Over the 14 years I’ve been attending births, I have witnessed a full spectrum of raw emotions on display within the birth space. These emotions range from pure elation, joy, gratitude, pride, love, awe, surprise and relief on one side, to anger, frustration, sadness, grief, hope, apathy, despair, helplessness, anxiety and fear on the other.
It’s no surprise that birth brings with it some pretty sizable emotions, not just for the birthing mother, but for her partner as well. But as a birthing partner, how do you manage your own emotions whilst still being able to support your loved one through this life altering event?
This is a subject I love to discuss. I find that partners are normally keen to find out, “What can I do to help during the birth?” I like to refer to their role as ‘Guardian of the Birth Space’. Not only does this ultimately sound cool and make them feel like some sort of superhero, it is actually an essential role, and one that shouldn’t be underestimated.
In order to discuss this fully, I think it’s important to gain some background knowledge into our physiology to be able to put this into context. You may be aware of two regions of the brain – The amygdala, the oldest part of our mammalian brain – responsible for our primitive actions. It controls instinctive animalistic behaviours essential to the life of all mammals, such as finding food, self-preservation and our ‘fight or flight’ response. In comparison, the neocortex (or our ‘thinking’ brain) is a relatively new structure, and the one that sets us apart from our other mammalian counterparts as it is responsible for logical thinking, conscious thought and language formation.
So what’s all this got to do with birth?
When it comes to birth, there are two principal hormones; oxytocin and adrenaline (there are many more, but for the purpose of this piece we will focus on just these two).
Oxytocin, known as the ‘hormone of love’, is needed in abundance during birth to bring about efficient uterine tightenings, without which we would not be able to birth and bond with our babies. Increasing levels of oxytocin in the brain also generate calming, natural pain relieving effects creating a sense of safety.
Adrenaline is normally released in stressful situations and prepares our body for ‘fight or flight’. This is an instinctive process, not under the control of our conscious mind. Blood is diverted to our major muscle groups in case we need to run away from danger or fight to protect ourselves. This process works perfectly and is a method of self-protection to keep us safe.
The reason I’m explaining this, is because in our modern world it’s easy to forget that we are all evolutionary primates, and that our brains have evolved over millions of years to adapt to our environment.
For example, if we take ourselves back to the times when we were labouring and birthing in the wild – usually outdoors, where predators were a very real threat to our lives. At any point in the labour process if our body sensed danger, our adrenaline response would kick in. As adrenaline inhibits the action of oxytocin (essential for efficient labour tightenings), labour would halt, and we could stop ourselves from giving birth (as other mammals do). This was our safety mechanism as it would give us the opportunity to run to a place of safety without endangering the life of our precious newborn. Once we were in a place of safety, our adrenaline levels would return to normal, allowing oxytocin to rise again and our labour would continue. This is a perfectly designed system to protect our young.
The problem is that according to evolutionary biologists, evolutionary adaptation takes about 5,000 generations to effect change in a biological system. That’s around 70 million years! In other words, as Mark Harris summarises, “We have Stone Age bodies, now living in the fast lane”.
Nowadays, although we don’t have the same threat of predators any more, our brains can’t differentiate between real dangers and what we perceive as dangers, so will therefore react in the same way. For a birthing mother, things in our modern world which our brains might associate as ‘dangers’ (strange noises, unfamiliar places, strangers, medical equipment etc), activate the neocortex. These triggers allow our thinking brain to start whirring. Over-thinking, analyzing, talking and answering questions, result in fear, self-consciousness and anxiety. This leads to an adrenaline release and that same instinctive ‘flight or flight’ response will kick in, as if there was a real saber-toothed tiger knocking at our door.
Nowadays the role of the birth partner has changed. Hopefully no longer having to protect us from physical dangers or threats to life, but they are now ‘Guardian of the Birth Space’ in a different form. Your job now is to now protect the birthing female from perceived dangers.
To go back to our original question, “What can I do to help?” – THIS IS IT!
In order to fully support your loved one in labour and birth, you need to do anything that protects her head space, that stops her body reacting on auto-pilot to the ‘fight or flight’ response. To lower her arousal levels, so that her neocortex is not activated, and keeps her within that ancient primal brain space, allowing her to become fully engulfed in oxytocin and those delicious birthing hormones.
Your role is to become a protective force field of love, kindness and support.
If you are able to do this, you will be able to keep her feeling safe and protected. Once her primary instinctive needs are met, she will then allow herself to become fully submerged in the birthing experience, switching off her neocortex and thinking brain. Once she can do that, her oxytocin levels will continue to rise, creating more labour tightenings, triggering the release of more oxytocin, more contractions and thus sustaining the feedback loop for an efficient and enjoyable labour and birth.
Tips for Birthing Partners
Any action which you can take to enhance her oxytocin levels, will enhance the birthing process. Be in it for the long-haul. Don’t complain about being tired, how hungry you are, how much your back is aching, or how long it’s taking – otherwise she’ll naturally start worrying about you, and that will activate her neocortex. Be there solely to support her. This will look different for each woman. Everyone needs different levels of support in labour, and often we don’t know how we’ll respond until we get there. It’s important to recognise that support comes in many different forms: Physical support might look like holding her hand, stroking her hair, being there for her to lean on or some gentle massage techniques. Practical support may involve encouraging your partner to take regular sips of water or snacks, or reminding her to empty her bladder regularly. Emotional support may be offering lots of reassurance and encouragement, or helping your partner to remain calm with breathing techniques. It’s more than likely that your partner will need a combination of all of these at different stages throughout the process.
Sometimes in birth there will be moments of stillness and silence, or moments where it appears like your partner has fallen asleep for a few moments between tightenings (please don’t wake her). Her body is designed to do this to give her body the energy it requires for birth, and it is all thanks to her amazing hormones. There may also be times when she just feels she needs to be by herself for a moment. If she does, don’t take it personally. It may be just what she needs to get her through that time. Follow your partner’s lead. If your partner appears calm, still, silent or withdrawn, just go with it. Do the same. If your partner appears more vocal or needing to talk then respond accordingly.
Being a birth partner means more than just being physically present in the room. Being a birth partner means being present in ways you may not have been before. Go through the experience together.
Be there for her. Hold space for her. Be truly with her, in whatever way she needs you to be, and trust me, you’ll enjoy the experience a whole lot more.