The presence of fathers at the birth is not widespread in developing countries, but it is spreading for the same reason that it spread in developed countries: the need for women giving birth in medical facilities to retain familial support. The World Health Organisation has declared that all women should be able to have a birth partners. Many of these partners will be prospective fathers and so the question of how to engage with them is relevant globally.
Whilst maternal health services see “women and their partners”, this is not how many of these people see themselves. Prospective fathers tend rather to see themselves as part of a couple going through childbirth; they see themselves also as a parent of the baby. Mary Steen (a co-founder of Family Included) wrote in 2012 that fathers often do not feel seen or recognised in the healthcare system – they are neither a patient, nor are they a visitor. This is an important health consideration since, if the woman has invited the prospective father to be present, he needs knowledge to be a good support to the woman during pregnancy and childbirth.
Sometimes more than information is needed. The experience of being present can overwhelm some men. Sometimes the man needs support in order to be able to provide the support the woman wants and needs.
Understanding fathers, therefore, is becoming an increasingly widespread requirement in maternal healthcare.
Midwife Anna Ledenfors and Professor Carina Berterö interviewed 12 Swedish fathers about their experience of normal childbirth. Fathers expressed a number of feelings.
Fear and powerlessness. Some feel there is nothing they can do to help their partner and feel inadequate. Typically they will hide these feelings in order not to distress their partner.
Wanting to be part of the team. The fathers see their role as supporting their partner. They want and need to know what they should do and the midwives who are present can help him with advice throughout the process. A good relationship between midwife and fathers helps the woman giving birth.
Being overwhelmed at meeting the baby for the first time. “The fathers expressed that the first encounter with their child awoke much stronger feelings than they ever could have imagined.” Our recent post showing photos of fathers just after the birth tell this story better than words can. Some fathers feel like falling in love and have a jittery feeling inside. (These are the effects of oxytocin, the “love” hormone triggered in men when they are close to women in labour and to babies, preparing them for a caring role.) Other fathers express shock at what a newborn baby can look like.
The key for maternal health services is to ensure that, whenever a woman chooses the prospective father of the baby to be a birth partner, he is well-informed, well supported and engaged actively as part of the team caring for the mother. This minimises his feelings of fear and helplnessness and maximises the feelings of being able to help actively, even only in what feel like limited ways. This results in better care for the mother and for the baby.
Ledenfors A & Berterö C (2016), First-time fathers’ experiences of normal childbirth, Midwifery 40
Photo: Michael Foley. Creative Commons.