The Perfect Partner

Some dads-to-be are duds in the delivery room. Here's how to prepare your guy for labor day.

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When Christina Carey, 40, imagined her baby's birth, she pictured her husband by her side, lovingly supporting her throughout labor and delivery. But when showtime arrived, she was surprised to see an entirely different side of him.

Although Carey, who lives in Hoboken, N.J., had planned on having a vaginal birth, complications necessitated a Cesarean section. "I was fine with the unplanned surgery, but my husband was a wreck," she recalls. "He got lost on his way to the operating room and arrived late for the surgery. Once he got there, he was so nervous he couldn't talk. I was hoping that my husband would distract me, but the exact opposite happened," Carey adds. "I didn't plan on having to calm him down."

"It's very important to have someone there to help you through labor," says Michael Abrahams, M.D., an OB-GYN at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. But as Carey learned, being a birth partner doesn't come naturally to every father-to-be. Fortunately, childbirth experts say that with some planning and preparation, most men can grow into the role. Here's how you can help.

Make sure he's educated "The more partners are aware of the decisions that may have to be made, the more helpful and supportive they can be," Abrahams says. Childbirth classes, books and videos give helpful information about the stages of labor, pain-relief options and possible complications of medical interventions. Education has its limits, however, and acknowledging that is another important step for your partner. "Despite birth courses, nothing really prepares him for that moment," Abrahams says.

Discuss your intentions Talk with each other about any expectations you both might have regarding laboring preferences, pain relief and medical interventions. Don't do this while you're driving to the hospital, but during the weeks and months before your due date. "One of the key expectations that should be shared is feelings about the use of pain medications during labor," says Penny Simkin, a Seattle doula and author of The Birth Partner: A Complete Guide to Childbirth for Dads, Doulas, and All Other Labor Companions (Harvard Common Press). "If you want natural childbirth and he thinks that's stupid, you have a problem. You've got to get on the same page.

"You both also need to understand that the birth plan must be flexible enough to incorporate necessary changes if unplanned interventions become needed or if labor is so fast that there's no time to get an epidural you may have planned," Simkin says.

Help him expect the unexpected There are many ways a partner can support you—massaging your back, placing cold compresses on your forehead, even channel surfing for a distracting TV show. "But it's important for him to know that your reactions to these measures may change during labor," Simkin says. "For example, a massage may feel heavenly for a while, then become really unpleasant. He needs to know that's normal, and he shouldn't take your reaction personally."

Likewise, your partner should know that what entertains you in everyday life may infuriate you in the delivery room. Jokes are a prime example. "A lot of men use humor to alleviate the stress, and it's not always appreciated," Abrahams says.

Understand where he's coming from "It's in the nature of men to need something tangible and task-oriented to do during a crisis," says Jeanne Faulkner, R.N., a labor-and-delivery nurse in Portland, Ore. "But labor tends to involve a lot of sitting and just 'being,' and that's hard for a lot of guys."

You may expect your partner to be your rock during delivery, but don't be surprised if he starts to crumble a bit. "It's an emotional time for the father as well, and it can be hard to watch a loved one in pain," says Erin E. Tracy, M.D., an OB-GYN at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

Consider his comfort level Some partners are happy to be in the delivery room but have no interest in having a front-row seat. If yours is more of a head-of-the-bed guy, it will be better for both of you if you don't order him to hang out with the doctor at the foot of the bed. "He doesn't have to see every last detail," Abrahams says. He doesn't have to cut the umbilical cord, either.

Respect his traditions In some cultures, the idea of a man witnessing childbirth is horrifying. Try not to take it personally. "Some men show up in the delivery room because they want to be an 'American' dad, but it's incredibly uncomfortable for them," Faulkner says. "They try, but then realize they just can't be there."

Resist the urge to force him If the thought of being in the delivery room makes your partner break out in hives, demanding his presence may backfire. "If the man is there grudgingly or neglecting the mother, it contributes to her stress levels, and stress interferes with labor," Simkin says. "The day you give birth is a day you're never going to forget. You want it to be a good memory."

Are you better off without him? If you think your guy won't make a good birth partner, you have two options.

First, you can have him with you in the delivery room, but don't expect more from him than what he is comfortable doing. If you go this route, consider working with a midwife or doula who can give you what he can't, advises doula Penny Simkin.

Or, you can station him in the waiting room, and invite someone else, such as your mother, to be your birth partner. Warning: This won't work if your relationship with your mother is strained. "The delivery room is not the place to be working out family dynamics," says labor nurse Jeanne Faulkner, R.N. If you ask someone else to be your birth partner, do so early in your pregnancy, so she has time to attend childbirth classes and take other steps to prepare.

Be prepared For everything you need to know to get ready for labor day, click here.