Dads in the Delivery Room: Help or Hindrance?

Thirty years ago, childbirth for dads-to-be was mysteriously locked behind closed doors. Millennium Dads, however, are expected to be present at the birth. Are all guys suited for delivery room duty?

“Not all that long ago, dads weren’t expected—or even welcome—to attend the births of their children,” says Armin Brott, writer of six critically acclaimed books on fatherhood. “Today, though, any guy who isn’t jumping up and down at the idea of being in the delivery room is generally considered an insensitive Neanderthal!”

While this may be the case, a recent British study suggested that fathers who attended childbirth were often more of a hindrance than a help. The original idea was that dads should be present so they could offer emotional and practical support to their wives. But in a survey of 1,000 mothers, almost half said that their men had been no help and had actually got in the way frequently.

The reason for this abysmal failing at delivery room etiquette is rife. Some dads—especially new ones—are not prepared for what they encounter in the delivery room. To see someone he loves dearly in extreme pain, sometimes for hours on end, can take its toll on a father-to-be.

Because of this, experts agree that dads should be educated on exactly what is expected of them in a delivery room so they can help to calm the mother, instead of aggravating her. And the majority of mothers say they want their partners there with them during the birth process—but only if those partners know what is expected of them.

According to Brott, also known as Positive Parenting‘s, Mr. Dad, it’s nice that times have changed, but the problem is that too many people don’t realize there’s a difference between encouraging dads to be involved in their partners’ pregnancies and pressuring them to do things they don’t feel comfortable doing. “The bare truth is that not every man has the same level of interest in watching his children come into the world. In fact, for some guys, a hospital delivery room is the very last place they belong,” he says.

“There are all sorts of reasons why an expectant dad might not want to stay in the delivery room the whole time,” Brott explains. “Maybe he’s the kind of guy who gets squeamish during routine medical procedures. Or he might have been scared stiff by the childbirth-prep videos in prenatal class and he’s worried that he’ll fall apart, making things even harder on his partner.”

However, fatherhood as we know it is experiencing changes as more and more men are opting off the fast track at work to spend more time with their kids—and they’re starting with the delivery room. Dr. Ron Klinger, a family psychologist and founder of the Center for Successful Fathering, says today’s dads face much more pressure in the workplace, and that can conflict with their desires to be good fathers.

“Like it or not, a characteristic of our society is that men make more money than women. So there’s pressure on men to spend more time at work, more time advancing their careers,’ he says. “The good news, though, is that men are already spending more time at home and less at work—and they’re becoming highly involved dads—in every sense of the word.”

“I insisted on being in the delivery room for the birth of all three of my sons, the first being in 1985,” says Bill Millar, a work-from-home executive dad from New York. “Back then, I guess it felt just a bit like being a pioneer, although no one did anything to prevent my participation. What was rather noteworthy was that all of the nurses seemed to be making a fuss saying things like, ‘Wow, it’s really great to see a father who wants to be involved in this.’ Fortunately I wasn’t squeamish at all, possibly due to my avid participation in Lamaze classes. I pretty much knew what to expect,” he says.

For fathers who are still hesitant about the delivery room experience, Brott has a final piece of advice: “If you’re somewhat less than completely enthusiastic about being an active labor and delivery participant, don’t beat yourself up too badly or allow yourself to feel like a failure. You’re certainly not. Everything you’re worried about—and any other reasons you might have for not wanting to be there—are absolutely normal. In fact, as many as half of all expectant fathers have at least some ambivalence about participating in the birth of their children. So hang in there—you’re not alone.”

Ease New Dad Concerns

  • Educate yourself. Go to the childbirth preparation classes, read a childbirth book specifically geared for dads, maybe even talk with your wife’s obstetrician, midwife, or prenatal instructor. The more you know, the more confident you’ll be.
  • Clarify your role. Maybe you really don’t mind being there for the birth, but you’re concerned about your partner’s insistence that you cut the umbilical cord. Or maybe you hate the idea of videotaping the event. Talk with your partner frankly; she’s sure to prefer that you participate in some way, even if it’s not entirely on her own terms.
  • Relax. No matter how nervous or squeamish you feel anticipating the birth, the reality is that expectant dads rarely fall apart once they’re actually in the delivery room. There’s something about supporting their partners and being the first to greet their newborns that keeps them relatively calm and focused.
  • Get additional support. If you’re really worried about losing it or just not being an effective enough labor coach, hire a doula or enlist one of your wife’s sisters or friends to be in the delivery room with you.
  • Talk to other dads. Spend some time talking with other men who may have been through something similar. They’ll probably understand your misgivings and might have advice to offer about how they coped with their own squeamishness, for instance, or overcame feelings of helplessness in the face of their loved one’s pain. Even if they don’t have pearls of wisdom to offer, it can be reassuring just to talk things out and realize that you’re not alone.
  • If at all possible, tough it out. No matter how eloquently you explain your reasons, missing the birth is probably going to hurt your partner. So if you’re not absolutely at the panic stage, consider being there for the birth for no other reason than that it will show a sign of support for your partner.

Delivery Room Dad 101

This is it! You’ve decided to be a central part of your baby’s birth and now you’re heading for the birth center or hospital, and your wife is relying on you to stay calm and offer encouragement. Here’s your checklist for what to do when you get there:

  • Check in. If you’ve preregistered, everything should go smoothly.
  • Provide distractions. Labor may be exciting, but it can also be tedious. You may spend hours doing nothing more than waiting. Take your wife’s mind off her discomfort by keeping her occupied with music, conversation, or card games. You can also try adjusting the lightning if that’s what she prefers.
  • Pace yourself. You may be there for the next five or ten hours without a lot of time off. Don’t forget to take care of yourself. Use your body, rather than your arms, to provide counter pressure. Sit down whenever you can. Have some of the snacks and beverages in your labor bag. Take a trip to the bathroom if you need one, but coordinate with the staff so your partner isn’t left alone. Let the medical staff know if your partner’s labor is starting to affect you physically. Some men get light-headed in the delivery room. If you feel queasy, sit down or step outside for some air.
  • Show your support. As the contractions grow more intense, reassure your partner that she’s doing a great job and that you love her. You can also help her by feeding her ice chips or wiping the sweat off her brow. And though some women don’t like to be touched during labor, others appreciate a neck or back rub.
  • Keep her informed. Don’t chatter, but let her know how long the contractions are lasting and how long she’s likely to have to relax before the next one.
  • Don’t take things personally. Women in labor can be more sharp-tongued than usual, so try not to take it personally. If you do feel hurt, ask a nurse to watch your partner while you take a break.
  • Communicate when questions come up. She may be asked whether she would like pain medication. The choices are hers to make, but that can be hard in the middle of a contraction. Planning based on what you learned in your childbirth classes, and discussing your wishes in advance with your healthcare provider, are your best defenses against the assumption that any drug is fine with the mother. If it looks as if a C-section will be needed, ask detailed questions to be sure there’s no other choice. You’ll rarely face an immediate crisis, so you’ll both have time to communicate.
  • Help her through transition and pushing. When contractions are doubling up and she’s using every way you can think of to breathe through them, you can honestly tell her it will be soon. When your partner feels the urge to push, stay close. Look her in the eyes, speak calmly, breathe with her, and encourage her.

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