Giving birth can be a daunting prospect and having a supportive birth partner can make a big difference to your experience.
Many pregnant women have the father-to-be as their birth partner, but others choose someone else – such as their mum or sister, a close friend or a paid birth companion like a doula or independent midwife – as well, or instead.
What matters most is that your birth partner is someone you feel comfortable with and who can help you feel calm and reassured, no matter what happens in labour.
Who should you choose as your birth partner?
Almost 90% of pregnant women have their baby’s dad as their birth partner, according to our 2016 survey of nearly 2,000 parents. But it’s up to you to choose who would be the best person to be with you.
Most birth centres and hospitals let you have at least two birth partners, but some limit how many you can bring. This might be due to a lack of space or to stop people coming and going during labour. Look up your local units with our Birth Choice tool and see if they limit the number of birth partners you can have with you.
Your partner: most women want their partner at the birth, as they feel comforted by their presence and can communicate well with each other. Seeing their baby being born is also an unforgettable experience for the father-to-be.
But some women don’t like the thought of their partner seeing them go through labour or are worried that they won’t cope. Talk to your partner about it to find out how they feel. Writing a birth plan together can be a good way to help you both feel prepared for the birth.
Your mum: having given birth herself, your mother will know what to expect, and is likely to have plenty of experience of looking after you. So it’s not uncommon for women to want their mum there as well as, or instead of, their partner.
Make sure she knows what’s important to you and your partner before you go into labour so that she can be a support to you both and not clash with your partner over what’s best for you.
Your sister or friend: women have supported each other in labour for generations and, sometimes, women want to have their best friend or a close relative, such as their sister, to be with them during labour.
It’s vital that you have a close relationship, though, so you can feel as relaxed as possible. And if she hasn’t had a baby of her own, she might not be prepared for what to expect.
A doula: a doula is someone you pay to support you during labour and birth. They don’t get involved in your medical care but can provide emotional and practical support in the run up to the birth, during labour and in the first few weeks after your baby’s been born.
In our 2016 survey of parents, 33% of women who used a doula said it was because they wanted extra support in labour. Sometimes, women who would otherwise have no support during labour opt for a doula and, according to a Cochrane review of the evidence in 2013, simply having someone there for you throughout labour and birth can have a positive impact on your experience and outcomes, so it’s an option worth considering.
But keep in mind that booking a doula isn’t cheap: our survey found the average cost was £298.
An independent midwife: these midwives work outside the NHS. You can book them to do all your antenatal and postnatal care, and to deliver your baby if you have a home birth.
If you give birth in a birth centre or labour ward, your independent midwife can come along to offer support but can’t get involved in your care or in delivering your baby. Find out more about hiring an independent midwife in our article on care from non-NHS midwives.
What role does a birth partner play?
Every birth is different, so it’s impossible to know exactly what to expect in labour, especially if it’s your first baby. Having a supportive birth partner can help give you an added sense of control, comfort and competence, and this can make you less likely to experience complications according to the Cochrane review of available evidence in 2013.
In our survey of parents in 2016, one parent who was present when their partner gave birth gave some advice:
Constantly reassure your partner that she’s doing a great job, even when she’s screaming her head off. Don’t speak much unless it’s to encourage her.
On the day, their main role is to be there to support and encourage you. In early labour, when nothing much is happening, they can chat to you and keep you company. As things progress, they need to tune into what you need to stay calm and comfortable, and try to respond to your wishes – for example by giving you sips of water, holding your hand, giving you a massage or helping you try out different labour positions.
One parent who responded to our survey in 2016 told us that they were there to support their partner as they gave birth and they summed up their role by saying:
Be there both in body and mind. Stay calm. Listen. Sit back rather than interfere. Do whatever mum-to-be needs you to do. Be prepared for the stress!
Your birth partner can make sure your midwives know what’s in your birth plan and take charge of communicating with the medical team, helping you understand what’s happening if you’re not sure what’s going on.
Communicate between the mother and the staff. You know your partner and what she needs.
Often, they’ll be the one to cut the umbilical cord, especially if your birth partner is the baby’s dad, although this is a personal decision.
Your birth partner can also help you prepare for labour. You might want to attend antenatal classes together to find out more about what to expect in pregnancy, labour, birth and the early months of parenting.
Your birth partner’s role during a caesarean
If you have a caesarean, you’re usually only allowed one person with you in theatre, so if you’ve chosen two or more people to be with you during labour, think about who you’d take with you if you needed a caesarean.
Your birth partner will have to change into theatre clothes, or ‘scrubs’, and will need to stay out of the way of the medical staff, at the head of your bed.
They may still be allowed to cut the umbilical cord and will usually be the first to hold the baby.
In the rare case that you end up needing a caesarean under general anaesthetic – for example if there’s a medical emergency – your birth partners will all have to wait outside the operating theatre.
Tips for birth partners
If you’ve been asked to be there to support your partner or friend during labour, it’s important that you’re prepared for what to expect.
During the pregnancy you can:
- be involved with writing the birth plan so you know what’s important to her
- go with her to antenatal classes to become better informed, about what pain relief options are available, for instance
- help her get the house ready if she’s planning a home birth – for example, by filling the birth pool or making space for the delivery in a bedroom
- find out about any relaxation techniques she wants to use and help her practise them
- help her pack her hospital bag so you can easily find what she needs during labour.
During labour and birth you should be supportive and calm, and there are practical things you can do to offer support as well:
- help to create a relaxing space for her to give birth in, for example by dimming the lights or playing music
- provide drinks and snacks, and field phone calls from other people to make sure she can focus on herself and the baby
- support her physically as she tries out different positions for labour
- help her communicate her wishes to the medical staff and ask them to explain anything you don’t understand
- look after yourself: make sure you eat and drink regularly, and if there’s another birth partner, take turns to give each other short breaks.
We asked parents who had been there when their partner gave birth for their advice in our 2016 survey. This is what they told us…
- ‘Don’t sit playing on your phone. Be ready to get your partner whatever she needs. Be kind and patient.’
- ‘Give support without taking offence at anything said.’
- ‘Be supportive, use encouraging words, speak of the dream of when the baby is safely in your arms.’
A 2017 survey by the Care Quality Commission (CQC) found that 96% of birth partners were able to be as involved as they wanted to be during the birth. 69% of women also said that their birth partner could stay with them as much as they wanted during their time in hospital.
More from Which?
- Use our Birth Choice tool to help you find the right place for you to give birth.
- Check out Fiona’s experience of having a water birth in a birth centre.
- Find out how where you give birth can affect whether your birth partner can stay with you the night after the birth.
These are the sources of information used in this article.
Care Quality Commission, Maternity services survey 2017 (2017)
Hodnett ED, Gates S, Hofmeyr GJ, Sakala C, Continuous support for women during childbirth, Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2013, Issue 7. Art. No.: CD003766. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD003766.pub5. (2013)