Burning Questions 4: What Can I Do to Help During Labor?

Hey Emily, I have a question for you! My friend is having a baby soon and has asked me to be there when she gives birth. I have only witnessed one other birth (years ago) and I wondered if there was any thing you could suggest that I do to make my friend more comfortable during her delivery? Any tips are appreciated.
— Anonymous

Oh certainly! That's so exciting that your friend wants you to be there for her birth! And good for you for thinking ahead about ways to support her.

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I actually have a few suggestions of things you can do to offer comfort and support during labor, and some of these should take place before her contractions ever start.

The first thing you can do to support your friend is to find out what her plans are for her birth and what SHE wants from you when you are there! Is she planning on birthing without pain medication? In a hospital, or at home? Does she have a partner who will be present, other friends or family members, or even a doula? Just talk with your friend to get an idea of how she is envisioning you being part of her birth team.

If she just wants you to be there to see the baby being born, then you should be sure to be unobtrusive, calm, and mindful of any medical personnel or support people. Things can happen fast, with a huge flurry of activity! Try not to stand between the birthing mama and her midwife or doctor. :)

If she wants you to be there for anything other than just being present for the baby's birth, you can work with other members of her birth team to provide her with comfort during labor.

During the labor, you can try things like rubbing her lower back if she likes that, holding her hand if she wants to squeeze it during contractions or procedures, talking to her in encouraging and low tones, and reminding her frequently that she's doing such a good job, she's so beautiful, and you are so proud of her! If she is laboring with an epidural and wants company during labor, you might find that it's easy to just talk with her as you normally would, but she might still appreciate a foot or shoulder rub.

If you have given birth yourself, seen other births, or even just know other birth stories, it can be tempting to compare the labor she's having with the other stories you know. But try really hard not to do this. Every birth is different, and takes the time it takes. Be patient, be encouraging, and stay positive as best you can!

During the pushing and the birth, I often set up an emesis basin (the nurse can help you find one) or baggie with a little water and ice. Put two washcloths or a few folded-up, sturdy paper towels in the icy water. You can wring one out and put it on her forehead, neck, or cheek while she's pushing and keep switching out for a cool one. (If her partner is there and actively involved, it might be better to hand these to the partner!) 

If she is in the hospital, the nurses and doctor will probably be coaching and counting. If that seems helpful for her, you can try joining in with them. Or  you can again talk to her in lower tones, helping her have confidence in what she's doing.

The most crucial piece of advice I have for you, though, is to keep in mind that this is not about you. Things can change a lot in labor, and it may turn out that it's just not working for her to have extra people in the room. Be flexible, be open, and be accepting if you are asked to leave for some or all of the labor and birth. If you do get to stay, do your best to reflect confidence, love, and support. If you are feeling afraid, anxious, or doubtful, that energy can rub off on your friend. If you need to leave for a bit to get back to a more supportive space, it's ok to do so!

The moment a baby is born is a total rush, and it's normal to feel a lot of emotions come up. Try to be as calm and loving as possible in these moments right after the birth. In the first few hours especially, the birthing mama should be the one holding her baby - ideally skin-to-skin. If she is unable to do so for any reason or needs someone else to hold baby for a while, her partner (if present) is the next person who should be holding baby. There's plenty of time for you to hold the new baby later. Support her efforts towards bonding and getting started on a good breastfeeding relationship by letting her have all those early baby snuggles.

Finally, for anyone who is invited to a friend or family member's birth, you might consider attending a doula training. In my own training, there were several participants who had no intention of practicing as professional doulas, but wanted to know as much as they could to be there for the few friends and family member births they had been invited to. If you are in Tulsa, my training organization, toLabor, will be here for a doula training September 11-13. More details are available through toLabor's website; you have time to think about it, but I encourage you to take advantage of the Early Bird discount if you know you want to attend!

Good luck at your friend's birth! And enjoy!

xo, Emily


As always, I'm soliciting burning questions to feature on the blog. If you have a question you've been dying to ask about pregnancy, birth, breastfeeding, or the body, please be in touch! Leave a comment below, or send me a message.