First published in The Brisbane Times
As midwives we often see the male partners coming into the first antenatal visit with a look of fear in their eyes. Whilst it is understandable that birth does at first glance appear to be a woman’s domain there is a massive contribution that men can make. Some of the fundamentals of birth need to be understood in order to contribute positively.
We are mammals
Women are, as frankly as I can put it, mammals. And if anyone has ever seen a mammal – like a cat, dog, horse or cow, have a baby either in the flesh or on TV you will see that they generally make sure that they are in a safe place, that they are not being observed by predators and that they have a range of important things like water and food on hand. Unfortunately modern birth does not look much like that for women. Often women are in a place that feels really foreign and have strangers around them. They may even be asked to forgo water and food. None of these things are helpful.
Emotions contribute to all hormones and birth is all about hormones
Following on from the above, simplistically birth relies on a hormone called oxytocin to work well. Oxytocin is a love hormone, it gets produced when we feel love and also when we feel pleasure. The way it is enhanced in labour is when women feel safe, supported and loved. On the other hand it is blocked by a hormone called adrenaline – which is well known as the fight or flight hormone – so when women get a shock or feel scared in labour they produce adrenaline and that can stop the labour or make it dysfunctional.
So where does the “bloke” fit?
Male partners generally make women feel safe. Especially if they are able to demonstrate love and/or affection in sensible positive ways. Things like holding women close if they want you to, touching the back and shoulders, massage, foot and hand rubs are all very important to get oxytocin working. The other way that men fit in and make things work is by blocking anything seen as negative to the woman, so being a great carer, knowing the questions to ask and fielding her wants and needs is really important. This can stop adrenaline being produced and can have a very positive impact. The other important thing is to keep your own adrenaline in check as this can also impact the woman. That means if you are getting scared or angry, you need to work out ways to deal with it. My experience in thousands of births is that when the man knows the care provider well, especially where that care provider is a midwife and explains things to the man properly so that he understands it, the man is less frightened and more likely to respond positively and support his partner.
What about afterward?
Men are also absolutely critical in the hours and days after baby is born. Really nurturing your partner and letting her spend all her energy on your baby enables the feeding and bonding to get off to a great start and helps to manage any emotional periods and upsets. It is important to put yourself last at this time and to genuinely focus on what mother and baby need – you have helped to create a family and therefore it is important to start it off the right way. Liz Wilkes is the Managing Director of My Midwives and has been a midwife for over 20 years.Written by Liz Wilkes