Fostering the Father's Role
Gone are the days when fathers smoked cigars in hospital waiting rooms or waited at home for a call announcing their child’s birth. Fathers today are almost always present and engaged in some capacity helping the mother through the birth experience. The exact role a father may embrace varies depending on his relationship with the mother and their prenatal preparation. There are many ways that birth professionals can encourage fathers to be engaged during the pregnancy and birth, which often leads to lasting bonds between the couple and between the father and child.
Certainly there are situations when the father can not or does not choose to be present, but for most these ideas can be used by birth professionals to help fathers feel calm, confident and empowered:
1. Start early. The earlier a father becomes engaged in learning about and assisting the mother during her pregnancy, the more connected and invested he will be in her and the baby’s health and well-being. He can make a big impact by helping prepare nutritious meals, encouraging physical exercise (i.e. going for walks together), and planning for the upcoming birth.
2. Encourage the father to attend prenatal appointments with their partner. He will learn a lot through these visits with the midwife or doctor and the care provider will become more familiar with him (and will often communicate with and encourage him during the birth).
3. Teach him how birth works. By eliminating the “surprise” element as much as possible, a father will be calmer as he encounters the sounds, facial expressions, bodily fluids and other typical labor events.
4. Give him tools to use to provide comfort. This may include things to do, such as massage techniques, words or phrases to say, and various physical positions he can suggest for the mother. These tools may also include what not to do, such as talking with a nurse or ignoring the mother during a contraction. A prepared father should know how to recognize and respond to the mother's changing needs throughout labor (maybe silence is all she wants) and be reminded that his calm and alert presence is almost always beneficial.
5. Remind him of the intimacy of birth. His gentle touch and affection can impact the hormones released by the mother. He can be in charge of creating or maintaining a peaceful and calm environment for labor, with dim lights, soft voices, soothing music, etc.
6. Empower him to be the mother’s protector. Give the couple time to talk about what their goals and desires are for birth, then teach the partner how to communicate those goals with the birth team. We love handing out the Thoughtful Questions pocket guides to fathers and doing some role playing, so they become comfortable asking questions and making decisions.
7. Help the father carry over his role for pregnancy and birth to the postpartum period. He should understand what to expect in terms of the recovery of the mother, newborn care, bonding, breastfeeding and warning signs. He should be encouraged to attend well-baby visits, get to know the pediatrician and ask questions related to newborn care practices. He should also be the baby’s protector in the event of medical complications or separation from mother. He should spend as much time as possible with the baby to bond and help in every way possible (changing diapers, holding, soothing, etc.) to care for the baby, short of breastfeeding.
8. Talk about the changes a father may go through. Witnessing the birth of his child is an incredibly powerful and emotional time in his life. He should be encouraged to express his needs and feelings. When possible, have a new father share his perspective with fathers-to-be and remind them that though there is much focus on mother and child, their role and well-being is essential to the whole family.
9. Discuss the role of a doula as a enhancer of, rather than a substitute for, the father’s role during labor and birth. A doula can answer his questions, assist him to better support the mother and provide a break for meals, fresh air, phone calls to relatives, etc.
10. Motivate him with research. Remind him that his support during birth can reduce the use of pain medications and other interventions, improve the satisfaction of the mother and strengthen his bond with his child. His support and encouragement for breastfeeding will also impact the length of time a mother breastfeeds (and thereby affect the health of the child). For additional information on see: Fatherhood Institute: Including New Fathers, A Guide for Maternity Professionals.
Ideally, a father will learn all of these skills and face labor totally prepared and calm. In reality, it is difficult to completely prepare a father for all that he will encounter in the labor room or after the birth. Fostering the bond between mother and father will help them both face whatever birth and parenthood throws their way and is an important part of a birth professional's role. In all of your interactions with the couple, find ways to help them communicate with each other and show the father equal respect and attention. His role is vital!
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