Helping your partner give birth to your child will be the most amazing event in your life, but you may be too busy to take it all in. She will be your fighter in the ring and you will be her cornerman. She will focus on her internal challenges, so you’ll make sure she and your baby’s needs are met. Here we help you get ready and rise to the occasion if required.
Pack your bag early, as surprises are common. Here’s a list inspired by dads:
BabyCenter does a great job with online childbirth education. Here’s a link to their seven-video series, which totals about two hours. Consider watching them with your partner and take time to ask for her thoughts, such as requests for you as her birth cornerman.
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You may get a name tag in the shape of a uterus, but once the birth is over, we’ve never heard of a dad who regretted going to childbirth classes. You and Mom will spend a lot of time together, in class and talking on the way there and back: a new family rite of passage for decades. You’ll get to know other couples and there’s a good chance you’ll make new friends. The class will cover everything, especially strategies for managing pain.
Most important? When her labor kicks in, she’ll know you’ve got her back - that you’ll take care of her and make sure everyone else does, too. You will be prepared to rise to the occasion should the need arise.
“A woman in labor needs her husband to be a man - if she needs to squeeze his arm until it bruises to get through a contraction, or make sure she gets what she needs, he does it. She needs to know he’s her lion at the gate.” - New Dad
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Animated Birth Video (0:45)
How Babies Are Born (3:04)
With so many options, determining and communicating mom’s and your wishes requires they be written down. This is called a birth plan, and it should accompany you into the hospital to be used as a reference for attending medical personnel.
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She will hear a lot about “natural” birth, a vaginal birth without an epidural that is supposed to empower mothers. So for balance, here’s the downside: if a Caesarean section is required or she caves in and asks for an epidural for the pain, many new moms feel like a failure right out of the gate. That’s not good for them or your baby.
If she’s intent on a natural birth, suggest a code word (e.g., “blue”) for if she decides she wants an epidural; this way, you know she’s sure and you don’t ask for one prematurely. Suggest the code word also means she won’t feel guilty.
An emergency C-section can be staggering for a new mom who really wanted a natural birth. After delivery, while getting patched up, she may spend 30 to 60 minutes alone and feeling bad about it before she even sees her baby. So prior to Mom arriving in the maternity room, ask the nurse how you can best get the antidote—her baby—into her arms ASAP. In terms of holding the baby, her C-section incision will be an issue and the nurse will give you instructions.
After delivery, if mom is disappointed, tell her you know she’s struggling, but when you look at her with the baby, all you see is a beautiful mother and child, which makes you profoundly proud and happy. Then it’s on to helping her get breastfeeding (link to breastfeeding) going.
“My wife was full of tears when she was told that (C-section) was the option she had to take. Nothing that I could say would register. What did help was I got her girlfriend on the phone who had a Cesarean. She was the one who could answer her questions about what it was like. After she talked to her friend, she was like, ‘OK, I’m ready. I can do it.’” —Vet Dad
“There is a cultish hatred towards epidurals and we wish we hadn't bought into that as much as we did.” —Vet Dad
The last few weeks are when most moms get scared about giving birth. Show her your Childbirth Cornerman’s Guide (pdf / web) so she knows you’re ready to help her through it. Plan on spending most of your time with her, avoid trips away if possible, and stay in touch by phone. If she’s still working, she may have no desire to go and find it difficult to focus.
If she goes past her due date, she’ll likely get impatient and frustrated. Help distract her, especially with ideas that might induce labor. Be careful joking about horseback riding, though, as she just might insist on actually going.
Your Childbirth Cornerman’s Guide (pdf / web) will have instructions for tracking labor at home (you’ll need a clock with seconds), or you can download a labor contraction app to your phone—you just push “start” at the beginning of a contraction and “stop” at the end: the app does everything else. Try these:
- A good review of labor contraction timers.
- Full-Term Contraction Timer; a simple app for iPhones from the App Store.
- Contraction Timer a simple app for Android phones from Google Play.
You might want to pick one now, download it, and practice a little. On a bored evening as your due date approaches, try pulling your phone out and ask her to do a fake contraction so you can practice timing it. She’ll think you’re joke is dumb, but she’ll be happy you’re taking your job seriously.
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On any issue of concern: call. Doctors and midwives expect this and are prepped for it, so don’t be shy. Any concerns your partner has are fair game for a call, and they reassure a nervous woman about to give birth.
Once it’s time, get your hospital bags together, make any necessary calls (e.g., pet sitter?), check the house (no leaving the stove on), then head to the hospital. You’ll want to drive carefully despite any NASCAR thoughts; even little bumps on the road are painful for a woman in labor.
If it’s a standard birth, her doctor will examine her cervix for dilation (opening up so the baby can pass through). A scale of 1 to 10 centimeters is used to track her progress in labor: 2 is a good sign labor is progressing and 10 means time for the birth.
Her doctor may determine that labor will take a while, and she should wait to be admitted. First-time expectant parents often end up making two trips to the hospital before labor sets in. If Mom’s up for it, suggest an activity that will help take her mind off the contractions. Go for a walk, to a movie -anything that distracts her from focusing on the clock.
Get Mom checked in and comfortable. Hospitals have tons of rules, but keep in mind you’re a paying customer. If they’re busy with lots of births, get clear answers about how they will handle her needs.
You’ll be assigned a nurse who will be responsible for getting Mom settled in, hooked up to the appropriate equipment for monitoring her and baby’s progress, and helping to manage labor. The nurse is there to help, so you’ll want to quickly establish communication and a constructive relationship. Ask for their suggestions and advice and if there’s anything you can do to help. If a shift change occurs, make sure the new nurse was briefed on your mate’s issues, and take the same approach with the doctor or midwife.
During childbirth, her belly contracts until it has forced out a baby through a passage normally one-tenth its size. Although her body is designed for childbirth, it may seem like she’s in a heavyweight fight with nature. And this being her first time, she has no experience...
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She has you, and will need your support, caring, patience, hand, and maybe your shoulder. She will need you to be strong, to look out for her, and to protect her and your baby. If a punching bag is what she needs, remember to roll with her punches.
The default dad-to-be starting position is nervous and unsure, but you will have learned about what’s ahead. You’ll find most tasks come naturally, and you’ll be fully focused on Mom and Baby. This is exactly where you need to be, and you’ll be ready to handle whatever occurs.
Build her confidence. Tell her how proud you are of her, what a great job she’s doing, and that you love her. Cheer her on, tell her how far she’s come, how close she is to finishing: “You’re halfway through (this contraction); it will ease up now.”
Actual labor is your cue to quietly take charge. Your partner will be entirely focused on what’s going on with her body, so assume responsibility for making sure everything she needs gets handled. Your constructive actions, attentiveness, and attitude will ensure she knows you have her back.
This is no time to be shy. You’re her “lion at the gate” and protector. Work with the medical staff to ensure the best support possible. Review her birth plan with them and ask if they anticipate any issues. Be assertive and flexible on her behalf; stay calm no matter what, as it will unnerve her to see you angry or obnoxious.
“She grabbed my shirt and ripped it and began calling me every name she could think of.” Your partner may find your support irritating as she tries to breathe through her pain. Don’t take it personally, as it’s her pain talking. Just back off and then offer her ice or a backrub.
Your partner might have wanted to have her mom, sister, or best friend there with her, but as labor progresses, she may feel otherwise. If your laboring mate needs some space, if problems develop, or if visitors are imposing, you’ll need to politely ask them to wait in the lobby. If anyone intrudes, including your mother-in-law, you have a job to do (which the nurse will be happy to do for you).
After the birth, despite excited visitors who want to see the baby, it’s time for your new family to get to know each other. Don’t feel pressured to have guests for at least an hour. If you do, they don’t need to stay long - “Mom’s exhausted and needs to sleep”—which is generally a good idea anyway. You can make arrangements for people to meet the baby once you’re all settled in back home.
Use the pain relief techniques listed in your Childbirth Coaching Guide (pdf / web). The nursing staff will have a great deal of experience, so ask away. Remember: she’ll be feeling birth pain for the first time and may react in unexpected ways. Make sure her needs are communicated to the medical staff.
When Mom’s in pain, she may only be able to manage a whisper in your ear about her concerns. If she’s shy about making requests, ask her what she wants. Listen carefully to her, then get it handled the way she wants. If she doesn’t have a clear idea, talk to the nurse to troubleshoot.
Ask her if she’s sure, and if so, request it ASAP: she’s in pain. Check when the anesthesiologist will arrive, use the pain relief techniques, and continue them after the drugs start working. Even if she chooses an epidural, she may still experience significant pain, and it may scare her if she feels the epidural isn’t working.
Help her get up and sit down. Be her support, physically and mentally. You’re her cheerleader. Ask questions. Read your partner’s face. What does she need? Take her for walks down the corridors. Tell her your worst jokes, or read to her. If the hospital provides a warm bath, encourage her to take one.
With powerful contractions, she may focus intensely on just getting through them, and telling her how to breathe or asking her how she’s doing may break her concentration. If you sense this is the case, or she gets irritated, back off and give her space and quiet.
Epidural & Spinal Anesthesia (0:52)
Most hospitals allow fathers in the operating room for a routine C-section, and you can still participate by talking to your mate, who may remain awake during the procedure. Tell her she and the baby will be just fine, that you love her, and narrate what’s going on—especially after the baby is born. Keep the following in mind:
- You may be separated from your partner while she’s prepped for surgery.
- The experience may scare her.
- There will be a drape hung across her chest so she (and you) won’t be able to see the actual surgery. If you ask, they may let you watch.
- Immediately after the birth, your baby's lungs will be suctioned out to remove fluid that would have been squeezed out during vaginal birth.
- Your baby may be taken immediately to the nursery to get checked out and cleaned, and you’ll need to go with him. Tell Mom you’re going with “our” baby and you’ll see her soon.
Your mate may feel as though she’s failed (to deliver naturally). Reassure her that she did everything she could and offer: “Our baby is even more beautiful this way; her head didn’t turn into a conehead like they usually do.”
Her recovery from major surgery will require you to take the lead in caring for your baby for at least a week. When your partner able to get out of bed, you’ll be showing her how you do it. Nothing prevents gatekeeping like a C-section. Still, if help is available in those first weeks, take it.
Many dads have an aversion to gore. If you’re prone to getting squeamish, evaluate how to participate. Seeing your baby’s head emerge can be very cool, but not if you pass out, hit your head, and end up needing medical care yourself. If you anticipate an issue, go in with a plan.
Stay focused on her, with your face close to hers at the head of the bed (“nose-to-nose” with Mom, in OB nurse-speak). Talk her through the birth—no reason to look, so don’t feel pressured. If a Cesarean birth is necessary, don’t look over the drape.
Childbirth is not pretty: All the fluid around your baby will exit your wife during delivery. It will be bloody, especially if she needs an episiotomy, and possibly poopy, too, so don’t look.
Getting your love life back is tough, but in a significant number of cases it’s Dad, not Mom, who loses interest. The most prevalent reason is he looked as his baby emerged from what used to be a pretty fun zone.
The prolonged intensity of childbirth on an empty stomach can drop the strongest guy. Keep some nutritious snacks and drinks available and eat them even if you don’t feel hungry. The smell of food might bother Mom, so consider stepping out of the room.
Just say no to opportunities to cut the cord, help catch your baby, etc.
When you arrive in the labor room, prepare a plan in case you feel lightheaded. Is there a chair for you to sit in and lean over with your head between your knees? Or find a place on the floor where you won’t be in the way. The nurses can give you an ammonia capsule if needed.
If you do faint, when you come around, stay down for a while to get your head clear. When you’re ready to stand up, go slowly, hold on to something, then get back in the game. Mom and Baby still need you, so act like nothing happened and carry on. Take the same approach if you get sick: all’s well that ends well.
Eyeballing the monitoring equipment used in childbirth is part of your job. Get familiar with what is being used and ask the nurse what to look for so you can alert her if something comes up. You’ll also be able to track the duration and intensity of your partner's contractions, and she may appreciate you letting her know when they’ve peaked. You might also find yourself in tracking-a-launch-to-the-moon mode, so remember to stay focused on her needs.
Becoming angry and berating the medical staff over your partner’s pain or their failure to follow the birth plan is highly counterproductive. It may unnerve Mom while she’s in the middle of labor and erode the constructive collaboration you need with the staff. If, for any reason, you feel you’re losing your temper, step outside the room and take a deep breath to get ahold of yourself.
“It was not an easy thing for me to deal with. I’m protective of my family and friends as it is, and when I have a baby on the way and my wife is in pain, I’m borderline obnoxious. It took a lot for me to keep myself calm.” --Veteran Dad
You may have an opportunity to cut the umbilical cord that connects your baby to mMom. Initially suggested by doctors as a means of involving fathers, a symbolic meaning has developed. When a father cuts the cord, he releases Mom from total responsibility for their baby and simultaneously accepts his responsibility for raising his child. In a sense, the moment he cuts the cord is the moment he becomes a father.
“It's weird to cut. It’s like using scissors to cut a hot dog in half, with a tough cord down the middle of it.”
Phones are great for taking pictures and videos, and this is definitely a once in a lifetime opportunity, but don't let it turn a cornerman into a cameraman. Think of arranging for someone else to do it, like a visitor or nurse. The best photo ops are Mom holding her baby for the first time, and you doing the same.
Stay calm, ask questions of the medical staff, and let them do their thing. Keep Mom informed and reassure her as much as possible. While your own feelings can be overwhelming, your response to the needs of your family at this time will be crucial.
- Remain as rational as possible. You may have to make big decisions regarding your child and partner.
- Trust your doctors. While some can be lacking in bedside manner, they are highly trained to deal with issues that may develop, and in emergency situations, you’ll need to trust them.
- When serious problems develop, support organizations such as grief and neonatal support groups can be incredibly helpful. Talking to others who have experienced what you’re going through can be comforting and informative.
Sleep is important. Get as much as you can (Mom, even more), as you’re going to need it. Hospital sleep accommodations for dads are sparse, so check them out at the maternity tour. One dad brought in a small air mattress he used for camping and said he slept well.
To set the tone that you’re here to play, ask the nurse to talk you through changing your baby’s first diaper (i.e., you change it). This will also be handy when your child is a teenager (“I changed your first diaper and I want you home by curfew”).
Be forewarned: your baby’s first poops will be meconium, a dark olive green, viscous, nearly odorless, sticky, tar-like substance. “It's like trying to clean freshly laid tar off a hot street with a paper towel.”
The Cave Dad handed down genetic triggers for the bonding that quickly turned him from a wild, teenage cave boy into a family man. Holding your baby and looking into her eyes as she innately stares into yours is one of them. When her eyes lock on yours, it’s like she’s asking, “Where am I?” As you look back and speak to her, she will recognize your voice and stare intently at you, and her eyes seem to say: “You are my father.” She will talk to you with her eyes for a while.
OB nurses are experts in taking care of newborns, and they’re happy to teach you basic skills such as comforting, changing diapers, swaddling, and bathing. They love babies and will be very pleased to know “their baby” has a father who wants to take great care of them. Don’t be shy about asking the nurses to show you how, and take advantage of any opportunity to learn.
While bonding is a process that takes months, the media likes to portray new dads as falling head over heels in love at first sight. If that happens for you, great, but most dads report feeling somewhat disconnected from their child at first. Then their and their baby’s hearts gradually achieve mutual target-lock, just the way nature designed it.
“It actually took me a couple of months to realize this is actually my kid.” –Vet Dad
Your baby is brand new, your partner is a new mom, and you’re a new dad. It’s a period of getting to know each other and becoming a family, so, relish this special time of being together—alone.
Welcome to fatherhood and get some sleep—you’re going to need it!