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What’s it like to be a birth partner?

My first experience as  a Doula really taught me how it is to be a birth partner.

By Sophie Fletcher

Birth Partner
How does a birthing partner quickly fix a hospital room?

I’ve been teaching antenatal hypnosis classes for nearly 7 years now, and designed the Mindful Mamma class with my friend and colleague Mia Scotland.  So I’ve learned a lot, read a lot, worked with hundreds of couples, but my first birth as a doula was a new experience and taught me much more than I could ever read from a book. It taught me what it’s really like for the birth partner.

For the weeks running up to my first birth there was a mixture of excitement and apprehension. I didn’t sleep much for the 4 weeks I was on call (my client had her baby at 42 +2), jumping at every moment thinking it was my phone.  At one point I thought ‘what have I done?  Do I really know what I have to do, how to be?’. Then it suddenly occurred to me this is how the birth partners must feel – the first experience of the responsibility of being a birth partner and being there for her in a moment had suddenly dawned on me.  In fact is was exhausting and by week 42 I had already learned to just trust that I would wake up, even in the deepest sleep, and with relief had 10 hours of sleep!

For a dad it must be even harder – at least I knew theoretically what was happening and I knew that birth is safe and normal and I trusted that the mother would know what to do.  What must it be like for a birthing partner who hasn’t attended the ante-natal classes, or who doesn’t feel connected with the intuitive and unconscious process that a mother is going through?  It can also affect those around supporting the couple. A grandmother I knew, who was going to look after her grandson when her daughter went to labour, confided in me that she was unable to sleep properly and had her phone under the pillow.

Towards the end of the pregnancy, we watched for signs like hawks, me second-guessing, is this it, there were twinges and changes my mother reported reminding me to keep glued to my phone. In my step class I even had it under my box, ring on extra loud!

Then as she went in to labour, at 4 am, I woke up on the first ring and I tried to trust my instincts and let go of everything I had learned and read.   Yet couldn’t help, while I drove to the hospital, playing over in my mind everything I know and teach about environment, the birth space, the role of the birthing partner.

Having only been in that hospital myself as a birthing mum, not as a birth partner, I couldn’t quite remember it and trying to go through it in my mind was very difficult.  I was going into an unfamiliar environment, I couldn’t really prepare for that sense of unease I felt about going into a space controlled by someone else.   I used the hypnosis techniques I teach to keep myself calm as I went into the hospital, knowing that my adrenaline needed to be near zero, passing through reception, another reception and the room with my client and her husband in.  All of these gateways to the unknown and gateways owned by and controlled by someone else.  I began to imagine what that’s like for the parents, especially the birthing partner whose job is to look after and support their wife or partner whilst at the same time adapting themselves to new and unfamiliar surroundings.

I’ve always taught couples to make the space their own, the job of the birth partner for example is moving the room around a bit and getting the bed up against the wall.  A bed in the middle of the room screams “lie on me, go on lie down…” even though it’s midday and you’re not ill. Yet faced with the act of moving the bed to create more space to move around, I felt paralysed. How do you do it?  The Midwife was in and out and was obviously busy so it was hard to interrupt her.

I felt like a naughty child that wasn’t allowed to move the bed or had to put my hand up to ask a question! I’m not backward at coming forward, and am friends with many midwives. She was a lovely midwife too, so this was interesting for me from a psychological perspective.  There was an inbuilt sense of proprietary being in someone else’s space and a nod to the authority of the system that we inadvertently are taught to be deferential to.

I asked for a diffuser with lavender oil in it, it never materisalised, the midwife forgot, she was busy with another couple, the CD player wasn’t in the room, and didn’t seem to be forthcoming. The light from the resus unit in the room was glowing like a beacon of distress with all the other lights turned off and amidst it all was my client, over a ball that didn’t move (health and safety reasons).

As this moment I realised how difficult it can be for the birth partner make that room your own, especially if you have followed my advice and stayed at home as long as possible.  If you have waited and left it until the last minute, mum is likely to be at the end of the first stage of labour or moving into second stage (as my client was, but who told me she “had ages and ages to go”) and not to be thinking consciously about the room.

I dropped some lavender oil on her pillow (it had been anchored), turned all the lights out including the resus unit, put the background music to our cd on via my iphone, and starting counting her down with each tightening – interweaving the numbers with some positive suggestion, with no intent for conversation. The room changed instantly, dad said it was as if I had waved a magic wand over it. Baby was born smoothly in around 2.5 hours.

So my first birth.  I learned so much about what it’s like for the birth partner, and had a great experience, in fact it was a amazing to see the techniques we teach work so well. The most important thing I learned was keep it simple, don’t create too much work for yourself, prepare well using hypnosis so you react unconsciously in a positive way to triggers such as aromatherapy and music.  You don’t have to rearrange the furniture if it makes you feel awkward (or if you feel your partner needs you more than she needs the room being moved around), and you won’t always get what you ask for straight away if the unit is busy – but do ask.

Tips for a birth partner

These are the three things that I now always do straight away on walking into a hospital room that mum and dad are unfamiliar with.

. Turn all the lights out, perhaps apart from a little lamp/reading light turned towards the wall

. anchor a smell such as lavender to feeling calm, confident and focused, just drop them on the pillow if hot rocks or diffusers aren’t forthcoming. You don’t need to have to buy equipment.

. make sure that your music or hypnosis mp3s are on your phone or your own equipment to play. Put this music on straight away.

These three things, provided mum has practiced her hypnosis techniques, everyday, will mean that she will very quickly respond physically and emotionally going into a calmer space. Giving the birthing partner time to get on with other things or to just be there with her, whispering words of encouragement.  It really is as simple as that to create the right space for birth.


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Birth Space, Quiet Place

Keeping the birth space a safe, quiet place

Birth Space
Silence before Humour

Noise. It’s like a belisha beacon, or a loud game show buzzer jumping out of the screen every time I watch a birth on One Born Every Minute or a birth on television, or even homebirths where people chatting away while mum’s in the pool, I even saw one when a telephone rang just as the mother was birthing her baby. The noise sets my teeth on edge. Instinctively it just feels wrong, I want to “shhhh!” them. Why do people feel the urge to fill that  birth space with chat?

Last weekend I finished my Doula training with Michel Odent and experienced Doula Liliana Hammers. I was mesmerized listening to Liliana’s accounts of how even when awoman shouts out or asks questions, she treats it as rhetorical, just quietly shrugs and smiles with a calm reassurance, not even necessarily answering the question. This does take skill and at one point I realized that Liliana would make a fantastic counsellor. Very often in counselling, clients ask a question as part of their own internal process. Entering into an internal space, with the unspoken support of someone nearby, allows them to connect safely with their emotions and to ask questions of themselves.  Asking a question out loud doesn’t always mean that they are asking you for the answer, but seeking that answer from within themselves or even expressing an observation. Silence is often used as a technique to allow someone to become still and to engage with the feelings that arise in that moment, free of judgment.

Why are people so uncomfortable with silence in a birth space? And why do they feel the need to talk all the time.  So often people feel compelled to speak when there is silence and to fill that birth space with the clutter of words and noise.  Very often this is what happens at births, people seem to find it difficult to just sit and to be.  Some midwives are chattering away, interrupting the mother, some fathers or birthing partners use humour to break that silence as it feels uncomfortable and humour is an instinctive way to ‘break the ice’. Sometimes there evens seems to be a bit of a social event going on around the mother.

Why not chat away, interrupt, engage the mother with conversation?  During the birth a mother goes into an internal birth space, it’s a different state of being than she is in every day life.  Naturally, she quietens down her chattering mind, her neo-cortex, the same part of the brain that shuts down as you drift off to sleep at night. Michel Odent told me he called it “falling into sleep and falling into labour”.   To allow the right birth space is to allow the mother the same space as she falls asleep in every night. Secure, dark, unobserved, protected and quiet.  If someone were chattering away to you, or standing over watching you while you were trying to get to sleep it would be difficult wouldn’t it!

Very often midwives used to knit so that they could just be in the birth space, occupied with something that allowed them to be present without making their presence felt.  This strong, calm, non-judgmental, quiet reassurance helped to hold the mother in that  birth space, without the need for interruption.

So when it’s silent be silent too. If the mother makes noise, or asks questions that seem irrational and unlike her,  don’t always feel like you have to reply or even give words of reassurance. Bite your tongue, be strong, present and calm.   Consider that nothing needs fixing, everything is fine and that by wading in with words you are disrupting something that needs to be uninterrupted and undisturbed .  Sometimes that quiet, calm presence, and that reassuring shrug and smile are all that’s needed for the birth space to be a perfect space for birth.