Dads in the delivery room

Even today's new breed of super-dad still gets a bit freaked out watching his partner give birth, which is why hospitals are now offering prenatal classes for men.

Published July 5, 2006 9:06PM (EDT)

Father's Day unleashed a spate of stories about how today's dads eagerly bathe and burp their offspring, but according to yesterday's Washington Post, even the most evolved man may still get a little woozy in the delivery room.

Before they bask in the wonder of a life and cut the umbilical cord, men may first have to experience watching their partners writhe in pain -- not to mention seeing all that blood. Nowadays, many hospitals encourage dads to be present even during Caesarean deliveries. "Imagine if you were watching somebody stick a knife in your wife's belly," obstetrician David Downing told the Post. For most men, he says, "that's a horrible thought; it is a horrible sight."

As a result, hospitals are increasingly offering prenatal classes that do more than merely show birthing videos. These classes aim to prepare future dads to anticipate and manage their own overwhelming feelings, which in turn may help their partners have a calmer -- and some say less painful -- delivery.

The ghost-white dad-to-be who faints in the delivery room has been a stock favorite of films and television sitcoms. But the unease is real and has received little attention, reports the Post. For example, a small 1993 survey of 44 fathers -- one of the few studies on the subject -- found that 41 percent reported negative feelings about their childbirth experience, such as anxiety, helplessness and frustration at seeing their partners suffer in pain.

Men may be dealing with these emotions more than ever -- especially given cultural expectations that they don't just stand there dumbfounded holding the camcorder, but support the mothers. (It wasn't until the 1960s and '70s that hospitals even started to allow men in delivery rooms.)

It seems that part of the problem is that men aren't quite sure what they're supposed to do during the delivery. The Post looks at a 2002 British study that found that men experienced the highest amount of stress when they felt they weren't adequately fulfilling their roles. "There appears to be some confusion as to the nature and purpose of men's presence at childbirth," the study reported. (We're betting the occasional "You're doing great, honey!" and then getting out of the way would work for most women.)

Still, the classes seem to be helping both fathers and mothers. One six-year study published in 2004 in the Journal of Perinatal Education found that men who take prenatal classes "tend to be more involved with their spouses and participate more in housework after their babies are born." And another study found a connection between a father's level of anxiety and the mother's resulting pain and fear during and after a C-section.

The increased attention to men's emotional struggles during childbirth is certainly a welcome trend. Maybe it's time to add her and his prenatal classes to the before-baby checklist.

By Sarah Elizabeth Richards

Sarah Elizabeth Richards is a journalist based in New York. She can be reached at

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