When I gave birth the first time, I had two doulas—one for me, and one for my husband. (I wasn't messing around!) They worked hard to support me in what ended up being a long labor. About 20 hours in, I remember hearing my doulas whisper to my exhausted, hard-working husband, “Go lie down. We can take care of her."
This was absolutely true. They were more than capable of helping me through contractions, which up to this point I'd been handling really well. So upon their urging, my husband walked about three feet away and lay down on the daybed in the labor and delivery room. And then the strangest thing happened—
I completely lost my rhythm and my ability to breathe through contractions. It was as though I'd lost my way. The next handful of contractions were unbearable and caused me to cry out in anguish. My husband hurried to my side and held my hand once more.
And then, just as quickly, I found my rhythm, my breathing returned, and I was able to to handle my contractions until I gave birth several hours later.
In a recent study published in , it was discovered that when a partner held the hand of a woman during labor, the couple would begin to synchronize their breathing and heart rate patterns, otherwise known as physiological coupling.
In addition, the women reported that their pain lessened while holding hands with their partners. If they were just sitting next to one another, but not holding hands, their pain levels weren't affected.
This study has obvious implications for the families I teach in my Childbirth Preparation classes, and it's important to share this news far and wide:
Everything you do for your partner while she's in labor makes a difference. Even if all you do is hold her hand.
Labor is not just something that a birthing woman experiences. Her partner experiences labor too, just in a very different way. For far too long, we've either diminished or ignored the partner's experience of labor—to everyone's detriment.
I realize that it makes sense to pay close attention to how a woman moves through her pregnancy, labor and birth. But if we're not paying equal attention to her partner's experience, we're not setting this new family up for success. In fact, we might be doing the exact opposite.
If partners don't realize the importance their words, actions and touch can have on the laboring woman's experience, many may freeze up and feel helpless as they witness the power and intensity of labor and birth. They may end up feeling as though all of their efforts and suggestions for comfort measures are without any effect. But this couldn't be further from the truth!
Every little thing a partner does to make the laboring woman more comfortable matters immensely. Every sip of water offered, every new position suggested, every word of encouragement, every reminder to breathe, every single touch, provides comfort to the laboring woman. And partners need to know this and believe in the power that their undivided attention and connection can bring to the laboring woman.
Here's why I think the findings from this latest study are so important—it's that feeling of shared empathy between the laboring woman and her partner that causes the physiological coupling and pain relieving effects that help a woman when she's experiencing pain.
That's why I've always told the partners in my classes that even if they hired an army of the world's greatest labor doulas, their unwavering, focused and empathetic attention during birth, is the reason why she'll tell everyone that she couldn't have made it through labor without her partner! Even if all they did was hold her hand.