The evolution of dads in delivery rooms


Dad in the delivery room

I’ve been hanging out with dads in delivery rooms for decades. As their wife or girlfriend’s labor nurse, I’ve witnessed a range of expectant fathers – from those so in tune with their partner’s needs they could stand in as midwife to those so inept, we wonder why they bothered showing up. What I’ve learned over a couple of decades and several thousand births is that times have changed and I’ve changed with them. I used to refer to fathers as “labor coaches” and I’ve come to realize, I was wrong. Chock it up to evolving feminism and empowered fatherhood, I now think of fathers (and same-sex partners) as “primary labor support.”

We call the people who will be with you during labor “supporters” or your “labor team.” “Labor coach” is old school, calling up images of a man with a whistle and stopwatch, bossing a laboring mother around. Seriously – who needs that? Women should be in charge of their own bodies during labor. They don’t need to be “coached” or told what to do. They do, however, need lots of love, support, gentle reminders, back rubs, encouragement, positive affirmations, and help making decisions. Your doctor, midwife, nurses, and husband/partner are almost automatically on that team. Who else do you need to fill these roles? Probably fewer people than you think. That’s why choosing your labor team carefully is really important.

Before we talk about why taking a less-is-more approach to building your labor team is smart, let me share a history lesson:

In the 1950s and ‘60s, the only people attending a laboring mother in the delivery room were a nurse and a midwife or doctor. Dads were relegated to the waiting room or a local bar to sit tight until the big announcement was made. Mom labored and gave birth alone (except for medical staff) with no one to support her, and dad bided his time until someone told him whether his wife and baby had survived childbirth and whether it was a boy or girl.

By the 1970s, dads were invited (or forced their way) into the delivery room, and the concept of “labor coach” was born. His job was to help mom focus, keep track of when contractions occurred (thought I’d argue women didn’t really need help with that), and remind her of what breathing technique to use when. His most important role was to give mom support and comfort and to be present at the moment the two of them became a family.

By the 1980s, the delivery room door had opened a little wider, and a second support person was occasionally allowed in the room. By the 1990s we had family birthing centers, and anyone mom wanted could be present. By 2000, the labor room had become crowded with friends, family, grandparents, and stepparents, and there was little room left for medical staff. Unfortunately, this was also often disruptive, embarrassing, and a bit of a zoo, as too many personalities crowded into a too-small room, sometimes trying to outdo each other in providing the best support to the laboring mother. Arguments erupted; tears flowed; yelling, screaming, and fights broke out; and in the midst of all this nonsense, a child was being born to a mother who often regretted inviting too many people to be on her labor team.

Then, one year, a horrible flu ravaged the land, and many hospitals had to shut their labor room doors to all but essential staff and one or two labor supporters, to prevent the spread of disease on the maternity ward. And peace returned to the labor room. Mothers were happier, fathers were happier, babies were healthier and they even seemed to be born a little faster.

Where are we now? That really depends on where you’re delivering, but the moral of the story is this: be very selective about who you invite on your labor team. Yours might be the perfect selection of friends and family who offer only positive vibes, loving support, and words of wisdom as your labor progresses smoothly. Or not. It could be one of those births where all hell breaks out. There could be so many people (or the wrong people) present that the intimacy of starting a family and meeting your new baby becomes diluted or disrupted. I’ve seen dads pushed away fro mom’s bed by overly eager grandparents who can’t wait to get their hands on the newborn. I’ve seen mothers clearly humiliated when people she did not want in her room saw her naked. I’ve seen countless women who had no idea how to politely tell all those people to get the hell out, because all she wanted was to be alone with her partner.

So, given that it could go either way – heaven or hell in the labor room, but more likely somewhere in between – whom should you allow in?

In most families, the baby’s father or your partner should have pride of place at the bedside. If he/she is ready, willing, and able to provide labor support, he/she should be the one to do that.”

I talk a lot in my book about why it’s essential that fathers be acknowledged as full-fledged parenting partners, not mom’s side kick, second in command or helper and certainly not as his kid’s babysitter. We’re all evolving in how we view and value fatherhood. Chock that up to increasing numbers of fathers stepping up and stepping into their children’s lives.


Excerpted with permission from Common Sense Pregnancy by Jeanne Faulkner.


Jeanne Faulkner is a registered nurse, a frequent contributor to Pregnancy, and the author of Common Sense Pregnancy (Ten Speed Press 6/2015) and The Complete Illustrated Birthing Companion (Quayside Press, 1/2013).

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