Are dads a help or a hindrance in the labour ward

Jamie Bolger was happy to be at the birth of his twins James and Niamh, seen here six months down the road.

ARE men “entirely bloody irrelevant” during the birth of their children? Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary certainly thinks so.

The outspoken chief executive recently questioned the trend for men to attend the birth of their children in delivery wards.

He also declared that the idea of dads bonding with their babies was “rubbish.”

Men tended, said O’Leary, to bond with their children when they were walking, talking and following football.

Yet attending the birth of their children has become a rite of passage for modern men — gone are the days when dads anxiously stalked the hospital corridors while mums and medical staff went about the business of delivering baby.

Sculptor Maurice Gaynor’s decision to overcome his aversion to hospitals and attend the birth of his daughters is one he’s never regretted.

“I’m not mad about hospitals, I associate them with sickness,” he explains.

Witnessing the arrival of three-year-old May and eight-month-old Susie was hugely rewarding.

“It was a very special experience and I was really glad I was there. It was great in the end.”

The 39-year-old had always intended to be at the births, but initially, because of his dislike of hospitals, was only there because he felt he should be at wife Anne-Marie’s side.

But that all changed during May’s birth: “When the baby is presented after the birth, it’s a one-off experience, and as a father you should really be there. You shouldn’t expect your wife to go in on her own,” says the Clonakilty man.

As the presence of fathers in the labour ward becomes the norm — and with more than 72,000 births a year in this country, it’s now a very regular occurrence — are men then more, as Michael O’Leary seems to think, of a hindrance than a help?

Not according to an established study carried out in 1997 — it found that expectant fathers play an important role in supporting their pregnant partners.

Research in 2003 backed up the findings — it showed that when it is impossible for the midwife to give continuous support, dad often becomes the only person to support the labouring woman.

Sure, there are stories of dads fainting while the wife is in the throes of labour, and cases such as that of John McAuley who sued after being asked to stop filming in the labour ward — the case was later dismissed. But it seems a dad’s place in the labour ward is now established.

Early on there was some wariness about the presence of fathers in the labour ward, recalls Dr Mary McCaffrey consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist at Kerry General Hospital.

The trend for dads to be present at the birth of their babies was starting to take hold in Ireland back in the early 1990s when McCaffrey returned from Britain.

At the time, she recalls, some staff were concerned that fathers would “get in the way”, or would be “watching” them — but things have changed as the practice steadily became the norm.

“We now routinely ask people who they’d like to be their birth companion,” she says, adding that she’s also seen cases of single-sex couples where the birth companion is female.

Over 14 years of delivering babies in the presence of their fathers she’s never had a problem. “It’s about developing a professional relationship with people and the couple understanding who’s in charge.

“People will ask questions and as long as we explain what’s going on, it’s fine.

“Men have a hugely supportive role in the labour ward — in talking to their wives or partners or being an advocate for them,” she says.

“I think most men see themselves as purely in a supportive role — most will have been to ante-natal classes and are therefore reasonably well-informed.”

Louise Kenny, professor of obstetrics at UCC and consultant obstetrician at CUMH has worked in Ireland since 2006. Although she’s seen some labour ward dads faint in her time — usually from a combination of fatigue, hunger and anxiety — she’s never had a problem with their presence.

However watching a birth isn’t always a comfortable experience for some fathers.

“It is difficult for some dads to watch because the person they love most in the world is in pain.

“I’ve met dads who haven’t wanted to be there and the wife or partner might have a sister or mother with her instead,” she says, adding that such dads always remain very close by.

Businessman Jamie Bolger, 38, attended the birth of his six-month-old twins last April. Both deliveries were complicated — his son James was born by suction cup and daughter Niamh was a breech birth. “I was very glad I was there,” he says.

His wife Myrna, who has a teenage son Darragh, needed support during the births says Bolger.

“There was a lot going on. I stayed at the top of the bed — away from the business end of things — talking to her. We had two or three midwives because of the twins and I never felt panicked, even though the delivery was complicated.

“The man should be there in the background to support the mother — also it’s a chance to see your child enter the world.”

Bolger knows of friends who fainted during a birth, but other than that, he’s never heard of any drama.

There is, acknowledges McCaffrey, a “cohort of men who feel a bit pressurised to attend a birth.

“I think we have to be sensitive that there are men who may find a difficulty delivery traumatic — for example if a baby needs to be resuscitated — and it’s important for someone to sit them down afterwards and explain what happened.

“Maybe we as healthcare professionals should be reflecting on whether there should always be a presumption that the partner will attend.

“There are more men who feel they should come than actively want to come and there are women there who want them there regardless.”

When that’s the situation, she says, staff will position the men where they can be with their partner and support her — but at a slight remove from the clinical scene — at the head of the bed.”

Labour ward dads have become the norm, says David Caren of Dads.ie and author of The Irish Dad’s Survival Guide to Pregnancy and Beyond, but, he believes, most fathers are acutely aware that they’re there in a supportive role only.

“I’ve three children aged seven, six and four and I was present at all the births. I never felt like fainting, though at times you’d feel uncomfortable.

Dads in the labour ward have a distinct responsibility he says: “You’re there as the birth partner. You have a duty. You’re not just the man standing in the corner with his hands over his face.

“I personally put my faith in the doctor or midwife and do nothing to get in their way. I might ask questions like is everything going ok.”

He doesn’t feel men are pressurised to attend.

“I always say the decision lies with the expectant mother and if she feels more relaxed with her sister or mother or even a doula there, that’s fine.”

A midwife with a thriving private practice in Cork, Clare Boyle strongly encourages dads to attend ante-natal classes so that they understand how labour works.

Again the research bears out her stance. A 2000 study found that if men know in advance it’s normal for women to feel more pain during some parts of labour it reduces their levels of anxiety and frustration.

However, Boyle recalls one delivery where a father started trying to lay down the law: “The mother-to-be found it very stressful when he started to become demanding of the staff, but generally that doesn’t happen.

“I find fathers very respectful of what the medical staff are doing for the most part.”

Boyle worked for many years as a labour nurse in America where, she says, it’s quite normal to have anything up to six or seven people attending a birth.

“It can be quite stressful for the mum because someone could be there that she didn’t want to be there but whose presence she had felt unable to refuse. They were physically in the way, even though the rooms were quite large.

“I can understand why Irish hospitals limit the presence to one person.”

Boyle agrees with author and pregnancy expert Sheila Kitzinger’s stance that birth is meant to be private: “Kitzinger says the environment which gets the baby in there should be the same environment that gets the baby out — private, calm and peaceful — that is what a woman needs in order to labour safely.”


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