The History of the Birth Partner
I read a post on Instagram this week about how birthing people used to hand cuff themselves to their birth partner when they went into a hospital so that they wouldn’t be separated. It made me think about how, not all that long ago actually, partners used to be totally banned from birth rooms.
Firstly, let’s take a little walk through history to understand the significance of this. In the 20th century, childbirth began to move from the home and into the hospital environment.
By 1938, about 50% of American women were birthing in the hospital. By the 1950’s, nearly all people were birthing in hospitals.
The Medicalization of Birth and the Birth Partner
The medicalization of birth removed the birthing person from their support network. Birth was viewed as a medical procedure, and the presence of a birth partner was seen as an inconvenience and a risk as if it were an appendectomy or other illness. Nurses came and went, a doctor occasionally visited. The fathers were forced to stay in waiting rooms, or even simply stayed home.
Birth was a highly medicalized and highly anesthetized event – mothers were given cocktails of drugs that made them unable to remember their experience at all. Mothers were so heavily drugged that they couldn’t hold their babies, so nurseries were created to provide care for babies until the mother recovered. This also dramatically affected the ability to breastfeed. I actually really feel like this was a generational cleansing of our knowledge of birth. But that’s a whole other podcast…
The women’s movement of the 60’s, as well as the natural birth movement, highlighted the importance of the birthing person’s right to support during labor.
By the 1960’s, fathers were allowed to be present for labor. And by the 1970’s and 80’s, most were able to stay for birth.
Today’s Birth Partner
And now fast forward to today’s culture, where the importance of a birth partner is highly recognized. When I say birth partner, I want to be very clear that this is the birthing person’s choice of support partner.
It could be the baby’s father, a partner, a wife, a husband, friend, family member, or doula.
We have to really open our eyes and celebrate and elevate the idea that a “birth partner” involves a HUGE diversity of identities.
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TOP STRATEGY #1: Embrace the Transformation
As a birth partner, one of the foundational things you can do is to support your partner as you move through the transformation of pregnancy, birth, and parenthood together.
Although you aren’t experiencing the holistic process of pregnancy and birth, you’re going through the transformation with them. Firstly, as a partner, you’re watching a loved one go through the challenges of pregnancy, labor and birth and that can feel very emotional. You may find that you would do anything to help them or take it away. Secondly, you’re becoming a parent and that is a mind-blowing transformation of the soul. Thirdly, you’re learning about pregnancy, birth, and life with baby and moving into the role of birth support.
You’re wading through this trifecta of transformation and it can be a LOT on your shoulders.
Celebrate Your Partner
Recognize the enormity of this transformation and the all-encompassing nature of this life cycle. CELEBRATE your partner. Take the time to understand their needs, thoughts, wishes, and dreams during this amazing and magical time. Be sure to share yours too.
You may notice that you can see your partner’s brain waves switch throughout pregnancy and birth. A pregnant person spends a lot of their time in Alpha brain waves. It’s a slower brain wave state and it’s driven by the senses and the heart. This is very intentionally created by the body and the spirit to prepare for the changes of birth and parenting. This is where the idea of “pregnancy brain” comes from.
As a birth partner, you can celebrate and embrace these changes together. Nurture your partner with your heart and senses. This is also incredible for boosting oxytocin, which is tremendously supportive for birth.
YOU are the person who knows them best. Step up and enter the transformation with them.
TOP STRATEGY #2: Get Educated!
Show up to your partner’s prenatal appointments and be a presence by their side. As a birth partner, there’s a very good chance that this is your first experience interacting with the medical system as another person’s support. Most people come into birth without a lot of experience in these types of interactions. It’s normal to lack confidence and to be afraid or nervous at first.
When you are present at your partner’s prenatal appointments, you’re showing the care team that you are an empowered and serious presence in the birth space. It shows that you are invested, interested, and a meaningful part of the team. It shows the team that you’re really serious about supporting your partner’s wishes in birth. And, it makes it more likely that the care team will seriously consider your concerns and hear your voice in birth.
Ask All Your Questions
When you’re at appointments, ask all your questions! Your questions, from a partner’s perspective, might offer some key insights to you both. Don’t be afraid to speak up and ask for more information or ask any questions you might have. It’s totally okay to not know. This is also your practice and preparation to become an advocate in birth.
Ask questions about the policies/procedures/protocols of your birth place so you’re prepared and know what to expect. You want to keep your laboring partner as undisturbed as possible. So, the more you know the more you can handle and then your partner’s only job is to focus on labor and bringing baby earth side.
This is a Practice in Advocacy
Use this as an opportunity to learn and practice how to effectively advocate for information and learn the communication styles of your care team. This is not an us against them scenario. No one wants to go into their birth like it’s a battle ground. You’re building solidarity so that you can advocate together for the gentle birth experience that you want for your family.
Take a GREAT Childbirth Course
Take courses with your partner so you can learn more about what to expect in birth. Sign up for a childbirth education course with your partner, or take an online course with them and do the work together. My ULTIMATE Holistic Birth Course is designed to support the whole family in birth.
Become knowledgeable about what is normal in birth so you can remove the “shock” factor. Seeing your partner in pain can be more distressing than we may initially be prepared for. Come into the understanding of what is normal for birth, and learn what to expect throughout the process.
Taking a GREAT childbirth education course (not one in a hospital…) alongside your partner. Doulas are excellent at helping you learn what to expect and so you can be prepared and knowledgeable.
You Have Tremendous Power
Remember, partners have tremendous power in birth. If you’re knowledgeable and prepared holistically for birth, you can be a great rock to the birthing person as they go through this transformation. When your partner is struggling and looking for support, words such as, “This is part of the normal process of birth, you are safe, these big feelings are normal in this stage” are going to be the most meaningful and powerful.
You know them better than anyone else and your word is gold.
How are you going to fill that role if you don’t know what to expect? Shed the shock factor of birth and the stereotypical fainting dad vibe and GET DOWN TO IT and learn about birth so you can support your partner through it!
TOP STRATEGY #3: Anticipate Needs
As a birth partner, it is incredibly helpful if you can anticipate your partner’s needs in birth. This isn’t always 100% possible. But you can certainly learn quite a few ways to become attuned to their needs and anticipate ways to provide support. This might feel like a challenge especially if it is your first time as a birth partner.
Know Their History & Wishes
Firstly, it’s helpful for all birth partners to know the basic answers to medical questions that may be asked upon admission to the hospital. It’s incredibly difficult for the birthing person to be in rip roaring active labor and then be forced to answer a thousand mundane medical questions over and over at each contact point during their birth. Know the answers to basic medical questions such as:
- Are there any medical issues in this pregnancy?
- Has the birthing person had high blood pressure at all?
- Are you taking any medications?
- When did labor start?
- Did your water break?
- Who’s your doctor?
- Who’s baby’s pediatrician?
- Do you plan to….
- Know the birth plan and work on it together with your partner so you can anticipate any questions about procedures ahead of time and be informed.
It’s unrealistic to expect a birthing person to be able to constantly answer questions and be totally disturbed in labor by answering the same annoying questions over and over – all while simultaneously trying to cope with contractions, focus, and be relaxed through labor progress.
If you’re educated and involved, it’s very easy to know and memorize most of the answers to their questions so your partner can focus on their labor.
Provide Comforting Support
Another important way a partner can anticipate needs is by using their understanding of birth to provide support. Doulas are also really great at guiding partners in providing comforting support during labor, and you can anticipate the birthing person’s needs together.
Learn how to provide comfort in physical and emotional ways to your partner during labor. Offering them snacks, water, massage, counterpressure, helping with position changes, offering warmth, cool wash cloths, etc. can provide physical comfort. You can also anticipate things you may need to say when labor gets hard.
Remember, you know them better than anyone else. Your word is gold. What is it that they need to hear you say in birth? You can talk about this ahead of time too, although you may not actually know until you’re there.
And then there are logistical needs that can be anticipated. For example, talk through the process and rehearse the labor. What will it look like to get in the car and go to your birth place? What do you need to pack? When are you planning to leave? The birth partner and a doula can be great resources to help determine this timing because they can see the labor from an outside perspective.
TOP STRATEGY #4: Learn the Language of Advocacy
Here’s the biggest one, which is kind of the key that makes all the other things effective. As a birth partner, learn the language of advocacy and system-savvy so you can have a gentle birth.
Why is this important?
You have to understand the way in which the childbirth & medical system operates to understand how to advocate for what you want without making your birth a battle ground. I want you to be prepared for a gentle birth, not a battle field.
The Birth Environment
Firstly, let’s talk about the background of the hospital environment.
When you arrive at your birth place, it’s basically 100% certain that your nursing staff will be people you have never met before. They know nothing about you and your family. There’s about a 75% chance or more – depending on your provider’s practice structure – that the doctor or midwife that attends your birth is someone you have either never met or spent very little time with. You cannot assume that your staff will automatically know your wishes.
Family advocacy is built on the concept that the care team works in solidarity to support the family in receiving care that meets their core values and desires for birth. This is not just advocating for the birth plan to be followed. This is identifying the big ideas, values, and principles that a family holds for their birth and facilitating the process of meeting those needs.
For example – A family desires a water birth. They put “I plan to birth in the birth tub and have a water birth” in their birth plan. BUT the real need and value behind that plan is that they want a gentle birth experience. If we identify and support that value, we can facilitate the meeting of that need no matter what circumstances arise in birth.
What does the birth team need?
When working in solidarity with members of your care team – doctors, nurses, midwives, etc. – it’s important to determine what they want and need in THEIR work for true collaboration and team work. So what does the care team want and need in their work?
Labor & Delivery Nurses
The nurses are extremely hard working and ultimately want you to have a positive and safe birth experience. They want to be appreciated, respected, and have their hard work noticed. Your nurses will spend WAY more time with you than your doctor, and they’re holding it down with you during labor.
They have a LOT to do, and they’re working in a hierarchy that insists that they follow sets of protocols and procedures in their job. Ultimately, they also need to be able to do THEIR job and they can face a lot of consequences if procedures aren’t done in a certain way.
Doctors & Midwives
So, then what does a doctor or midwife want? Well, doctors need things done in a certain way for their license and to maintain privileges and employment. I talked a lot about this in my podcast called “The Illusion of Choice.”
Your medical care team essentially has a contract with the state and their place of employment that says they will do exactly certain things in their care or risk sanction. By choosing their care, you’re agreeing to follow their contract. They’ve given their word that these are the things they will do and provide.
You have to decide ahead of time whether you’re in agreement with that contract. It’s unfair and disrespectful of another person to feel so entitled that they are to risk their word and integrity to serve you. Ultimately, your doctor or midwife wants and needs you to respect their experience and expertise and make choices within their scope and contract.
A System-Savvy Plan
Understanding what the maternity care system needs is important in developing a system-savvy plan for advocacy. We have to do this in solidarity and not as a battle. The root is making sure that everyone’s needs are able to be met in cooperation.
THIS DOESN’T MEAN that you are complicit in trauma, abuse of power, or injustice. Working in solidarity is an important way to prevent this – ensuring that everyone is heard and has their needs met.
As a birth partner, there are many key strategies you can use to be a system-savvy advocate for a gentle birth.
During your birth experience, consider the following:
Don’t be afraid to let the staff know about your wishes. Introduce yourself to the charge nurse.
You might consider asking to see the charge nurse to let them know of your wishes for your birth. You could even ask for a nurse who is really experienced with your wishes for birth. For example, if you’re planning a VBAC – you could request a nurse who has a lot of experience supporting VBAC’s.
When you arrive at the hospital, be sure to communicate your big goals and principles for your birth with your care team. Let the nurses and doctors know what you want. You can deflect any push back you may receive by re-centering on your big ideas and principles for birth.
You could use a phrase such as:
“We’re happy to be here and we’re so excited to have our baby. We’d like to have a gentle natural birth. It’s really important to us to have a gentle birth experience.”
Be intimately familiar with your partner’s wishes for birth.
Know the birth plan and understand what’s important and why. When faced with a scenario in birth such as an unwanted cervical exam (for example), you could say:
“Thank you for your care and concern. We’d like to wait an hour.”
The phrase “we’d like to wait an hour…” or “is there any reason we can’t wait…” is really helpful in deflecting care and interventions that may not be truly necessary and just based on procedure.
You could even say something like, “Thank you for your care and concern. We’d like to wait an hour to see how labor progresses. When we see our doctor, I would be happy to let them know that you offered and we declined.” (This also helps nurses to feel supported, because they are trying to follow the protocols for their job and the directions from the doctors.)
But what if it’s an emergency?
You will absolutely know the difference between something that is an emergency and something that isn’t. In a true emergency, you’ll feel an acute sense of “we need to do this NOW” and a huge sense of urgency. You’ll pick up on the energy and understand it. In a true emergency, no one is going to take the time to coerce you into doing anything or try to convince you to do something.
Go with your gut, you really will know the difference.
Phrases such as, “I’m going to offer you an exam now/epidural now/pain relief now/Pitocin now because we might get busy and not be able to be back right away when you want it,” reveal that the recommendation is for provider convenience and not true emergency or necessity.
As the birth partner – YOU have the ultimate power of advocacy for your partner’s wishes. There will be moments in birth where your partner will not be able to advocate for themselves. And frankly, they shouldn’t have to.
Birth is hard enough.
Forcing people to constantly advocate for their every need is just unfair. As a partner, you can stand up and you hold a lot of power. You can truly talk to the nurses, doctors, and midwives.
Don’t be afraid! Be elevated! Step into your role in confidence and empowerment!
If something doesn’t feel right, speak up!!! You know your partner better than anyone else. SHOW UP and be there and step into an elevated role of the birth partner. YOU can clearly communicate and advocate for your partner’s wishes in birth.
Be comfortable saying NO. Practice it in the mirror.
Phrases such as, “I heard my partner say NO.” “They said NO!” are so incredibly powerful. As a doula, I want you to feel empowered, elevated and confident as a birth partner so you can advocate for the birth you both want. This is my work as a family advocate.
Don’t be afraid to follow your own compass in labor and birth, find empowerment, and take an active role!
Want to connect with me?
Join my Facebook group called Follow Your Own Compass. Connect with other parents who want to follow their own compass in birth and get tons of free resources to support your journey.
I have an amazing new course called the Blissful Birth Mini-Course. This course lays the foundation for a confident, peaceful, and powerful birth. I teach this course through my strategy called the 3 R’s – relaxation, ritual, and radical love. Check out this online course to help you have a confident and powerful birth! I’m offering this course to you at just $7, although the resources in it are worth $57.
If you’d like to get to know me a little more, feel free to schedule a complimentary consult call. I’d love to learn more about how I can support your family in birth.