What’s a Dad to Do?

A guide for partners assisting women during labour and delivery

Photo credit: dreamstime.com

Photo credit: dreamstime.com

We assist women and their partners during childbirth all the time as doulas, but one of the most common concerns we get from the partner is, “I don’t really know what to do, or how I can help”.  This fear is very common, and very real.  Should you be hands on? Should you offer emotional support? How can you handle specific situations?  You may also be thinking, “What if I fail? What if I do something wrong?  What if I am no use at all?” This blog gives you in the inside scoop on how to be the best birth partner you can be.

To be successful you must always remember P-P-A, which stands for your 3 basic principles PREPARATION, PARTICIPATION, and ADVOCATION.  I explain more below.


First and foremost, you must be prepared! Being prepared helps you feel confident, and reduces your anxiety, as well as your partners.  In the weeks leading up to the due date, make sure yours and your partner’s hospital bags are packed (even if you are planning a home birth). 

Read books, attend birthing classes, and attend appointments. Reading books, watching videos, and listening to professionals can give you a lot of solid information around what to expect in labour and delivery.  The more knowledge you have, the more prepared you will be, the less questions you will have to ask, and the more positive the experience will be for you and the woman you are assisting.

Recognize true labour. Sometimes it can be difficult to know when your partner is in labour.  Labour can be identified by (1) the consistency of contractions (which become more frequent, last longer and become more intense over time), or (2) the breaking of the waters (expelling of clear or pinkish fluid).  It isn’t anything like the movies! Sometimes it is just a trickle.  Remember that contractions can begin up to 24 hours after the waters break, and sometimes the waters have to be artificially broken at the hospital after hours of contractions already.

Braxton hicks (small contractions of the abdomen) can occur throughout the pregnancy, but they are irregular.  True contractions will be consistent (for example, every 20 minutes), last a specific length of time (e.g. 30 seconds), and then eventually occur more frequently and more intensely.

Recognize the Stages of Labour.

First Stage

The first stage of labour is divided into 3 phases (early labour, active labour, and transition).

Early Labour: This phase can last anywhere from 0-5cm dilation of the cervix, and is the longest phase lasting on average 10-14 hours (for first time deliveries).  Contractions may be anywhere from 5-30 min. apart.  Usually your partner is quite comfortable during this phase, and is able to talk and walk through contractions.

Note that your partner should labour for as long as possible at home before going to a hospital.  This minimizes anxiety, avoids being sent home, and reduces the risk of unwanted medical interventions.

YOUR JOB: Keep her relaxed, calm, and focused.  Offer food and drink, and a light back massage.

Active Labour: This phase can begin anywhere between 3-5cm dilation of the cervix and is shorter than the early phase (lasting about 6 hours in length).  Contractions will intensify, last longer and become closer together (approximately every 1-3min apart).  You should be at the hospital by now, or at least on your way.  Women will usually not be able to speak or walk through these contractions.

YOUR JOB:  Keep her focused and remind her that the longest part is over.  Breathing exercises and relaxation techniques are critical at this time.

Transition: This is the shortest phase of labour but the most intense, lasting about 9-12 contractions.  It is during this phase that women can become a little more hostile and say things they don’t necessarily mean (don’t take it personally).  At the end of transition, the cervix is 10cm dilated.

YOUR JOB: Tell her to relax her pelvis, and that she will be meeting her baby soon.  Keep calm and listen to her.  Don’t panic!  She is ok and her body is doing all the right things!

Second Stage

The second stage of labour involves the birth of the baby.  This stage can last from minutes to a couple of hours – the average is about 2 hours for a first time delivery.  This stage can be prolonged if an epidural is used, as the woman has a hard time knowing where to push due to lack of feeling in her pelvis.

YOUR JOB: Remain at her head and coach her through the contractions.  She will push through each contraction.  You can count for her, place a cold cloth on her forehead, or just hold her hand.  Just being present goes a long way.  Make sure she relaxes completely in between pushes/contractions.  Have her relax her pelvic floor, and shake off the last contraction.  At the end of this stage, you have a beautiful miracle in your hands: a baby.

Things to think about: Do you want to video record the birth or take pictures? Do you want to cut the cord? Will you harvest cord blood? Immediate skin-to-skin? Breastfeeding?

Third Stage

The third stage involves delivery of the placenta, which can happen anywhere from 2-10 minutes after the birth of the baby.

When to go to the hospital. If you are having a hospital birth, you should follow the 5-1-1 rule.  This means contractions are 5 minutes apart, lasting 1 minute long, for 1 hour.  Even at this point, you have a lot of time to get to the hospital so don’t rush.  Collect your bags and take your time.

YOUR JOB: Call the hospital to tell them you are on your way.  Keep your partner close, and make sure she is comfortable in the car (pillows, blankets, soft music on the radio).  Do not drive like a maniac!  Keep calm.

Emotional and Unexpected challenges. There may be some unexpected challenges you will face during labour and delivery.  To name a few…

  • the labouring woman may begin to weep
  • she may become aggressive (this is not common)
  • you may have to deal with uncooperative hospital staff
  • your partner may ask for an epidural when it is not part of her birth plan. You may feel torn between adhering to her current wishes, or adhering to her original birth plan.
  • Loud hospital staff, or nurses constantly offering an epidural (even though your partner’s birth plan specifies she does not want this).
  • Unexpected delays in labour due to malposition of the fetus
  • Unexpected intervention use due to complications (e.g. vacuum extraction, forceps use, or C section)
  • Fear and anxiety (felt by both you and your partner).
  • Overwhelming emotion (by you and your partner).  Don’t be surprised if you start crying when the baby arrives. You have just been through an emotional journey yourself and witnessed new life…trust me…it never fails
  • …and more

It is best to be aware that anything can happen during a labour and delivery.  Anything goes.  Expect the unexpected, but embrace it.  It is important to remain calm, relaxed, and know that you are doing your best.


I have touched on a few ways that you can be involved already, but being an active participant will help your partner in more ways than one.  It lets her know you are present, you are going through this with her, and that she can turn to you.  As an active participant it is important to take care of yourself, but don’t disappear for too long.  Here are some ways you can be an active participant:

  • Attend appointments with your doctor, midwife and/or doula, and attend birthing classes
  • Time contractions.  Here’s how:  Using a watch with a second hand, time your partner’s contractions from the beginning of one contraction to the beginning of the next.  Count the frequency of contractions in minutes.  I personally love the App “Contractions” which works like a stopwatch and tracks length of contractions and frequency.
  • Offer food and drinks.  Staying well energized and hydrated is critical for both you and your partner, especially for long labours.  Some great ideas include coconut water, smoothies, herbal teas, dates, nut bars, fruit)
  • Offer massage for relaxation
  • Keep the atmosphere calm: that means ensuring that there are not a lot of people in and out of the room, that people are entering quietly, lights are dimmed, and having soft music playing (if she likes).
  • Ensure that the birth team is aware of your partners BIRTH PLAN.


Your partner has chosen you as her birth partner because she TRUSTS you and because you know her best.  Be aware of your partners birth preferences and don’t hesitate to speak on her behalf if you see she is unable to.  Communicate her wishes as best as you can, and be polite to her birth team, as they are trying their best to attend to her needs.

The most important thing you can do is BE CALM and BE PRESENT.  Take your cues from your partner.  Some women love being massaged, while others may want you to be more of an emotional supporter.  It may be difficult to predict ahead of time what she wants, so go with the flow.  As long as you are doing your best, you are a successful birth coach.  Above all, ENJOY THE EXPERIENCE!  It is not every day you get to witness new life.

A Naturopathic Doula can be a huge asset to your birth team.  We assist women with natural pain relief and emotional support through pregnancy, labour, delivery and post-partum, and we are covered under most extended healthcare plans!

Dr. Jessica Sangiuliano, ND

Dr. Jessica Sangiuliano, ND

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