to it.
Some women may enjoy a very strong massage
I remember Gabrielle, for example, with each contraction shouting ‘Stronger, stronger’ while her partner worked really hard to support her.
Butterfly hands and the release of hormones
We know that touch releases oxytocin, and an experiment by the Touch Research Institute has demonstrated that massaging muscles and skin has a calming effect: levels of the stress hormone cortisol may be reduced in a person receiving a massage.
So – what a useful piece of knowledge! Let’s put it to good use:
- Stand behind your partner and take her spine as your middle line.
- Imagine your hands are like butterfly wings, touching only very lightly as in this case you want to activate the nerves, not work on the muscles.
- Place the backs of your hands gently on either side of your partner’s tailbone and move them simultaneously up to the top of their head in a ‘V’-like motion, covering as much space as you can, touching yet almost not touching.
- Once you reach the top of her head turn your hands over and let your palms gently flow down her ears, her shoulders and her arms.
- Then place your palms very gently on her shoulders and run them down across her back in a figure of eight motion. This should feel as if she has four hands massaging her.
You can use this type of massage on all parts of the body, but in my experience it’s most useful performed on the back during labour.
The butterfly touch has in it an element of the soft exploratory touch of hands and fingers as a prelude to lovemaking, so you and your partner could take turns at it throughout your pregnancy.
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Your birthing partner cannot know in advance what is going to be expected of them, but if they are well prepared, all options will be available. Above all, your birthing partner must be sensitive to the needs of a woman in labour.
Many studies have shown that loving care and touch during childbirth can reduce the need for pain relief and leave women feeling they have had a better experience.