Helping your partner cope during labour
The process of childbirth, known as labour, can be broken down into three stages. The early signs of labour, known as the first stage usually start around 38 to 40 weeks after which the baby is normally born anything from a couple of hours to 16 hours from the onset of this process.
The first signs of this stage are a show of small amounts of blood and mucus within the vagina caused by opening of the membrane sack, which surrounds the baby. Once these signs are present you should contact your midwife who will usually advise you to make your way to your local obstetric unit if you are planning a hospital delivery or she will organise for midwife to attend your home if you have planned to have the baby at home.
The early contractions of the uterus during this stage are more than five minutes apart to start with but gradually become more frequent. At this time the entrance to the womb, known as the cervix, starts to soften and open up in preparation for childbirth. It is important for your partner to try to relax but also take this last opportunity to drink sugary fluids and eat easily digestible carbohydrate foods such as toast with jam to provide her with enough energy during the times ahead when she will be required to push for prolonged periods. You can help her relax by giving a shoulder massage or by gently rubbing her abdomen during times of contraction. It is important that she empties her bladder and opens her bowels before the final stages of labour to reduce the pressure on the uterus and therefore make pushing more comfortable. Gently stroking her forehead or arms and giving calming reassurance during this time is helpful to reduce her levels of anxiety about the pending birth process.
The second stage of labour is the process of delivering your baby and can last anything from minutes up to three hours in some cases. This stage is recognisable by the uterine contractions becoming more frequent and stronger. These can be uncomfortable and your partner will need to sit or lie down during these. Massage and gentle stroking of the abdomen can help your partner relax between contractions. Other useful relaxation techniques are positive reassurance and controlled breathing exercises to help her remain calm. If possible she should move her leg position frequently to prevent her back and other muscles becoming too stiff. She may require analgesia during this period but your midwife will be attending and advising on this where necessary. Just as the baby's head fully appears your midwife will advise your partner to pant instead of push so that the baby's head appears slowly without tearing the vaginal area.
The third and final stage of labour is the period immediately after the baby is born in which the placenta is delivered. Contractions continue during this stage to completely push out the products left behind after delivery. Although your partner will be completely exhausted this is a very pleasurable and emotional time when you both realise that your baby has finally arrived. You will both have the opportunity to hold your new baby and experience this memorable experience together. Your midwife will examine your partner to see if she needs any stitches to repair tears that may have occurred in the vagina during the final pushes of labour. Shortly after all the necessary baby checks are performed you will all be able to have some quiet time together as a new family.
Pain relief in labour
Every woman will have a different birthing experience and some will feel less pain than others but most first time mothers worry about how uncomfortable the process may be.
During pregnancy your partner will get the opportunity to discuss her preferences with her midwife and obstetrician as to which analgesics they may wish during labour. Gas and air and pethidine injections are commonly used during labour but many women also wish to have epidural anaesthesia - this involves injecting controlled amounts of anaesthetic medication into the space surrounding the lower spinal cord using a fine canula placed through the back. Epidural canulas are normally fitted just after the early stages of labour so that the woman is prepared for any discomfort during the later stages of childbirth.
Epidural anaesthesia is particularly useful if your partner requires a caesarean section birth, as this is the preferred method of pain relief for this procedure. Caesarean section may already have been pre-planned if your obstetrician feels that there are sufficient reasons for your partner not to attempt a natural delivery although this is relatively rare for a first time mum unless she is expecting twins or the baby is lying in the breech (feet first) position. A caesarean section may also become necessary if your partner's labour is not progressing satisfactorily. The birth experience during and after a caesarean section is just as special as a natural delivery although your partner may require a few extra days in hospital to recover from the operation.