You will know a lot about the birth if you go to antenatal classes. But if you miss them, here is a quick guide. It won’t contain everything you need to know – but it will be a good start.
Write down everything you and your partner have decided you want for the birth. Hospitals and midwives offer ‘birth plans’, which you can fill out together and then give to the midwife to help everyone know how you want things to be. Birth plans usually help you feel more confident about your role during labour – and of course they can be varied ‘on the night’ if you or your partner change your mind. They can specify, for example, whether you are planning for a home birth, how long you want to stay around in the hospital after the birth, how much of a caesarian you want to see, or whether you’d like to cut the umbilical cord (which goes from the baby’s umbilicus to the placenta, which has fed her in the uterus). These days, many fathers cut the cord, and also help in the birth itself.
You should know that baby is on her way when:
If the waters have broken, don’t rush into hospital: it may well be ages yet before she gives birth. What you should do is contact your midwife or hospital delivery suite who will advise you on when to go into hospital.
If the waters haven’t broken, there’d no need to contact your midwife until contractions are coming ten minutes apart.
Sometimes, if contractions slow down or the waters don’t break, the experts may suggest kick-starting (‘inducing’) the birth-process with a hormone or by ‘breaking the waters’ artificially. If this is suggested, you both need to be fully informed, so you can decide what to do: it can be necessary for your baby’s well-being. However, it can lead to a more painful labour, and more medical intervention.
Childbirth can be really painful. Whatever your attitude to ‘natural’ childbirth, it will be helpful to find out about and try out breathing, massage and relaxation, and to consider using hot baths and water-pools. You should also find out about other available sources of pain relief. The main options are:
It will help your partner if you understand what she wants, so you can speak for her if she has difficulties. She needs you there along with lots of encouragement. Make sure you’re clued up on other medical terms such as caesarean (when the baby needs to be lifted out through an incision in the abdomen). This can be an emergency, or may be suggested in advance if, for instance, your baby is in a breech position (ready to come out bottom, or feet first). Most babies are born without complications in the end, but sometimes it’s a struggle and can leave you feeling shocked. You should find out more about what could happen, and what equipment such as forceps (giant tweezers to pull the baby out) and ventouse (a big plunger for the same purpose) are for, and what they look like.
Checks will be made, the cord will be cut and she’ll be placed on your partner’s body. It’s an overwhelming moment and you may well find yourself crying. Your baby will be covered in blood and birth fluids, and may look battered, with pressure marks on head or body. But remember, babies are tough! Many enjoy suckling right away and once recovered, will be bright and alert for an hour or so.
Give yourself time. This is a precious moment for you, your partner and your child. Talk to your baby: she knows your voice already. When it feels right, hold her: your partner may well welcome a break!
Don’t just take pictures – be in them. Later, your child will love being told (and shown) what mum and dad did just after she was born. Later, ring relatives and friends. Don’t let others do it, unless you want them to. It’s a parent’s privilege.
If the birth is in a hospital, they may try to send you home. However, in some maternity units there may be overnight facilities for dads. Some hospitals might let you sleep there besides mother and baby, in a chair or on a fold-down bed. Staying overnight requires gentle diplomacy, pre-planning and determination. Not every father wants (or is able) to stay, and others will have older children to look after at home. But first-time dads in particular often find that while they are at home, they miss all the important learning their partner is doing.
If, after all efforts, you have to leave, come back as often as possible. Many hospitals will bend the rules about visiting hours for fathers. Likewise, when you get home, keep on the front line. The first few days are for you your baby and your partner. Don’t delay taking paternity leave at this important time, and think about taking further unpaid leave (if you can afford it!). Being there, ‘hands-on’. Right from the start makes a real difference.
So those are the basics. Now the checklist for the BIG day..