Birth partners are the people who support women in labour – they can be doulas, partners, mothers, aunts or sisters. Anyone who takes an active part in birth (in a non-medical role) is considered a “partner.”
Birth partners are there to guide the way, providing encouraging words, helping the labouring woman shift positions, and suggesting comfort measures. Birth partners are also there for emotional support and can help to ease a woman’s fear or anxiety about the birth process.
Early labour is the first phase of labour; it is also the longest phase and can last anywhere from 12-24 hours. Women may be experiencing cramps or contractions, but these are generally not painful. Most women will be able to go about their daily activities and will be excited and nervous. Birth partners can support her in this phase by helping with:
- Distraction: this is not a time to pull out all the comfort measure you learned in your prenatal class. Do an early labour project together, like organizing your photos into albums, bake muffins, or just veg in front of the TV.
- Eating and drinking: easily digestible carbs are best, and she should stay hydrated with water, tea or juice.
- Rest: if it is nighttime, you should encourage her to rest. A warm bath may slow or stop contractions, and some care providers will recommend a combination of Gravol and Tylenol to help encourage sleep. Check with your care provider before offering any medications.
Active labour can last from 6-8 hours and is a time when women become much more internally focused. They are no longer able to walk and talk through contractions, and they need support with comfort measures:
- Encourage her to pee, at least once an hour. An empty bladder will help make way for baby’s head.
- Offer sips of water, juice or some kind of electrolyte drink. She is working very hard at this point, and needs a lot of hydration.
- Encourage her to change positions every hour, which will help baby to move lower in the pelvis
- Try comfort measures such as: water (bath or shower,) slow dancing, walking, birth ball, squatting, lunges, double-hip squeeze, counter pressure, massage, breathing techniques, hands and knees, or visualization.
Transition is the shortest part of labour (30-90 minutes long) but also the hardest part. As adrenaline begins to surge through the woman’s body, she will experience a whole range of symptoms; chills, hot flashes, vomiting, shaking, sweating and panic are very common. As a birth partner, you will need to be by her side for this entire phase:
- Provide strong encouragement (“you can do it,” “you’re doing so well,” “you’re amazing”)
- Do the “take charge” routine if she is panicking: put your hands on her shoulders and ask her to look you in the eyes. Then encourage her to breathe with you (or vocalize in deep moans)
- Stay calm and strong for her – remember that this is very normal, and will pass fairly quickly.
- If you’re not sure if this is transition and she hasn’t been checked in a number of hours, ask her if she would like her cervix to be examined. Sometimes discovering that she is at 8 or 9 cm can be motivating.
- Remember not to take offense to anything – she may swear or get angry, but her body is going through so much. Just switch tactics and try something else!
Pushing can last anywhere from 20 – 120 minutes (or more.) Women tend to be very focused on the task at hand, and their bodies are working really hard.
- Fill a bowl with ice and cold water. Keep several wash clothes in the bowl, and continually place a cool/fresh one on her forehead or the back of her neck
- Suggest different pushing positions such as: sitting on the toilet, hands and knees, squatting, side-lying or on her back (help to support her legs.)
- Provide LOTS of encouragement (“great job!” “you can do this!” “you’re moving your baby down!”)
In the immediate postpartum, most mothers will feel very relieved that the birth is over. Some may feel overwhelmed or emotional. Follow her lead, and provide whatever support she needs.
- Look at your baby together. Take lots of pictures, and point things out to her – tiny fingers and toes, hair colour, or resemblance to a family member.
- If she feels overwhelmed or is in pain, she may ask you to take the baby. Remove your shirt, and place the baby on your chest with a warm blanket covering you. Skin-to-skin is also beneficial if done by a partner.
- Offer to get her a drink and something to eat. She may want something simple (toast and jam) or she may be ravenous!
- When everything is over and you get some quiet family time, encourage her to sleep. Many mothers will be on a “birth high” and will not be able to sleep, but she can still rest.
Nurses, midwives, doctors and professional doulas are all well-trained to support women in labour. As a birth partner, you may have less experience and feel unsure about your place in the room. But remember that your partner knows you intimately, and loves you – she will find comfort just from you quietly sitting beside her and gently encouraging her. Be confident in your abilities, and know that you are doing a fantastic job.