You may feel more at ease if your partner is there during the first phase of labor, but if you show up too early, they'll just send you home. And home is a much more comfortable place to be. She can eat and drink, walk around freely without being hooked up to an IV or monitor—even grab a nap in her own bed. (And so can you!)
Pay attention during your childbirth education classes. Learn about the phases of labor, what's happening to your partner's body, and the reasons for a C-section. Knowing what to expect will make the experience less terrifying for you. Your staying calm and focused will help your partner
Your partner will have several hours of increasingly painful contractions until it's time to push. Depending on whether she gets an epidural, she may need your help walking the halls, as it often feels better to keep moving. (In addition to the casual clothes you've already planned for the big event, don't forget to wear really comfortable shoes.) Bring along distractions, such as a deck of cards, an iPod, or whatever you think might take her mind off her increasing discomfort.
There is a lot of action in the delivery room! If something is going on that you don't understand, don't be afraid to ask the nurse questions. Also, don't worry if you're asked to step out of the room. If your partner gets an epidural, you'll be asked to briefly leave her side. This doesn't mean anything is wrong; it's just standard procedure in many hospitals.
Your partner can't see the contraction monitor, but you can. This means you can talk her through the contractions, describing when they're about to peak and start subsiding. Narrating what's going on—when one's starting, when it's ending—may give her a sense of control.
All of the breathing exercises and massage techniques you learned in childbirth education class may go out the window once your partner is in the throes of labor. Some women don't like to be touched, others appreciate a back rub or deep massage of pressure points. Your partner might find the breathing and relaxation techniques helpful... or she might become downright hostile if you don't stop the counting immediately.
The reality: If your partner pushes while lying on her back, you will most likely stand on one side of your partner, the doctor on the other. Supporting her under the shoulders, you will each bend back one of her legs to get her in the right position for pushing.
Don't wait until your partner is in the throes of gut-wrenching contractions to find out what kind of assistance she'd like from you. Discuss her birth plan in advance—find out how she feels about episiotomies and what her expectations of the doctor are. The realities of labor may cause her to change her mind. On the other hand, the doctor or nurse may try to pressure her to agree to an intervention she doesn't want and may not need. She may not be in a position to communicate. You know her better than anyone else in the room. Your job is to say, "She'd really like to push a little longer," or "She's at the end of her rope. She wants a C-section."
Labor may be exciting, but it can also be tedious. In fact, you may spend hours doing nothing more than waiting. Take your wife's mind off her discomfort by keeping her busy. "If your partner has an epidural, there may be less need for physical support during the beginning stages of labor," says Sarah Kilpatrick, M.D., Ph.D., a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Illinois, in Chicago. "Instead, you should be ready to keep her occupied with music, conversation, and card games."
"A woman can become panicky during labor," says Cathleen Maiolatesi, a nurse at Johns Hopkins Hospital, in Baltimore. "And the best person to get her back on track with her breathing is her partner. After all, you know her better than anyone else." As the contractions grow more intense, reassure her that she's doing a great job and that you love her. You can also help your partner by feeding her ice chips or wiping the sweat off her brow. And though some women don't like to be touched during labor, others appreciate a neck or back rub.
"When my wife saw the photos of our son's birth, she discovered things she had either forgotten or been too emotional to remember," says Gulu Gambhir, of Annandale, Virginia. If you're videotaping the birth, some angles are better than others. In other words, don't point the camera right at your partner's crotch, unless you never plan to show this movie to anyone else. Instead, shoot over your partner's (or the doctor's) shoulder. (Be sure to check ahead of time with your doctor or midwife about recording the birth; some don't allow it.)
Giving birth gets gory. Your partner may even have a bowl movement as she's pushing. She'll probably make primal noises you've never heard before. Your job, no matter how unsettled you may feel, is to say this: "You're doing great!" Actually, she's not even paying attention to your words. It's your familiar voice and reassuring tone that she's tuning in. One other thing you may find a little unsettling: After the baby is delivered, the placenta pops out. It looks like a huge piece of liver.
"Do not complain or act bored (no yawning)," Says Carole Arsenault, RN, IBCLC, and author of The Baby Nurse Bible. "I've heard many dads complain about a sore back because they've been standing next to their wives for so long." Don't complain about a headache or any other minor pains. "The labor experience is completely focused around the mother," says Arsenault. "A laboring woman may want to squeeze her partner's hand during a contraction." She encourages dads to tough it out: a contraction typically lasts about 60 seconds.
The first sight of your very own baby makes all the other stuff worth it.
Your wife's resting, the baby's in the nursery, and you've contacted the relatives. Think it's time for a nap? Not yet. "Mom has been through a lot both physically and emotionally," says Claire Lerner, L.C.S.W., a child-development specialist with the nonprofit group Zero To Three, in Washington, D.C. "It's a good time to show her how much you love her." Bring flowers, splurge on chocolates, or write her a love note. Whatever you do, find a special way to mark the occasion. "My husband showed up with roses and a Scrabble game—something we had played endlessly while we were dating," says Aimee Ellis, of Agawam, Massachusetts. "I was so touched that I couldn't stop crying."