Over the course of 11 years and two sons, I've stood by my wife for about 20 hours of labor. As it turns out, that's enough time to do and say some truly stupid things.
During my first stint in the labor room, I developed an obsessive interest in the monitor that measured the strength of every contraction. It was easier to look at the numbers than my wife's anguished face. Even worse, I started to believe the numbers actually meant something. When a "small" contraction came along, I said, "Now that one wasn't so bad." She's squeezing an 8-pound boy through her birth canal, and I'm telling her it doesn't hurt.
Ever since dads have been allowed in the delivery room, they've struggled to find their proper role. Some faint. Some let their attention drift to a television set or a book. Some do a great job. And, yes, some spend too much time looking at the monitors when they should be focused on their partners. Despite the occasional missteps, expectant fathers can play a vital role in deliveries. If you're planning to accompany your partner on the big day, you should think ahead of time about how to give her the comfort and support she needs.
Making a game plan
Ideally, you should start preparing for the big day months in advance, says Nancy Draznin, a midwife and certified birth educator living in Genesee, Idaho. You and your partner don't necessarily need to go to birth classes -- unless she wants to -- but you should work together to form a detailed birth plan. The plan should cover everything from who will be in the room to the use of pain medications. Chances are, your wife will be happy to share her hopes and expectations in detail. As Josh Kraft, a father of two, puts it, "Your wife will tell you what needs to happen."
You should also be prepared for the unexpected. For example, your partner may plan to go without painkillers, but such vows don't always hold up when the contractions start. As part of the birth plan, ask her what to do if she starts asking for drugs. Does she want you to try to talk her out of it? Or should you support her decision and follow up with the nurse or doctor until she gets what she needs?
Once labor starts, your real work begins. Whether you're having the baby at home or in the hospital, you are her main source of support. Look in her eyes and tell her you love her. Tell her she's doing a great job. Most of all, just be there. "Have her be in physical contact as much as she wants to be," Draznin says. "Your physical presence is more important than anything else. That lets men who don't like to talk much off the hook."
One of your main jobs is to keep your wife from panicking or losing focus during a strong contraction. Draznin encourages moms and dads to take a deep, cleansing breath together at the beginning, the middle, and the end of every contraction. In between contractions, you can get her some ice chips, ask her if she's comfortable, and remind her that she's doing a heroic job.
If she shows signs of distress -- moaning, thrashing, or rapid breathing -- join her in another long, deep breath. If she starts panicking, look her in the eyes, hold her hand, and remind her to breathe. Stay with her until she can calm down again.
Your other main job is to be your wife's advocate. You know her better than anyone else, and you know exactly what she wants. She may not be in the best position to give instructions to the doctor, nurse, or midwife, so she'll be counting on you. You don't necessarily have to take this job on by yourself, however. More and more couples are hiring doulas -- professional labor assistants -- to accompany them during labor and delivery. The doula can work with the medical staff and express your partner's wishes, leaving you free for more important things, like making sure the mother's concerns are heard.
"Hiring a doula takes all of the pressure off of dad," Draznin says. "All he has to do is provide emotional support."
If your wife has a long labor, you probably can't stay by her side for every second. It's okay to stretch your legs and get a quick bite to eat. In fact, a break can help keep you sharp for the big moment. "Some dads forget to take care of themselves," Draznin says. "Just be sure to be there when she really needs you."
Even after my mistakes, I managed to come through when it counted. I was the first to congratulate my wife on our miraculously perfect first son, and I was there to encourage her to push when our second son came out upside down. She did an incredible job, and, to be honest, so did I. When I look at my boys now, I like to think that she couldn't have done it without me, in more ways than one.
Interview with Nancy Draznin, a midwife and certified birth educator from Genesee, Idaho
Interview with Josh Kraft, father of two
Tips for Labor Coaches. Pregnancy Health Center. Penn Medicine.