My first experience as a Doula really taught me how it is to be a birth partner.
By Sophie Fletcher
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.
(This guest blog is written by Russell Davis who is the creator of The Fertile Mind (www.thefertilemind.net) fertility hypnosis programs for natural and assisted conception.)
” The serene home-birth we hoped for ended up being interrupted with a mad dash to the hospital in an ambulance as with ‘blues and twos’ as complications arose.However, we were able to remain surprisingly calm.
Recently I was reflecting with Alice Domar, a women’s natural health and fertility expert, about the how differently men and woman behave on the infertility journey. We also talked about the role the man takes in the relationship and I blogged recently on my experience in our fertility journey.Like most men I thought my role was to be the ‘strong one’ however this isn’t what my wife wanted.She wanted me to be real and feel united in the emotional rollercoaster that is infertility.
It wasn’t until eight years in to our journey I was diagnosed with male infertilty (we didn’t see that one coming!) and the last scrap of hope I had which enabled me to be the ‘strong one’ fell apart.We found ourselves united in the grief and pain.Bizarrely, my diagnosis was both a curse and a blessing.It enabled me to wake up to my feelings ,be real about my grief and enabled us to continue our journey feeling untied, going on to conceive naturally a couple of years later. I had been the catalyst for me to stop being the strong one and be the soul mate in the journey my wife wanted and we both needed.
I think this experience, the male not being sure of their role can be true for childbirth.We wanted a home birth, however I was extremely nervous about the idea, being our first child I really didn’t know what to expect.Looking back I now realise it was fear generated byme not knowing my role in the whole procedure.Gone are the days of the man being in the pub around the corner from the hospital waiting until it is all over – not that I would want that, I very much wanted to be there to experience this miraculous event take place.
We did a course similar to Mindful Mamma (it wasn’t around then) and it gave both my wife and me the confidence that we could have a home birth and feel in control.It enabled me to realise how natural child-birth is and it is not something to fear.Although nothing about the circumstances had changed, we were still planning a home birth, it was still our first child, my thinking about it changed which enabled me to be more relaxed about it.
Child birth may be natural but it doesn’t always go to plan.However, even in the midst rushing around the house thinking of what we need to take to the hospital, what to do with the dog…(yes I know, ‘even though you are planning a home birth always have a bag packed’ etc…did we do it? No!) I was able to stay relatively calm and focussed on my role -to protect my wife’s space and assist her in remaining calm and relaxed.
Although it wasn’t the home birth we planned, despite the complications and extended final stage, it was natural and without any pain relief apart from a tens machine which was only turned up half way!This was thanks to the techniques we had learnt to help us stay in the present moment, focus on our breathing and feel more calm and relaxed.I would encourage you to play with this technique which does just that:
This technique utilises a natural biological relaxation process (increasing the amount of carbon dioxide you breathe in) as well as bringing your mind to the present moment. Focusing on your breathing brings you back to the ‘here and now’ rather than time travelling to the future worrying about the next pregnancy test or fertility treatment outcomes.
◦Simply concentrate on your breathing and count from 1-7 as you breathe in and from 1-11 as you exhale.
◦You can count out loud or in your head but if possible out loud can make it more effective.
◦It doesn’t need to be big breaths, just normal relaxed breathing adjusting the pace of the counting to your breath.
◦Alternatively you can count from 1 to 3 and 1 to 5 instead of 7 & 11 (which is what I do, having a small lung capacity).
◦After 10-15 breaths you may start to notice how much more relaxed you’re beginning to feel.
◦If your mind wanders just bring it gently back to your breath. The beauty of this exercise is that you can do it any time, any place without anyone knowing what you are doing.
How can I write a blog this month without mentioning the current series on Channel 4, ‘One Born Every Minute’?
I missed the bulk of the first two, as my internet connection is so slow, but after watching the 3rd I’m grateful to Talk Talk for sparing me the ignominy of some of the husbands that I watched as they ‘supported’ their wives giving birth.
Watching the 3rd episode of this programme, I watched aghast as a husband bullied his wife while she was in labour. She was squatting on the floor, while he berated her for wanting a natural birth over a section (she was a VBAC – Vaginal Birth Following Caesarean) and he wanted to know what she was going to do as he didn’t want to be there all night. Not to mention the dad who locked his wife in the toilet while she was having a contraction.
It really was a sight to behold and my heart goes out to both the mum and the midwife, Dominique, who was fantastic, calm and encouraging in the face of a real challenge. That the mum achieved a VBAC was I think down to her and the fact that she was caseloading midwife (the same midwife that followed the mother through antenatal care and the birth), giving the mum a sense of stability and familiarity.
However, despite me wanting to the throw my remote control at that dad, I also felt sorry for him, as his reaction to the situation was likely to have been driven by helplessness, fear and lack of knowledge.
My only experience of dads to be and birthing partners are those who choose to come on the course – those that want to understand what is happening so they can respectfully and knowledgeably support their partner. But who also realise that the opportunity to find more is out there, that there are classes that help him to understand what is happening and what he can do to help.
Last year, Michel Odent, a French Obstetrician renowned for his work on normal birth, wrote a provocative article where he categorically stated that men should not be in the birthing room. Lots of debate ensued online, with people agreeing or vehemently opposed- we sit somewhere in the middle and believe that men should be there, but only, if they want to be there and if they are free of anxiety and fear. Let’s face it, we’ve done a 360° turn in the last 40 years, from men down the pub or outside awaiting the news, to being absolutely expected to be in the birthing room – that’s a big shift and a big ask of men, who are excluded from the majority of antenatal care, with at the most access to an NHS or NCT class.
So it’s no surprise that some men who feel in the dark and disassociated from the pregnancy, and the birth suddenly find themselves into the uniquely intense experience of the birth itself without really knowing how to help. In fact many men on our classes say that the lack of knowledge or understanding of what is going on is what worries them as well as “seeing their partner in pain, and not being able to do anything about it.”
We turn this statement totally on its head in our classes, and teach the dad to be that he too has an important role, more than he might ever imagine, and that the birth can be empowering, and life changing for him as well. We also give them knowledge and techniques to support mum so he does know what to do.
We address the issue of fear in the birthing partner and enable couples to see that fear and anxiety are contagious. If dad is pacing up and down, biting his nails, or is restless it demonstrates to the mum that he is outwardly anxious, but there are also small ideomotor signals, small unconscious movements and gestures, driven by the subconscious, that the birthing mother can pick up subconsciously which can effect her birth.
We help the dad to make positive shifts in his confidence and belief that his wife or partner knows what to do instinctively and that she doesn’t need rescuing from the situation. Most importantly he knows what is happening, why is is happening and what to do about it.
Remember always that at the birth, it’s not just a baby being born, but a mother and a father too. Come on dads, do your bit, learn how to support your partner, and give her a strong shoulder to lean on physically and spiritually during birth and perhaps you’ll find hidden depths that you never knew you had.
I was having a cup of tea and chat with my friend and neighbour last week, when he asked if I had read the piece on Sunday about drug free birth. I said “yes, I had”, in a rather tired way! To be honest, some of the debate it had stirred up had irritated me somewhat. Basically, Denis Walsh had been quoted as saying that natural, drug free childbirth has distinct advantages over epidural deliveries.
A lot of the responses (including my neighbour’s) was that Denis Walsh has no right to comment on women’s experiences. Apparently, it is a woman’s domain, and men aren’t qualified to comment. So how come they are qualified to intervene, into delicate womanly parts with needles, tongs, machines, and all sorts of other paraphernalia. We don’t question that! Is that because they are “rescuing” women from the drama and pain of this cursed condition called childbirth?
I don’t know, but I totally support what Denis apparently said in the media. I am guessing that he was more likely to be quoted because he is a man, but ironically, then shouted down because he is a man. While birthing is most certainly a feminist issue – it is not whether you are a man or a woman that makes a difference – it is what your culture is saying about it that makes it a gender issue.
Both men and women can believe that childbirth is something we should feel slightly uneasy or disgusted about, very fearful about, that we should work to numb the experience as far as possible, and that it is yet another example of how a woman’s body basically lets her down! (along with hormones, periods, breastfeeding and the menopause). She cannot birth without extreme pain or danger of death.
On the flip side, both men and women can believe that childbirth is something we should celebrate and admire, be proud of and in awe of. Isn’t the ability to create a perfect new life something quite amazing? Shouldn’t women be empowered and revered for that? And it doesn’t stop there. As well as bring forth new life, women can sustain it, with their ability to produce life-sustaining milk, which is in fact perfect nutrition, comfort, medicine, vitamins, in a way which nothing else can!
If we were to adopt the latter viewpoint in our society, this might sit slightly uncomfortably for some people. I have had a few fathers in our classes come to me after and say “do you know what? It almost makes me feel a little like I’m missing out”. To be able to celebrate womanhood and the wonder of birthing with due respect and admiration, rather than pity and mistrust, is, I believe, not easy for men or women in our society.
So, to be a man who can celebrate and see the wonder of being a birthing woman, in my eyes, makes him all the more worth listening to, not less. Hooray for Denis. He is not the only one of course – there are some great advocates out there – male and female. Michel Odent – my personal favourite, Ina Mae Gaskin, Sarah J Buckley to name a few. So, to summarise my reaction to the media coverage and reactions, I could write a long essay about the relevance of breaking a leg and needing anaesthesia, and the advantages of drug free birth etc, or i could just express my irritation with a quick comment that to chastise some body’s professional opinion because he is a man is daft. Stop it!
Mindful Hypnobirthing is a bestselling book on hypnosis and mindfulness for birth. Written by Sophie Fletcher one of the UK's leading hypnotherapists for pregnancy and birth, it will help you to prepare your mind and your body for a positive experience of birth.
The downloads on this site are written and recorded by Sophie and are designed to be flexible. Whether you are doing hypnobirthing or wanting to try out some relaxation for pregnancy you will find something here for you.
If you have bought the book you can download the mp3s from the publishers website mindful-hypnobirthing.co.uk or by contacting us directly.
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