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What is the role of a birth partner?

Giving birth can be a daunting prospect and having a supportive birth partner with you can make a big difference to your experience.

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What is the role of a birth partner? 

Your birth partner’s main role is to be there to support and encourage you throughout labour and birth.

They can help in practical ways, for example by giving you sips of water, holding your hand, giving you a massage or helping you try out different labour positions.

Your birth partner can also 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.

You can have a birth partner with you if you have a c-section. Your partner will then come into the theatre in scrubs and sit by the head of your bed during the birth.

Are there benefits to having a birth partner?

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. As a result, this can make you less likely to experience birth complications, according to a 2013 Cochrane review.

A separate review in 2017 found that having an experienced person (for example a doula) there only for you throughout labour and birth can have a positive impact on your experience and outcomes.

How many birth partners can I have? 

While you can always have at least one birth partner with you when you give birth, the number of people you can bring varies between different maternity units.

Most labour wards and birth centres 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.

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.

Talk to your midwife to find out if the maternity unit where you’re planning to give birth has a limit on the number of birth partners you can bring.

If you’re planning to have a home birth, there is no limit to the number of people you can have present, which can be a real advantage if you feel like you want to have the support of several birth partners.

If you’re still deciding where to give birth, use our Where to give birth tool to see which birth setting could be best for you.

Who should I have as my birth partner? 

It’s completely up to you who you choose to be your birth partner. All that matters is that your birth partner is someone you feel comfortable with and who can help you feel calm and reassured.

Your partner

Most women want their partner at the birth, as they feel comforted by their presence and they 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.

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. Sometimes, women who would otherwise have no support during labour opt for a doula.

An independent midwife

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.

Top tips for birth partners 

Being asked to support someone through labour and birth, one of the most vulnerable and intimate experiences of their life, may feel daunting – especially if you’re also getting ready to become a parent for the first time, or don’t know what to expect from the birth process.

But there are many ways you can prepare, to ensure you’re able to help in the best way possible during the event.

Know the mother’s birth preferences

Everyone has different ideas about what their ideal birth would be like. The more you understand about how the woman you’re supporting feels, and why, the better you’ll be at supporting her to have the birth she wants.

  • If she hasn’t yet decided where to give birth, you can help to research birth options – use our Where to give birth tool for guidance.
  • Ask to read through her birth plan, or be there when she writes it, so you’re aware of her preferences when it comes to things like pain relief, positions during labour and skin-to-skin contact after the birth.
  • Go to antenatal appointments with her, if possible, so you know about any medical concerns or specific worries she has. You can also ask the midwife any questions that you have about the birth.

Help her prepare for labour and birth

Knowing what happens during birth, and when, can help you feel more prepared for assisting the mum-to-be when labour starts.

  • Attend antenatal classes together. These are a chance to learn about labour, birth and parenthood and the perfect opportunity to ask questions and talk to other birth partners and parents-to-be.
  • If the mother is learning specific relaxation techniques, such as hypnobirthing, do the exercises with her so you can help her to use them during labour.
  • Read up on what happens during birth, for example the stages of labour, so you know what to expect. But also be prepared for if things don’t quite go to plan so you’re not taken by surprise if things change on the day.

Plan for the practicalities of birth

By arranging all the practical details around the birth and getting as much as possible organised in advance, you will help the woman you’re supporting to feel more relaxed, knowing that everything is taken care of.

  • Be involved with planning how to get to the hospital or birth centre.
  • Get the house ready if she’s planning a home birth.
  • Help her pack her hospital bag so you can easily find what she needs during labour, and make sure you pack a bag of essentials for yourself as well.

Being a birth partner during labour

You’ll be of most use to the mother during birth if you’re supportive, calm and organised – this way she can focus fully on her body and the baby, without having to worry about anything else.

  • Help to create a relaxing space for her to give birth in, for example by putting on music and dimming the lighting to create a soothing environment.
  • Take care of practical things like fetching drinks and snacks, and grabbing anything she asks for from her hospital bag.
  • Make her comfortable in any way you can, for example by massaging her lower back during contractions if she wants this, to help ease the pain. Midwives can show you how to do this most effectively.
  • Support her physically as she tries out different positions for labour – you may literally need to be a shoulder to lean on.
  • Have a copy of the birth plan and help her achieve the things that are important to her. For example, if she’s said that she wants to try using a birth ball in early labour, ask the midwives if they can get one.
  • Communicate with the medical staff and ask them to explain anything the mother or you don’t understand. You know her better than they do and are best placed to notice if there’s anything she’s scared or worried about. You can also help to affirm her wishes and discuss options if a decision needs to be made about her care.

It’s also important that you 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.

Being a birth partner during a c-section

Whether the mum-to-be is going into hospital to have a planned caesarean or they have to have an emergency c-section, you being there for support is as important as during a vaginal birth.

Before the c-section starts, you’ll have to change into theatre clothes, or ‘scrubs’, and once you go into the operating theatre you’ll get to sit by the woman’s head where you can support her during the surgery.

  • Hold her hand or stroke her face, if she wants this. Getting some human touch can be very valuable in a sterile environment where everyone else is wearing gloves.
  • Check in on her regularly during the surgery by asking how she’s feeling and if there is anything she needs.
  • Help her communicate her thoughts and wishes to the medical team, she may struggle to do so herself.
  • Respect her wishes for the baby – for example, if she wants to discover the sex for herself or have the baby skin-to-skin as soon as possible.
  • If the baby’s taken to a resuscitation table for checks after delivery, let her know what is happening.
  • If the mum’s not able to, you may be the first to hold the baby.

C-section under general anaesthetic

Rarely, a woman has to have a caesarean under general anaesthetic, for example if there is a medical emergency and the baby needs to be delivered immediately. In these cases, you won’t be allowed in the operating theatre.

The hospital staff will usually bring the baby to you straight after the birth, to look after until the mother wakes up. You may also be able to have the baby skin-to-skin.

It can be very distressing for a new mum to miss the first hours of her baby’s life, so try to be very mindful of what you do with the baby before she wakes up. For example, it’s a good idea to hold off sending birth announcements or pictures to family and friends.

Supporting the new mum and baby after the birth

After the birth, you have an important role to play in making it as easy as possible for the mum and baby to rest and start to recover from the birth. There are many things you can do to help out.

  • Take photos. The first few hours of the baby’s life will never happen again and the mum may be too tired to think of snapping pictures, so make sure you do.
  • If the baby has to go to a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), support the mother’s thoughts on what should happen next – many new mums want their partner to go with the baby.
  • After a home birth, make sure the mum and baby are tucked up in bed and have everything they need, and try to get the house back in order.
  • If the mum and baby have to stay on the postnatal ward for one or more nights, you may be able to stay with them. Otherwise, you can come back to visit every day, bringing supplies that may have been left out of the hospital bag.
  • If they’re staying on the postnatal ward, offer to hold the baby between feeds so the mum can go to the toilet and shower as soon as she wants to after the birth.
  • When the mum and baby are ready to come home, make sure the baby car seat is ready and attached safely in the car.
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