How to support someone during labour and birth
Giving birth is one of life’s biggest challenges. It doesn’t matter how babies arrive, getting them from the womb to the outside world is a major achievement. Supporting someone through that process is also a major challenge.
Having supported many women giving birth, I have seen the power of a team approach. If that team helps the birth process, and can make it in any way easier, outcomes improve for everyone involved. Research shows that women who are well supported during labour and birth can:
- have a more positive birth experience
- reduce the need for pharmacological pain relief
- experience lower intervention rates, such as emergency caesarean and instrumental birth.
Just like the person giving birth, the experience may be new for the person giving support. Equally the support person may be very experienced, or made up of a group of very experienced people.
Regardless of the situation, and based on experience, these are my tips for supporting someone during labour and birth:
- Learn what to expect and what your role is. The most common way to do this is by attending antenatal education, delivered by experts, with the person who is giving birth. This is the best way to access current, evidenced information about labour and birth.
- Discuss the birth plan. This will help you understand what the person might like, what coping strategies are prioritised, and how to be an advocate. But remember the birth plan might mean nothing on the day! Health professionals are trained to discuss with you, and the person giving birth, any benefits and risks of options at the time.
- Be aware and informed about different types of care. Women with risk factors and complications need special care. Be informed about what that care might mean for the birth, and how it might affect your role as a support person.
- Be an advocate and communicate with staff. The person giving birth has the right to change their mind, and the birth plan might not work out. Provide support even when they change their mind, and tell the rest of the support team (including hospital staff) what they need.
- Never ask someone labouring what they want. It helps the person labouring if they feel everyone in the support teams is calm and in control. It can also be very difficult to talk during labour and birth. Try to suggest changes and options instead. Give them the choice to respond (possibly non-verbally).
- Stay calm. If you don’t feel calm…then pretend or have a break!
- Be fully in tune. Non verbal support is often better. Just breathing with them (rather than telling them to breathe) can be more effective. Silence, hand holding, back rubs, massage, heat packs, providing comfort and assurance, and simply being present – all can be useful to the person labouring. Or not. Adjust your methods depending on the responses you get.
- Provide physical support. Help with changing positions, walking, noise, activity, and staying still when needed – as in during an epidural.
- Be like a personal trainer (but no yelling on your part!). I can’t emphasise positive reinforcement enough. Let the person know you believe in them, and that they can do it.
- As much as possible, help the person giving birth to remain calm. Research also shows that if a person doesn’t feel comfortable with their labour and birth support team it can negatively impact the labour, due to an increase in adrenaline.
- Be respectful. What happens in labour stays there!
- Look after yourself. It’s the old ‘fit your oxygen mask before others’ rule (that also applies to early parenting). The more you take care of yourself, the better support person you can be.
- Debrief after the birth. Remember to listen. At the end of the day, only one person actually went through it – don’t forget that. There may be trauma and disappointment related to the birth. Give the person the time to process and recover from that, and support them if professional help is needed.
- Enjoy the moment (when you can!) Birth itself can be a whirlwind. By following these tips I’m sure you can support anyone through birth, remain calm, and hopefully enjoy the moment. Also remember after the whirlwind to enjoy the love and sense of achievement, with the person who has been generous enough to share this important moment with you.
Help and support
For more information on labour and birth, and supporting someone through the experience, have a look at this and read the NSW Department of Health ‘Having a baby’ book (or equivalent in your local area).
Labour and birth myths
You also need to be informed about myths about labour and birth, to help provide better care. Keep in mind:
- Waters don’t need to have broken for labour to start. Most people will experience contractions before waters break.
- There are too many variables in birth to be able to comment on whether a person’s body shape, e.g. hips, impact on outcomes.
- Second (and subsequent) births can be faster (not always), but that doesn’t mean they will always be easier.
- Not everyone feels an instant bond with their newborns. This is perfectly normal.
I debunk more of these myths, and provide expert advice on labour, birth and early parenting, in my personalised antenatal education. I run classes in your own home. I also offer postnatal services to help with the early days of parenting. If you are pregnant, or know someone who is, I would love to hear from you.
Hodnett ED, Gates S, Hofmeyr GJ, et al. 2011. Continuous support for women during childbirth. Cochrane Database of Systemic Reviews (2): CD003766. onlinelibrary.wiley.com [pdf file, accessed November 2012]
MIDIRS. 2008. Support in labour. MIDIRS Informed Choice – for professionals 1
NCCWCH. 2007. Intrapartum care: care of healthy women and their babies during childbirth. National Collaborating Centre for Women’s and Children’s Health, Clinical guideline. London: RCOG Press. www.nice.org.uk [pdf file, accessed November 2012]