Help me to be a great birth support person!
June 21, 2010 8:35 AM   Subscribe

My sister has asked me to be with her when she gives birth to her first baby this August - yay! I want to be as helpful as I can be, so I'm looking for advice and resources.

This is her first baby, and I don't have kids either, so it's a first for both of us. Her husband will be with her, and they will have done some sort of birthing class beforehand. I've made it clear to her that I'm there for whatever she needs (including running back to their place to feed the dog, bringing her husband food, etc.), and I recognize that it may come down to her not even wanting me there in the end - this isn't about me being overbearing or elbowing her husband out of the way!

But in the event that I am actually there through the whole process, I'd like to be able to help a bit with coaching, as well as helping to advocate for her when she's obviously busy with other stuff (i.e. pushing out a baby). They really want as natural a birth as possible (given that they'll be in a hospital), and I know that those kinds of wishes are often kind of stomped on by the medical profession, so I'd like to be able to help with that, as well as anything else to make things slightly easier for her.

For any of you who have had babies or been with people while they were having a baby, what advice would you give? Additionally, are there any great books or other resources that would make me a better support person for my big sis?
posted by sabotagerabbit to Health & Fitness (23 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Remain calm and don't editorialize.

My sister was there during the birth of my daughter (my husband was there too). I was so out of it for numerous reasons. I can't imagine how I would have felt if my sister was making comments about the whole experience.

I can't speak to coaching. But I can tell you to stand back; the medical team is there for a reason and if something needs attending to, they need to abililty to reach mom and baby quickly.

Just go with the flow and you'll be great. A friendly, comforting, familiar face goes a long way when you're facing labor and delivery. And pictures/updates of the baby, if sister isn't able to see the baby right away, are wonderful too.
posted by FergieBelle at 8:45 AM on June 21, 2010

One more thing: offer to get sister anything she wants after she gives birth. I wanted a Chipotle burrito, which my sister promptly got me. It was heaven!
posted by FergieBelle at 8:45 AM on June 21, 2010

"They really want as natural a birth as possible (given that they'll be in a hospital), and I know that those kinds of wishes are often kind of stomped on by the medical profession"

Depending on the hospital and doctor she's chosen, this shouldn't be the case. While I ended up requiring a C-section due to the baby being undeliverably upsidedown, we had worked with our (very normal, non-hippie) hospital and our (very normal, non-hippie) ob-gyn to discuss what we wanted and what was allowed, and had no worries about being "forced" into overly medical interventions we did not want. We were very clear on the boundaries they had for safety and insurance reasons, and comfortable we could work within those boundaries to do what WE wanted. (Also being clear on WHY they did certain things we could be like, "Oh, that makes sense ..." when something just seemed "unfriendly" to us and sometimes we decided we actually liked that better once we knew the reasoning.) Find out if your sister has had these discussions with her doctor and hospital, and if not, encourage her to do so. Or tell her you'll do so, at least for the hospital! (We questioned closely about hospital rules for delivery while touring the labor/maternity unit. "What if we wanted to do X, Y, and Z?" "We can do X and Y, but for Z you'll need to bring your yoga ball from home, and we do require intermittent fetal heartrate monitoring during X, which we can do via sonogram.")
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:51 AM on June 21, 2010

Do you know any nurses? I'd try to sit down with a nurse or someone else who has seen multiple deliveries (even if only as a nursing/medical student) and can walk you through normal aspects of a birth that might seem unsettling or disturbing to you. That way, you can be a good source of support for your sister and not spend the whole time asking the medical staff, "Is that normal?" or worrying that something is terribly wrong.

A friend of mine was recently telling me about a few things she's seen at every birth she attended as a nursing student--these included a dramatic and sudden switch from the mom wanting her partner to be rub her shoulders or hold her hand to do not touch me! and a moment when the mom says something like, "I can't do this!" which means the baby is about to be born. My friend says these things happened at every single birth she attended, and that her instructors warned her and her classmates ahead of time that they would.
posted by Meg_Murry at 9:06 AM on June 21, 2010

If she wants photos taken, offer to do that so you can let her husband enjoy the moment and not feel pressure to get all those first pictures.

Go over her birth plan with her prior to labor, so you can be something of an advocate for her if need be.

You may want to read up on the type of support that doulas provide and take some tips from that.
posted by chiababe at 9:19 AM on June 21, 2010

It sounds like you're already approaching this from a great angle. You're there to be whatever support your sister needs. I'd concentrate on the logistical stuff (keeping track of her stuff, helping pack bags, timing contractions (if needed), fetching supplies, whatever seems useful.

It would also be great if you were in charge of documenting the experience. Photographs and a written log of everything that happens will be an invaluable record for the parents. The best just-born pictures I've seen of babies and parents have been taken by someone other than the mom or dad since their so overwhelmed by everything else. I made it a point to keep a journal of every step of the labor and delivery in a notebook and now, 2 years later, I've totally forgotten everything but can go back and read the experience to remind myself. The log has proved very useful to me in recalling the experience for other moms-to-be.

And as Eyebrows McGee says, please don't go into this with an adversarial attitude towards the medical staff. I would say that in the vast majority of cases, they are doing everything they can to keep both mom and baby safe and healthy and having you questioning and opposing everything they suggest will not be useful.

You might read up on what Doulas do and their roles in birth since that's essentially what you'll be doing.
posted by otherwordlyglow at 9:20 AM on June 21, 2010

My experience with both of my kids was that, no matter what you prepare for, just be ready to do what you are told, when they tell you.

For instance, when our daughter was born, the plan was for me to be the breathing coach, holding my wife's hand and being there for you. Unfortunately, our daughter decided to come just as the nursing shift was changing, leaving the maternity floor a bit understaffed. job was changed from "being there for my wife" to "assisting the doctor with the delivery". I was assigned to brace my wife's right leg so that she could better push. As such, I got the bird's eye view to the birth of our daughter. Not what I had expected that day.

Since your friend's husband will be there, I suspect you will be assigned to being the ice-chip fetcher or something. But, stay flexible and be ready for anything.
posted by Thorzdad at 9:20 AM on June 21, 2010

I was with my sister when she had her first, and I don't have kids either. I ended up feeling like I wasn't doing anything most of the time, or that I wanted to help but there was nothing I could do. But I wouldn't have missed it for the world - and I think me being there helped to comfort her. Be sure to listen to her - if she wants everyone out of the room, get out; if she doesn't want anything to drink, don't ask a second time just to make sure.

I'd also like to mention that even if you don't usually get squeamish around blood etc., you may still feel lightheaded. I'm usually totally fine, but had to sit for a moment at the end to make sure I didn't pass out. The doctor may ask you to hold up a leg.

Both my sister and my SO's sister were (mildly) concerned about how they looked after the birth, when everyone was visiting and taking pictures. If you think your sister would be concerned about this too, I'd bring some makeup basics, a hairbrush, and a pocket mirror so she could freshen up before having her photo taken a few dozen times.
posted by youngergirl44 at 9:22 AM on June 21, 2010

This is all such great advice - thank you. I know that my sister does want me to take pictures, so I'll definitely be on that duty, and I love the idea of logging what's happening, as well.

I'm definitely not going to be adversarial towards the medical staff. I just know, from the experiences of a lot of folks I know, that there is a bit of a tendency sometimes to push towards doing whatever is easiest, rather than what the parents want (within reason, obviously, based on safety), and I just want to make sure that I can help my sister to stick to her birth plan as much as possible.

Keep it coming if you have more advice!
posted by sabotagerabbit at 9:29 AM on June 21, 2010

I did this when my sister had her first, and it was the most incredible experiences of my life. (I don't have kids.) I read a book called "The Birth Partner", which was a big help as to what to expect. As for the whole experience, I pretty much stayed out of the way of my sister and her husband, did the sorts of tiny errands I could do in order to enable her husband to stay with her, and acted as interference for prematurely-visiting family (= a few visits to the waiting room to give them updates). When it was finally time to push, I braced one leg and my brother-in-law braced the other, while we helped her "scoop" her back. And suddenly an entirely new person came into the room! Incredible. Spontaneous crying all around.

We never even considered filming or taking photos of the birth, though we took pictures after the baby was born.

Frankly, there was a lot of grossness, and I had been worried all of the gore would freak me out or nauseate me, but it really didn't. (I did choose to not watch the placenta being born...)
Be prepared, though, there's a lot of... viscera. We made jokes about it afterward.
posted by chowflap at 9:33 AM on June 21, 2010

... Also, we were lucky in that the nurses and doctors were all fine with me being there. Your sister should mention it to her doc in advance; some hospitals can be jerks about having an "extra" person.
posted by chowflap at 9:35 AM on June 21, 2010

This is a really useful book for you to read: The Birth Partner. it will be helpful for you to understand what is going on through the stages of the birth process, even if you're not the one providing immediate support, and to know what's coming up if the direction of the birth suddenly needs to change (obviously not literally!)

Also you may want to coordinate with your sister and her husband re who brings what, if anything. She may want to pack her own birth kit, but two bags with music and no bag with a DVD player is less useful than it might be. If she has a birth plan, that's a good place to start.

The labouring woman's job is to stay focused on the plan. Your job is to be ready for the plan to change, and have other coping, support and comforting measures ready to go.
posted by DarlingBri at 9:35 AM on June 21, 2010

Verify with your sister exactly how much of the actual birth she wants photographed/recorded. And be prepared for her to change her mind about how much of her body she wants in the pics.

Also ask about pics of the baby if , god forbid, there is anything out of the ordinary. My daughter spent her first week hooked up to wires and tubes, and for some reason, it seemed like a huge invasion of privacy that my father-in-law took pictures of her in the NICU.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 9:58 AM on June 21, 2010

The single most important thing I was told in my birthing classes, over and over again, was "There is no normal in childbirth. There are a wide, wide range of things that are OK." We heard that so many times it became a mantra, and when I got the shakes going into transition and my mother asked my husband in low tones if this was normal, he just replied without even thinking, "No normal in childbirth. This is OK."
posted by KathrynT at 10:04 AM on June 21, 2010

You might find it helpful to read an account of a doula's experience attending a birth. This birth was a little different since she labored in a tub at a birth center, but I think it might be helpful to you, since she talks about what she was actually doing, and how she kept questioning if she was actually helpful or not (and she was!).
posted by Joh at 10:17 AM on June 21, 2010

The usefulness of this will vary depending on the attitude of the hospital staff, but she may want to prepare a birth plan. I had a natural hospital birth, and the midwives recommended I write a birth plan several weeks before my due date. I gave it to them at a prenatal appointment, it went in my file, and when I showed up at the hospital in labor, the nurse and attending midwife on the floor had already read it and knew what my intentions were.

If the staff do get pushy, you will be a great person to advocate for your sister, since she and her husband will be more emotionally involved in what's going on, whereas you can act as sort of a calm intermediary between them and the staff.

As far as what you can do personally, definitely be knowledgeable about the birth process, methods of natural pain relief, and common interventions. Ina May's Guide to Childbirth is very useful for this. Other than a nurse and midwife, my husband was the only person in the birthing room with me, and he helped simply by being present, saying encouraging and sweet things, and holding my leg up while I was pushing my son out. You can also help by making sure she brings everything she needs to the hospital (snacks, comfy pj's, maybe an ipod or book, sock with tennis balls for applying counterpressure to her back, etc). If she does end up needing interventions, let her know it's ok to be disappointed and remind her that in the end, her brand new healthy baby is all that matters.
posted by tetralix at 11:24 AM on June 21, 2010

So, like I said above, I had a planned C-section due to bad positioning, but a lot of my friends have said the earlier stages of labor took a long time and were BORING. You might want to bring a deck of cards (or UNO), or maybe Connect Four or some other game you guys used to play all the time as kids ... but something portable, entertaining, but not requiring a ton of concentration and where the games are reasonably short. That could be a real boon in earlier labor. If she doesn't need entertaining, it stays in your bag, no big deal, but if she starts to get bored or fretful or anxious that it's taking FOREVER, you can always offer to play cards.

Also, during the recovery, I had carefully planned ahead for the four days I'd spend in the hospital by "saving up" some entertaining but mindless books that would keep me engaged but it wouldn't matter if I stopped mid-chapter. What I didn't anticipate was that with the post-surgery painkillers I could not actually focus my eyes! So frustrating! And I was too tired/baby-distracted/out-of-it to ever remember to ask someone for different reading material when there was someone there to get it for me. I would have killed for a People Magazine or three, or a DVD ... since it turns out there's nothing on even on cable (who know? I don't have cable so I assumed there'd be something to watch), especially during 3 a.m. nursings when I really needed the TV to entertain me for half an hour. Maybe a whole season of her favorite sitcom? If there are DVD players at the hospital, of course. And if she doesn't watch it at the hospital, there's definitely a lot of "sitting still while the baby eats" when you first get home ... I went through so many boxed TV shows and Hulu marathons ...

Anyway, this is all a long way of saying what I would have killed for (even during the surgical prep delay, when there was NOTHING AT ALL on TV and I was soooooo anxious!) was someone dedicated to finding me entertainment, and I wanted all that entertainment to be a) entertaining and engaging; b) have short duration (short games, short articles, short chapters); c) be happy (no true crime stories); and d) not be so engaging I "couldn't put it down" ... slightly mindless was better.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:18 PM on June 21, 2010

If you like podcasts, there is a great pregnancy podcast called 'Pregtastic' that has covered every pregnancy and delivery topic under the sun. Most of the episodes won't be relevant to you but there are a lot of birth stories as well that can give you a good overview what happens in deliveries and how different personalities react.
posted by bq at 12:42 PM on June 21, 2010

20 - 25% of births end up being unplanned surgical deliveries (C-section). Plan for this, just in case. Find out if you can be in the OR or outside w/ a window to take pictures. In fact, let the Dad be with the Mom for the delivery, and take pictures, staying more in the background. I specifically asked that my photographer husband not be allowed to touch a camera, and a dear friend took pictures, through the OR window, that are treasured. The hospital food was wretched, and when someone brought me a nice fresh fruit salad, it was really welcome. Photograph the doc and some nurses, too; it's nice to remember them later.

Bring food to the nursing station; they'll love you for it.
posted by theora55 at 12:45 PM on June 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

You guys are awesome. Thank you so much for the fantastic advice - it's really, really helpful :)
posted by sabotagerabbit at 1:14 PM on June 21, 2010

Since they want a natural birth, feel free to ignore this, but...

Be ready to grab a nurse if your sister decides she wants an epidural after all. The nurse can call the anesthesiologist. Hey, it happens.
posted by Knowyournuts at 2:36 PM on June 21, 2010

Some things I found very helpful when I was in labor:

My husband did my Googling for me. He had his laptop with him, and when something came up that I hadn't researched beforehand, he did the research right there. For example, my midwife suggested starting Pitocin when my labor wasn't progressing and it had been about 10 hours since my water broke. I wasn't sure I needed it, and my midwife was not good at answering my questions. My husband looked up some information on the risks of infection after the rupture of the membranes, and helped me come to the conclusion that starting Pitocin would be a good thing.

Massages. For the first 20 hours of my labor, I had no pain relief. I called on my husband to massage and apply pressure to my lower back for what seemed like hours. Be there to take over when her husband's hands get tired and she needs someone to help relieve her pain.

Entertainment. As I said, my husband brought his laptop along. I was in labor for 28 hours, and being able to watch The Mighty Boosh was a wonderful distraction.

Rule Enforcement. Find out what your sister's rules are, and be The Enforcer. If she doesn't want photos or video taken, confiscate cameras. If she wants pictures, take them for her. If she doesn't want visitors, stand guard by the door and let people know they can visit the baby when she's home from the hospital. She's going to be tired, out of it, and in pain, so it's the job of the labor partners to make sure that she gets what she wants and needs.

Good luck!
posted by lexicakes at 8:55 PM on June 21, 2010

Work out how she deals with pain. I go very deep into myself and am almost unable to even 'see' the outside world. Nothing would drive me crazy more than rubbing or stroking or anything like that and luckily, the other anachronism knows that so he applied pressure to my shoulders/head and held my hands. That's all I wanted/needed from him (and a little bit of intervention with the idiot nurse who couldn't turn the gas on properly).

The makeup thing is kinda nice (the first photo of my daughter and I makes me look like a teenager because pregnancy was unkind to my skin). Work out how to use their camera well, not just enough to take a photo.
posted by geek anachronism at 3:55 AM on June 22, 2010

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