It is a long time since I had my boys, but I still remember the feelings of excitement and trepidation as my labour approached. I remember clearly how much I needed my husband, Phil to be my rock, and how his taking control allowed me the space to get on with the critical task of giving birth to our boys.
I had one back-breaking labour and one relatively easy one. At the time, I didn't understand why they were so different, but I've learnt a lot since then, and now it seems clear that the part that Phil played had a huge effect on the outcome. I hope you don’t mind, but I wanted to let you know how important your contribution will be to your partner’s labour.
I was in the maternity unit, on my own when I gave birth to our first son. My waters had broken that morning, and we'd rushed into hospital, excited at the prospect of meeting our son, Jack. But my contractions didn't start, and so twelve hours later I sent Phil home. He didn't want to go, but I made him—I thought it was sensible for him to get a good night's sleep. I was alone when my contractions finally started. It was the middle of the night, and the ward was full of sleeping mothers and their babies. I was scared and vulnerable, yet I felt I had to keep quiet so as not to disturb the others on the ward. That was a hard, long labour that ended in medical intervention.
My second labour was a very different matter. We were older and wiser by then. We didn't rush to the hospital the moment my contractions began. I made myself a little nest and stayed there. Phil went around his normal business but quietly watched over me, ensuring I was safe. He followed the stages of my labour, and when he felt it was time to go to the hospital, he got me into the car, and we calmly set off. I made no decisions, and I spoke to no one—I simply focused on my job. By the time we’d arrived at the hospital the baby’s head had already crowned—Ned was almost born right there in the car, and it was all such a wildly positive experience. So different to the first time.
A couple of years ago, I attended a fascinating lecture given by a 90-year old French obstetrician called Michel Odent. Wikipedia describes him as the childbirth specialist who initiated home-like birthing rooms and water-births into hospitals. He had a full career as an obstetrician and researcher, and is the author of fifteen books on the subject. The topic of the lecture was The Basic Needs of Labouring Women—it was the kind of talk that makes you sit up on the edge of your seat.
‘Our brain is three times bigger than other mammals,’ he began. ‘Our neocortex is gigantic, and it has become the master of our primitive brain rather than its servant. Labour is a primary physiological function, and to give birth easily, the neocortex of the mother must stop working.’
Michel was describing a phenomenon known as neocortical inhibition. The neocortex is the largest and newest part of our brain. It allows us to write and to speak, to have social interactions and philosophical thoughts. It serves the primitive brain, which deals with breathing, temperature and other basic functions of survival. In modern times our neocortex has taken the lead, and this is why a newborn baby can swim, yet loses this ability within the first few months of life. It is why we need to close the door when we poo, have sex or go through labour.
Michel explained that the neocortex must stop working to give birth with ease: ‘The woman must forget what she has learnt, and what is acceptable for the civilised human. She must not feel observed or need to talk or listen. She should be allowed to find her postures and positions. She must feel safe and cared for so that she can get on with the job in hand. She must feel protected from all possible danger. Protection is vital. A labouring woman must feel protected from all stimulants of the neocortex.’
The feeling of being observed, language and light are the main stimulants of the neocortex. You know how difficult it is to take a pee if you think that someone is watching you. For your partner, the neocortex will jump into action as soon as the doctor announces himself in the room. Midwives changing shifts, phone calls from well-meaning family members, discussions about how the labour is progressing—these will all dampen her ability to stay focused on giving birth.
It may also help you to understand the effect of light on labour. Melatonin is a hormone that is generally known for keeping your body clock on a 24-hour cycle. This cycle is the circadian rhythm that ensures you sleep at night and wake up in the morning. Melatonin is secreted by the pineal gland in the brain. In pregnant women, the ovaries and placenta also make this hormone and use it throughout pregnancy and delivery. Melatonin levels rise as pregnancy progresses, and it exists in the blood of all babies, except that of the pre-labour caesarean section baby. Darkness is essential for melatonin secretion, which may be why most labours start at night or early in the morning. I tell you this so that you can use the darkness to your advantage. Bright lights, computer screens, and open curtains will all decrease the secretion of melatonin and may slow down the birthing process.
Both our sons were born safely, thanks to the NHS. This information isn’t meant to negate the important role of doctors and midwives in ensuring your baby is born safely; neither is it meant to make you or your wife feel responsible for the ease of her labour. There are so many factors that affect a labour and I know I am simplifying things. My sole aim is to remind you of your importance in this process. When Phil was there to support and protect me everything seemed so much easier. I could breathe and I could cope. If I could give any baby gift to new parents, it would be to help you understand the power of your quiet, gentle support.