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.
How many birth partners can I have?
You’ll always be able to have at least birth partner with you when you give birth, but the number of people you can bring varies between different hospitals and birth centres.
Most maternity units will let you have at least two people with you when you give birth vaginally, while some don’t have any limit to how many birth partners you can bring.
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.
When maternity units do limit the number of birth partners, this might be due to a lack of space or to stop people coming and going during labour.
Who should I choose as my 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.
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.
A Cochrane review of the evidence in 2017 found that having someone like a doula there only for you throughout labour and birth can have a positive impact on your experience and outcomes.
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 during labour?
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.
A 2018 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. Seven out of ten women also said that their birth partner could stay with them as much as they wanted during their time in hospital.
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.
More from Which?
- Top tips for birth partners: how to prepare for being the best possible support during labour and birth.
- Your care after birth: find out how where you give birth can affect whether your birth partner can stay with you overnight after the birth.
- Requesting a c-section: we guide you through the pros and cons of an elective c-section and explain how to arrange the birth you want.
These are the sources of information used in this article.
Care Quality Commission, Maternity services survey 2018 (2018)
Bohren MA, Hofmeyr G, Sakala C, Fukuzawa RK, Cuthbert A, Continuous support for women during childbirth, Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2017, Issue 7. Art. No.: CD003766.DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD003766.pub6.