By JD Lasica
BabyCenter managing editor
Some expectant fathers, unfortunately, start getting interested in their babies around the time their wives say, “Loving husband, it’s time to proceed to the hospital.” By then, it’s a little late to whip out the how-to manual.
My friends, spare yourself some messy surprises. Accompany your wife to a childbirth education class. Almost all birth hospitals hold sessions, and parents are usually given the option of attending two or three short evening sessions or one long daytime session. For me, the class was an eye-opener.
We decided to attend a one-day childbirth preparation class at our hospital (Alta Bates in Berkeley, California) rather than attend an offsite Lamaze class, where the emphasis is on natural childbirth. I’ll confess up front that I thought 80 percent of the class would be about breathing exercises. Not quite.
We immediately hit it off with our instructor, Janaki Costello, a certified doula, childbirth educator, and board-certified lactation consultant. Here are 10 things we got out of the class:
1. Recognize the onset of true labor
Late in their pregnancy, most women will experience false labor — Braxton Hicks contractions that may start out strong, but taper off and then stop after a while. Look for these signs that your wife is experiencing the real deal:
• She’s gripped by the nesting urge, a sudden surge of energy that transforms her into a lethal combination of Martha Stewart and a Merry Maid.
• Her mucus plug, which seals up the cervix at the base of the womb, may come out.
• Her water may break, resulting in a trickle or a gush of fluid. When the amniotic sac (officially called the bag of waters) breaks, 80 percent of women will spontaneously go into labor within 12 hours. But contractions may well start before her water breaks.
• Contractions hit. They’re different for every woman, but many describe them as strong, rhythmic cramps that squeeze the uterus.
2. Know how to time the contractions
Listen up, guys. Buy a stopwatch, or make sure your watch has a readable second hand. Time your wife’s contractions from the beginning of one contraction to the beginning of the next. If they’re eight to 10 minutes apart and last 30 to 45 seconds each, congratulations, you’re in early labor. Your doctor or other hospital staff can help you over the phone to make the decision about when to come in. As a general rule-of-thumb, if the contractions are less than five minutes apart and last a minute or more, get thee to the hospital.
3. Don’t get to the hospital too early
Costello hit us over the head with this admonition: Don’t head to the hospital the minute your wife goes into labor. If your wife is dilated to only 1 centimeter, chances are they’ll send you home because you’ve got a good ways to go. “Take a walk, go to the mall or a museum, hit the beach, catch a movie – anything to help you take your mind off the contractions,” Costello said. “Try not to fixate on the clock. If it happens at night, try to get back to sleep for a few hours.” Easier said than done, says my wife.
4. Understand the different phases of labor
Forget those TV sitcom images where a woman goes into labor and a baby pops out by the second commercial. It sometimes happens that fast, but only rarely. For most, labor is a journey, not an event. Bottom line: Dads, don’t expect this will be over in just a few hours. Every woman’s experience is different, but be prepared for three stages of labor:
The initial stage really consists of three phases:
• Early phase. This can typically last seven or eight hours to a few days. Relax, but get ready to hit the road. As labor progresses, the contractions get longer and stronger.
• Active phase. Often this lasts three to five hours, but it varies with the individual. You should be in the hospital by now, or en route. Contractions are much more intense, last about 40 to 60 seconds, and are spaced two to six minutes apart.
• Transition phase. This stage usually lasts only 15 to 90 minutes – thank God. It’s here that your wife is most likely to swear at you like a truck driver. (Don’t take it personally, guy, it’s a childbirth thing.) Contractions last 60 to 90 seconds and come two or three minutes apart, and their intensity depends on whether your wife has received a painkiller or epidural or has chosen the drugless route.
• Pushing and birth. Here’s what most of us think of as childbirth. Your wife may spend a half hour to two hours or more pushing, with contractions lasting a minute and spaced three to five minutes apart.
• Delivery of the placenta. You’re not done yet! This stage is anticlimactic but necessary. Suck it up, man, and get educated about your partner’s body.
5. Be an active participant
Costello looked at the half-dozen expectant fathers around the table. “Remember, dads, it’s your baby, too. You’re a critical part of the process.”
In the days and weeks before your baby’s due date, make sure your car’s gas tank isn’t running on empty. Make sure both you and your wife are packed for the hospital, including a possible change of clothes, a toothbrush, mouthwash, and camera or camcorder. Discuss with your wife whether you want to have a birth plan. If you do, Costello suggests you keep it short and sweet by expressing a few important thoughts, or the hospital staff may overlook your wishes.
During early labor, make sure your wife drinks plenty of liquids. Pour her a glass of nonacidic juice such as apple juice or pineapple juice, honey and water, an herbal tea, or just plain water to ward off dehydration. Offer her a bagel, yogurt, or something bland – she might not get anything solid to eat at the hospital for many hours after the baby’s birth. Finish packing and just revel in this special time.
When you head to the hospital, drive carefully. This isn’t the time for pushing the pedal to the metal. When you get to the labor room, stick around to provide comfort and support. “The transition stage is not the time to head out for a long lunch,” Costello advised. Feel free to bring fruit or a cooler along if it’s in the middle of the night.
6. Take control of the delivery room
The doctors and nurses are in charge of your wife’s care, but you and she have a big say in personalizing your room. When it’s time to rest, soften the lighting. Freshen the smell by taking along aromatherapy balls, potpourri, or scented oils. Bring pictures and your own music. I found a portable CD player in the garage and packed some of Mary’s favorite CDs. Bring some mellow tunes, but also some peppier, uptempo rhythms to change the energy in the room if your baby’s taking too long to make an appearance.
7. Know how to play coach
Dads, get in your wife’s face to tell her you love her and that soon you’ll have a beautiful baby to hold and love. Be a nurturing, empathetic coach. Reassure her that she’s doing fine. Encourage her to send nice, long breaths to your baby. Stroke her hair, massage her neck or shoulders. Help her visualize a soothing setting. See our other tips on how to be a great labor coach.
8. Be prepared
We watched two videos of vaginal births and one of a c-section. All showed the messy, unglamorous side of labor. Few of us get to hold a newborn, so don’t be surprised if the baby’s skin looks wrinkled, his color is gray, his head is molded into a cone shape, and, in truth, he doesn’t even look like a baby. “Don’t worry if your baby’s head looks like an alien’s,” Costello said. Also remember that childbirth doesn’t end with the baby’s appearance. It takes another five to 20 minutes to expel the placenta.
9. Cut the cord if you want
Today, most dads choose to cut the baby’s umbilical cord in the first minutes after birth. “It’s your right, but sometimes they forget,” Costello said, “so make sure you remind the doctor.”
10. Read further
Costello recommended several books: The Birth Book (Little, Brown, 1994) by William and Martha Sears; Sheila Kitzinger’s The Complete Book of Pregnancy and Childbirth (Knopf, 1985); Carl Jones’s Mind Over Labor (Penguin, 1987); and Pregnancy, Childbirth, and the Newborn: The Complete Guide (Meadowbrook Press, 1991) by Penny Simkin, Janet Whalley, and Ann Keppler. And there’s no substitute for exchanging questions or swapping tales with other moms-to-be and expectant fathers. BabyCenter’s bulletin boards bring together expectant mothers by due date and also provide a place for expectant dads to hang out.