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How to be a Fabulous Labor Coach
If you’ve been invited to be a labor coach, you are in for a rich and rewarding experience. Although you won’t be the one actually giving birth, your role will be an essential part of the birthing process. The support and nurturance you provide will ease anxiety and fear and can truly facilitate labor. However, if you’ve never stepped foot in a labor room, you may be wondering what will be expected of you and how you can be most helpful. The following recommendations are offered for expectant fathers and other novice labor coaches.

1) Learn about labor before the big day. Don’t wait until labor to begin reading childbirth manuals. You’ll be much more at ease if you already know what to expect. Childbirth classes provide an overview of labor and teach the basics of coaching. If you prefer to avoid formal lessons, read books to learn about the stages of labor, the different breathing patterns used during labor and common procedures and terminology used in the hospital.

2) Help your partner relax. There may be lots of activity and people in the labor room. You can set the tone by speaking quietly and moving slowly and deliberately. Between contractions, help your partner relax by offering a shoulder, hand or foot massage. Bring a favorite relaxing compact disc to play as background music.

3) Attend to the labor, not the labor room equipment. It can be tempting to watch every contraction and fetal heart rate fluctuation on the fetal monitor, but your primary attention should be directed toward your partner. She’ll need to concentrate to get through each contraction, and your undivided attention will be appreciated. Practice maintaining eye contact. Encourage slow, rhythmic breathing during difficult contractions.

4) Be Supportive.Your partner may feel overwhelmed, anxious and exhausted. She may feel frustrated by what seems to be an endless labor, or ashamed to request an epidural she had hoped to avoid. If a Caesarean section is advised, she may feel let down or wonder if she has “failed” labor. Your support and positive reassurance can go a long way to making her feel better about whatever happens in labor.

5) Be an advocate. Whether it’s asking for ice chips or requesting that people speak more softly in the labor room, you are in the best position to verbalize your partner’s needs. When talking to hospital staff, try to communicate in a way that is clear, calm and assertive but not aggressive. If you and your partner have formulated a birth plan, bring copies of it to share with your nurses and doctors.

6) Be inquisitive. Request general explanations of procedures that are not familiar and don’t be afraid to ask questions. On the other hand, use reasonable judgment. If it appears that your nurses and doctors are responding to an emergency, allow them to gain control of the situation before requesting a detailed explanation.

7) Be flexible. Childbirth notoriously deviates from plan. You and your partner may have certain expectations about what will feel good during labor. Some of these ideas may work, but if they don’t be ready to try something else. For example, some women find they love massage during labor and others can’t stand to be touched. Be sensitive to your partner’s response to your activities and be ready to modify the plan.

8) Be present, and know your own limitations. In the midst of all of your duties, take time to absorb some of the magic of the birthing process. Notice your own reactions to this miraculous event and, if you’re becoming a parent through this process, take time to acknowledge and enjoy this momentous occasion. If you need to step out of the labor room in order to be alone for a while, go ahead, provided there is someone available to provide labor support in your absence.

9) Be prepared. Don’t forget to bring a few things for yourself. Labor can be a marathon, and you’ll want to be comfortable and refreshed. Pack a change of clothes, comfortable shoes, a toothbrush and even a bathing suit (useful if you choose to step into a shower or tub with your partner). Remember to include some high-energy snacks for yourself, too.

10) Be patient. Having a baby takes a long time. Even when you hear it’s time for your partner to begin pushing it could be hours before the actual birth. Try to keep a realistic sense of the duration of labor, and be prepared for the long haul.

If many of the above suggestions feel outside of your capabilities, ask for help. Many hospitals allow several family members and friends to be present in the labor room, and professional labor coaches and doulas offer services for couples who choose them.

Laura E. Stachel M.D. Obstetrician & Gynecologist