"I wish you could feel what it's like." It's a well-known sentence, which many women have said to men at some point during pregnancy. Be it from frustration, or being overwhelmed by the amazing sensations women report upon giving birth. The phrase has been uttered enough, that technicians have created the Labour Pain Simulator, a device that mimics the pain of childbirth.

    To celebrate Mother's Day last year, two men decided to take on the simulator, bringing about amusing results. While the video has interest because of the entertainment value, and maybe a little spiteful satisfaction from their partners, it made me wonder what men think about childbirth, and if opinions and practices in the delivery room have changed in recent years. The aim is to discover how the male role in childbirth had altered, and what might have contributed to this.  We have moved in leaps and bounds from when childbirth was a secret women's business.

    But first, the video of the two men who attempted the Labour Pain simulator.



     To start our investigation, I spoke with Hannah Dahlen, Professor of Midwifery at University of Western Sydney. She is also the spokesperson for the Australian College of Midwives and a practising midwife of 25 years.

    In today's society, midwives find that it's more unusual to not have the father-to-be present, unless there is a certain cultural belief or aversion. It's also to be noted that people are having children at an older age  now and some of them are in their second or third marriages.

    Professor Dahlen stated that men started to appear in hospital births in the 1970s, after rising political activity and public rallies were led by consumers to bring awareness to the importance of their involvement. Lobbyists and midwives supported the rights of partners to be present  as both parents create the child and should be there for their arrival. Most important of all women wanted their partner there and that should really be enough.

    But what changes men from shocked onlookers to involved, prepared counterparts of the birth? "Good preparation, good relationships and good support," said Professor Dahlen.

    Midwives across Australia suggest that parent education for both partners, and a good continuity care program is what assists families most. Parent education has evolved over the years, with ongoing research to further its benefit. It includes positive mind teachings, how the body works, dealing with fears, physiology and its alteration after birth, supportive touch and birth positions. Parents who are active participants are said to gain the most help from the education.

    Continuity care programs where women have access to a known midwife who provides care throughout the pregnancy, birth and postnatal period are critical to good experiences and outcomes. Professor Dahlen explained, "Men can be traumatised by the event of birth. It can be very stressful for them. Men need to feel able to talk about the experience, as well as women. There are father's groups to talk about births -- there's even Cheers for Dads antenatal program where men can meet at a pub."

    Men need support or they can become disengaged from their partner, or even no longer see their partner as a sexual being. However, the male attendance is said to be a strong message to their female partner. Men need to understand the importance of their support, be it through massage, acupressure, breathing with their partner, or simply holding her during the most painful moments and telling her she can do it.

    Birth is a journey for male partners too. Of the expectant fathers, Professor Dahlen claims the most common fear is their partner goes into labour at home without warning. "We have to speak about what to do if that did happen and what they would do."

    Another concern for men is what they should/shouldn't say or do during the birth. Midwives are keen to share books and information to prepare them. Some even suggest accupressure guides to help the labouring woman during her painful times of the birth.

    "I particularly like Men at Birth, an Australian book, by David Vernon. It's a book of birth stories from the male perspective. Too many birth stories are written by women."

    Sometimes, the father isn't the only person in the room. Quite often other significant others to the mother attend: grandparents, sperm donors, brothers, lesbian partners. Some hospitals limit women in how many can attend the birth and some even ask they be pre-named and not leave or swap over during the birth. However, Professor Dahlen holds a more relaxed view on such rules. "I've been in a birth with 14 people, and they all had a pivotal role. . . As long as the person is there because the women needs and wants their support -- they're not just there to be an audience -- then they have a place. I think women should challenge (the limits hospitals have put in place) because they don't have a legal standing to do that."

    "Sometimes staff have to speak out on behalf of the women if she's not comfortable speaking up. Let's say a mother-in-law wants to attend but the woman won't feel comfortable if she's there, we have to tell the family something like, "she has enough people to comfort her.""

    Sometimes women also need a back-up plan. On rare occassions, men will panic during the birth. The midwife's job is then to help them explore the fear, and see if it can be remedied. "Some men don't want to see the baby emerge so we have them stand the other end where they can't see this happen," Professor Dahlen explains. However, sometimes men are just unable to attend, despite preparation, and if their fear becomes too much, a midwife will suggest someone else takes over in supporting their partner, as the chance of traumatic after-affects are more likely if the father is fearful without relief before or during the birth.

    In the case of Caesarean sections, male partners can attend, as long as the procedure is being done via epidural or spinal, but not under a general anaesthetic. Once the screen is up, the father can stand by his partner's head and support her.

    Home births and birthing centres are considered more "homey" for expecting couples. Home births are easy as the man is in their own environment. Both options have more room for the partners, and offer the chance for food, drink and sleep. Professor Dahlen explained that often couples are that concerned about the baby that's coming that they forget to care for themselves, which is also very important. Male partners are often so excited at the start of contractions, thinking very soon a baby will arrive that they neglect their own needs. "It (childbirth) is a marathon, not a sprint. . . my job is taking care of both the woman and her partner, making them some toast or bringing them a drink to keep them going. Or if they look tired, I'll tell them to take a nap until the baby is ready."

    Professor Dahlen suggests that birthing centres and home births are more favoured by midwives because it enables the physiology of the labour and birth to work most smoothly. "A good midwife aims for the shower or the bath, not the bed. More foetal distress is caused by laying down during labour, as the baby presses against the main artery behind the uterus. Women also need more pain relief if they stay on the bed."

    Once the baby is born, a midwife continues to follow up the progress of the family. Taking home a baby brings new challenges to the physiology and psychology of the new parents and their child. She suggests that new parents should accept the help of relatives, and shouldn't feel obliged to save them trouble. Making dinner, housecleaning, washing, shopping -- it all helps, as the early days of an infant's life is best spent with his/her mother holding them. It's said it's important for family to bond.

    On a final note, Professor Dahlen commented on the video of men experiencing a  Labour pain simulator. "It's interesting how they get on their knees," she said. "They aren't laying on the bed to deal with the pain, but on their knees or squatting, as women do to give birth. It's like an evolutionary thing hard wired into all of us. It's almost natural to move into these positions when in pain."


Sandy Chugg: Many men attending  their child's birth has allowed for them to not only to be able to support & share this amazing experience with their partner. But also to have a bond with their baby right from birth. 

The value of education for both expectant parents of the journey they are on increases the awareness and closeness of their shared experience.

For men to be able to have support & understanding of the value of their role. Men are now feeling they are more able to talk about what they are going through from their perspective.

 It is also important for new parents to be encouraged to accept help when it is offered from family & friends because this allows the parents to share more time together with their baby, building the family unit.

In asking men who had seem the simulator video, various comments were made. One man aged 55 said that it should be "no big deal as women were "built for child birth". Another comment made from a man 60 was if it was up to him to have the baby, he and his wife would be childless because he wouldn't be able to go through it. This shows how different perception and views can be.