One of the things I firmly believe as a doula is that partners deserve as much support as a laboring person. Of course the level of need is different, but partners are also going through a major life moment with varying degrees of experience with birth themselves, often very little to none. Most partners I meet are eager to be supportive, but often don’t know exactly how. The concern about doing something wrong can sometimes hinder their full participation. When it comes to offering comforting touch during labor, I’ve identified a few simple ways partners can improve their skills and increase their confidence.
These are the 5 most common mistakes partners make when supporting a partner during labor and how to remedy each one so everyone wins.
Mistake 1: Massaging her during contractions. A common relaxation technique is to offer a gentle or soft petting stroke, typically on a person's back, shoulders, legs, or arms. While in between contractions this gentle stroking may feel soothing or relaxing, during contractions in active labor, laboring women tend to prefer something more steady and consistent.
What to do instead: Pressing on the hips or back in a firm way is generally much more satisfying and grounding during contractions, and you’ll be far more likely to avoid her asking you to stop what you’re doing with this simple switch. So save the gentle strokes for in between contractions, and use more solid and firm “counter-pressure” techniques during contractions instead.
Mistake 2: Taking it personally and stepping away. Women in labor are instinctive and deservedly particular. They generally know exactly what they need and don’t need. So, even with the best of intentions, a loving partner may miss the mark. In these moments, it’s all too common for partners to take it personally and feel bad, like they did something wrong. But it’s not like that with birth. While the laboring person may want you to stop doing something, it doesn’t mean you did anything wrong, nor do they want you to go away.
What to do instead: Try something different next time, but don’t go away. The power of your presence alone can be a huge support. She may just need your hand to squeeze instead or pressure in another spot. Experiment with different comforting techniques in between contractions and eventually you will find what she needs, even if that is simply standing there quietly, saying nothing, touching nothing, doing nothing, other than being there.
Mistake 3: Rubbing just one part of her back. This mistake is a little more nuanced because it takes understanding a somewhat subtle distinction regarding comforting touch. Sometimes part of what a woman doesn’t like from a partner’s touch is simply that something about it feels unsatisfying. One of the main ways people rob their touch of being totally satisfying it by rubbing repeatedly in one spot. In this case, if we were to give the back a personality, the parts nearby that are not being touched end up feeling jealous and hankering for the same degree of attention. Of course backs don’t get jealous, but you get the point.
What to do instead: For your touch to feel satisfying, the idea is to be inclusive and thorough. If you’re rubbing her back, avoid the hankering feeling by stroking all the way up or down both sides, from shoulders to hips and vice versa.
Mistake 4: Holding Back. Often, I see partners afraid to press too hard or otherwise holding themselves back in labor. Quite often when a laboring person wants you to press on their back or hips, they can want it surprisingly hard and deep!
What to do instead: When it comes to comforting touch, I always teach people to try increasing their pressure first by leaning all the way in. Not only does leaning in tend to provide the depth of pressure and warmth that so many laboring women love, it keeps you connected and has the added benefits of helping the supportive partner work less hard, as you will be using gravity instead of force for that added pressure. With a possible 24-hour labor ahead of you, looking for ways to avoid over-exertion becomes paramount. Leaning in also increases intimacy during labor, which in turn nurtures our birthing hormones, so the closer the better (unless of course she ends up wanting more space, in which case refer to tip number 2). For reference, watch this short video from my Comforting Touch for Birth guidebook demonstrating the classic hip squeeze prioritizing this tip to increase the benefits for both partners.
Mistake 5: Being too much in your head. In the well-meaning effort to “do a good job” and “be a good partner,” often partners miss the mark by being too much in their heads. Overthinking what you’re doing often translates to a less than satisfying touch for the receiver, and being in our heads doesn’t make babies. Being in our bodies does that.
What to do instead: Tapping into your own instincts and sensuality as a partner will help you avoid overthinking with the result of you being more comfortable in your own skin. If she doesn’t like something, you can always adjust but more often if you’re following your instincts and it feels good to you, it will translate. The more comfortable you are, the more comfortable she will be.
Photo by Zivar Amrami.