Mayo Clinic Guide to a Healthy Pregnancy: From Doctors Who Are Parents, Too!

CHAPTER 3. For dads and partners

If you’re an expectant parent — but not the pregnant one — you may be wondering where you fall into the grand scale of all things baby. At one point in time, the extent of a most dads’ involvement in expecting a baby was to help conceive and then 10 months later pace the waiting room in anticipation of news about the delivery. But most 21st-century dads can be and are much more involved in their partner’s pregnancy, from going along to the first doctor’s visit to being a labor coach in the delivery room.

Even though you’re not the one with the big belly and all the attention, there’s plenty you can do to feel less like a bystander and more like an active par-ticipant in your expanding family. The 10 months of pregnancy also offer a key preparation period for parenting, giving you valuable time to transition toward parenthood.

And although this chapter is aimed mainly at dads-to-be, much of this information can be applied to nonbiological parents or same-sex partners, as well.

HOW TO TAKE PART

Here are some ways to be involved in your partner’s pregnancy right from the start:

Offer to run out and purchase the pregnancy testing kit It’s never too early to get involved. If you and your partner have been trying to conceive, or even if you haven’t, and she thinks she may be pregnant, offer to get the pregnancy testing kit so that you both can find out together. Seeing that pink or blue line for the first time is exciting confirmation that yes, you are going to be a parent!

Attend prenatal visits Even if you can’t make it to all of her doctor visits, try to go to the first visit and one that includes an ultrasound. There are many serious decisions to be made after the first visit, and it definitely helps to have both of you listening to the issues involved in certain optional tests. If you’re the biological father, sharing your personal and family medical history with your partner’s doctor can help him or her determine the best prenatal care for the baby. An ultrasound usually happens between the 18th and 20th weeks of pregnancy. An ultrasound gives you a glimpse of the baby in utero and helps to confirm the baby’s health and your partner’s due date.

Talk to your partner Nonpregnant partners often get most of their information directly from their pregnant partners. It’s important that the two of you talk about your emotions and her physical sensations as you proceed through the pregnancy. It can give you a better sense of what she’s going through and make you feel more knowledgeable about the pregnancy.

Get to know your baby Talk and sing to your baby while massaging your partner’s belly. There’s evidence that babies recognize voices and sounds they’ve heard often in utero. Around 16 to 20 weeks, you can begin to feel the baby’s movements through your partner’s belly. This is often an exciting time for both parents.

Take a class Prenatal classes can help you and your partner find out what to expect during labor and delivery, as well as learn how to take care of a newborn.

Support your partner in a healthy lifestyle During pregnancy, team up with your partner to eat a balanced diet, exercise regularly and get plenty of rest. It’s not only good for her and the baby, it’s good for you, too. If you smoke, don’t smoke around your partner, as the chemicals in secondhand smoke can be harmful to the baby. Better yet, make a commitment to quit before the baby’s born. If you both are used to drinking alcohol, support your partner’s abstinence from alcohol during pregnancy by minimizing your own intake.

YOUR SYMPTOMS (YOU GET ’EM TOO)

Researchers have shown that males of certain species, including human males, experience hormonal changes that enhance and accelerate their paternal instincts when they’re in close contact with a pregnant partner. For example, in men:

 Levels of prolactin, a hormone that helps new mothers make milk but which is also present in men, increase just before the birth of the baby.

 Levels of cortisol, a hormone that your body produces in response to stress, also increase before childbirth and even more so during labor. This heightened stress response may help fathers focus on and bond with their newborns.

 Levels of testosterone, a male hormone, decrease right after the baby’s birth, suggesting that the focus is on nurturing rather than competitive behavior.

Pregnancy-related hormonal patterns in men tend to mirror those of women in general. But while a woman’s hormonal patterns are closely tied to the number of days until birth, a man’s hormonal changes are more closely linked to his partner’s hormonal changes. This suggests that closeness between partners affects the physiological changes men experience.

Some men also experience sympathy pains (couvade) during their partner’s pregnancy, including weight gain, nausea, fatigue and emotional changes. So don’t be surprised if you find your feelings and physical sensations mirroring those of your partner’s.

GETTING THROUGH THE FIRST TRIMESTER TOGETHER

You’ve probably seen those pictures of happy pregnant couples with the partner’s hands on the woman’s little bump of a belly. Yeah, those are generally taken in the second trimester. If this is a first pregnancy for both of you, those early weeks during the first trimester can be a challenge.

First, although your partner looks exactly the same as before — the belly doesn’t start showing until week 12 or so — it may seem she’s gone completely insane. All of a sudden, she may:

 Constantly look like she ate something rotten

 Vomit at the sight of food

 Demand to know why you would ever dream of making eggs and ham for her in the morning when the smell makes her feel horribly ill

 Be ravenous two hours later

 Cry for no apparent reason

 Want you near her all the time, but please, for heaven’s sake, don’t touch her

 Need a triple mocha caramel decaf latte, with soy milk, right now!

This is partly in jest, of course, but undoubtedly your friends and family who’ve had a baby before could come up with many other examples of their partner’s behavior during that first trimester.

But consider this: An invisible, yet amazing transformation is taking place in your partner’s body. Within two weeks of conception, hormones trigger your partner’s body to begin preparing for the baby. Increased hormone production can lead to all sorts of symptoms, including nausea, tiredness, mood swings food cravings and more.

To help ease the way for your partner (and yourself), consider these tips:

Minimize nausea triggers The common term for pregnancy-related nausea, “morning sickness,” can be somewhat of a misnomer since some women feel queasy 24/7 during the first trimester. Nausea and queasiness usually tend to ease up by the 14th week, but in the meantime, it can be rough on your partner. Things that might help your partner feel a little better include fixing her small, frequent meals (don’t let her get too hungry, which can make the nausea worse), providing plenty of fluids (ginger ale may be a good choice) and avoiding foods and smells that tend to make her feel worse. These tactics can also help minimize heartburn and constipation. Place plain crackers and whatever fluid she prefers on her night stand, in case she feels sick during the night or early in the morning. And if she suddenly changes her mind about what she can and can’t eat or drink, try to go with the flow.

Help combat fatigue As your partner’s body gears up for pregnancy, her heart will pump faster and harder, and her pulse will quicken. All the internal activity is likely to wear her out. Help her get as much rest as she can (but avoid nagging). Getting enough protein and iron in her diet and physical activity in her day also can help fight off fatigue. Good sources of protein and iron include lean meat, chicken, beans and nuts, and eggs.

Ride out the mood swings Changing levels of hormones can put your partner on an emotional seesaw. This is normal. She may feel ecstatic one moment and weepy the next. Half the time, she may not know herself why she’s feeling the way she is (and be just as frustrated as you). The key here is to ride out the storm. By the time you and she reach the second trimester, her hormone levels will have stabilized and the world will seem much calmer. In the meantime, offer plenty of support, don’t hold her to anything and try to avoid major decisions.

Remember it will pass Most women start to feel less queasy and more energetic once the second trimester begins. In fact, the second trimester is an enjoyable time for many couples, as the discomforts of early pregnancy are usually past and the belly is still a manageable size. This might be the time to do fun things together, such as get the nursery ready. But make sure you do the painting — no paint fumes around mama-to-be — and the heavy lifting. Or you might go on a mini-vacation.

SEX DURING PREGNANCY

It’s not unusual to have concerns about how sexual activity with your partner might change during pregnancy or how sex might affect the baby. Here are some answers to common questions about sex during pregnancy.

Is it OK to have sex during pregnancy? As long as the pregnancy is proceeding normally, and your partner wants to, you can have sex as often as you like. At first, hormonal fluctuations, fatigue and nausea may sap her sexual desire, though not always. During the second trimester, increased blood flow to her sexual organs and breasts may rekindle her desire for sex. But by the third trimester, weight gain, back pain and other symptoms may once again dampen her enthusiasm for sex. Every couple is different, though. Consider what’s best for the two of you.

Does sex during pregnancy harm the baby? Your baby is protected by the amniotic fluid in your partner’s uterus, as well as the mucous plug that blocks the cervix throughout most of the pregnancy. Sexual activity won’t affect the baby.

What are the best sexual positions during pregnancy? As long as you and your partner are comfortable, most sexual positions are OK during pregnancy. As the pregnancy progresses, experiment to find what works best. Rather than lying on top of your partner, you might want to lie next to her sideways or position yourself under or behind her. Let your creativity take over, as long as you keep mutual pleasure and comfort in mind.

What about oral sex? Oral sex is safe during pregnancy. There’s a caveat, however. Make sure you don’t blow air into her vagina. Rarely, a burst of air may block a blood vessel (air embolism) — which could be a life-threatening condition for her and the baby.

Are condoms necessary? Exposure to sexually transmitted infections during pregnancy increases the risk of harm to the pregnancy and the baby’s health. Use a condom if you have a sexually transmitted infection or you’re not in a mutually monogamous relationship.

What if she doesn’t want to have sex? This can be distressing, but try to remember that it won’t be this way forever. There’s more to a sexual relationship than intercourse. If sex is difficult, unappealing to her or off-limits, try cuddling, kissing or giving each other a massage. Also, try to look at it from her perspective. Is she eyeing the mountain of laundry while you’re doing your utmost to seduce her? Consider relieving some of the mundane stressors around her so that she has more energy to respond to your advances. Is she always tired at night? Try sexual activity in the morning or on a lazy afternoon, or whatever time of day she feels best.

Be understanding of the discomfort she may be dealing with and all of the body changes she is facing. Remind her of how beautiful she is to you (even if you are wondering if those stretch marks are there to stay). Remember, thoughtfulness begets thoughtfulness, and if you respect her feelings, she may decide that she’s not so averse to yours, after all.

After the baby is born, how soon can we have sex? Whether your partner gives birth vaginally or by cesarean section, her body will need time to heal. Many care providers recommend waiting four to six weeks before resuming intercourse. This allows time for her cervix to close and any tears or a repaired episiotomy to heal.

Staying intimate You can maintain intimacy in many ways. Stay connected during the day with short phone calls, email messages or text messages. Reserve a few quiet minutes for each other before the day begins or while you’re winding down before bed. When you’re ready to have sex, take it slow — and use a reliable method of contraception if you want to prevent a subsequent pregnancy.

LABOR AND DELIVERY WORRIES

As your partner’s due date approaches, excitement and nervousness build. Soon your baby will be here, but first you need to get through labor and delivery. As labor coach, moral support and general logistics coordinator, you have an important role to play. To get ready:

Educate yourself about childbirth Knowing the signs and symptoms of labor, and what to expect when your partner starts having contractions, can help you get to the hospital on time. Also, knowing what to expect in the delivery room can prevent surprises and help you adjust to rapid changes, if necessary. For example, many men report feeling bewildered and excluded when the need for an emergency cesarean section arises and the room is suddenly filled with hospital staff. Knowing what to expect with an emergency C-section can help prevent some of those feelings. Read Chapter 14 to learn more about labor and childbirth, and Chapter 15 to learn about cesarean birth.

Map your route Find the shortest and safest way to the hospital from your house or your partner’s workplace. Create a backup plan in case of a traffic delay or bad weather. While you’re at it, scout out the parking situation at the hospital (some hospitals have valet parking for pregnant patients) and know which way to go once you get inside. Last but not least, make sure your vehicle always has plenty of gas in its tank when the delivery date is near.

Install an infant car seat To bring your baby home, you’ll need to put him or her in an infant car seat. For the most protection, the car seat should be rear-facing and installed in the middle of the back seat. Give yourself plenty of time to install the seat. Car seats can be deceivingly tricky, so make sure you follow the car seat manufacturer’s instructions and that the car seat is installed correctly. If you have questions about proper installation or need a hand, check the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s website to find a car seat inspection station near you. Be sure to follow the child passenger safety laws in your state.

Keep a copy of the birth plan If you and your partner have created a birth plan — an outline of your combined preferences during childbirth, such as options for handling pain — keep a copy with you, just in case. But be prepared to adapt if need be. For instance, your partner may decide she wants pain medication after all, once labor begins, even though she may have indicated otherwise on the birth plan.

Pack your bags Have a bag with your partner’s favorite toiletries, and maybe a new set of pajamas or some of her favorite music, ready to go. If you’re staying with her and the baby, have your overnight bag ready, too.

Manage communications Make sure you and your partner can reach each other at any time, via phone, email or text messages, to get to the hospital on time. Also, consider creating an email list of friends and family for birth announcements. If you were to ask family and friends what your main function is during childbirth, they might tell you: Issuer of the latest news and sender of pictures!

HELPING DURING LABOR

These days, most fathers and partners are present during labor and delivery. In general, hospitals don’t restrict who can be present for the delivery but they may restrict the number of people in the room.

During labor and delivery, there’s plenty you can do to help your partner. The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists offers these tips:

 Help distract your partner during the first stage of labor. Talk about your day or watch a movie together.

 Unless she’s been told to stay in bed, take short walks with your partner.

 Time her contractions.

 Offer to massage her back and shoulders between contractions.

 Help her with relaxation techniques you learned in childbirth classes.

 Encourage her during the pushing stage.

The important thing is to be there for her if she needs you, regardless of whether she’s squeezing your hand off or using language that’s not entirely polite.

After the delivery Often, this is the best part and the moment when fathers and partners can finally engage with their child. At this stage you can be actively involved in bathing, changing and cuddling your newborn. If your partner is breast-feeding, you can offer her valuable moral support — it’s not always easy the first time around — or if you’re using formula, you can take turns giving the baby a bottle.

You can also help monitor visits from family and friends. If your partner gets tired and needs a rest, offer to take the baby and the visitors for a walk through the halls of the maternity department. Help visitors sanitize or wash their hands before touching the baby.

Once your partner is allowed to eat and drink normally, bring her something from her favorite bakery or shop. It’ll make her feel special.

COMMON ANXIETIES

No one said this would be easy. As a new parent, you may worry about:

Limited paternity or family leave If you aren’t able to take time off when the baby is born, it may be difficult to keep up your regular work schedule and find time to spend with your newborn.

New responsibilities Newborns require constant care and attention. On top of feedings, diaper changes and crying spells — tasks for which some new parents aren’t prepared — parents must find time to do household chores and other daily activities. If you’re used to a carefree, independent lifestyle, you may wonder if you’ll be able to adjust to your new responsibilities.

Disrupted sleep Newborns challenge their parents’ ability to get a good night’s sleep. Sleep deprivation can quickly take a toll on new dads and moms.

Financial strain The cost of your baby’s delivery, health care, diapers, clothing and furniture can add up quickly. The financial strain may be worse if you move to a bigger home or pay someone to take care of the baby while you work — or one of you takes unpaid leave or quits work to take care of the baby.

Less time with your partner Having a baby means sharing your partner’s attention with a third party. This is something new, and feeling left out is not uncommon, especially if your partner breast-feeds the baby.

Loss of sexual activity A lull in your sex life with your partner can sometimes lead to resentment and strain your relationship.

Depression Research shows that — like mothers — some fathers may experience depression shortly after a child’s birth.

Take action You can help ease your anxieties by actively preparing for parenthood. For example:

Keep talking to your partner Discuss about how the baby’s arrival will likely affect your daily lives, your relationship with each other and even your careers. Feel free to share your dreams about the future, too.

Build a network of social support During pregnancy, your partner may get support from care providers, family and friends. It’s important for partners to have a support network during this time, too — especially if the pregnancy was unplanned or you’ve heard negative stories about parenting. Seek out friends and family who can give you advice and encouragement as you prepare to become a parent.

Be proactive about financial issues Having a baby will cost money, so planning for those expenses through saving, budgeting, and foregoing a few luxuries makes sense. Talking to a financial planner might help you determine ways to handle the cost of having a baby.

Consider what kind of parent you want to be Take time to think about the parenting you received. Consider what aspects of your relationship with your father or mother you might want to have with your own child and what you might do differently.

Stay involved Once your baby is born, look for ways to connect with your newly expanded family. For example:

Room with your family at the hospital If the hospital and your work schedule allow, stay with your partner and newborn until it’s time to take the baby home. This will help you feel more like a key participant in the first few days of your baby’s life. If you have other children, arrange for a fun night or nights with grandparents or other family members or friends so that you can devote full attention to mom and the newborn.

Take turns caring for the baby Take turns feeding and changing the baby. If your partner is breast-feeding, offer to change diapers in the middle of the night or bring the baby to your partner in bed. You could also bottle-feed pumped breast milk — or burp the baby and put him or her to sleep after breast-feeding sessions.

Play with the baby While women tend to provide low-key, soothing stimulation for their babies, men often engage their babies in noisier, more-vigorous activities. Both styles of play are important, and seeing your newborn smile is its own reward.

Be affectionate with your partner Just because sex is off-limits temporarily doesn’t mean you and your partner can’t cuddle or kiss. Keep in mind that eventually your family will develop a routine, and you and your partner will have some time to yourselves again.

Keep the lines of communication open Continue talking to your partner about the changes you’re experiencing, whether reality is matching your expectations and what you can do to support each other as your baby gets older. If the other parent is away at work, share pictures and funny stories about your day via email. Try to find some time for just the two of you, too. It may not always be easy for your partner to ask for help, so encourage her to talk about any difficulties she may be feeling as a new mother.

Seek help If you’re having trouble dealing with changes in your relationship or you think you may be depressed, talk to a counselor or other mental health professional.

Relax Parenting can be a challenge, but the more prepared you are for what lies ahead, the more confident and supported you’ll feel once the baby arrives. Chapter 19 covers many aspects of preparing for parenthood, including how to handle the first few weeks, what to expect when it comes to your relationship with your partner and some tips on the financial aspects of raising a child. When you get a chance, have a look at that chapter. Also, look for recommendations on books that can help you prepare to be a parent.

YOU MADE IT

Congratulations! You’re a parent, and a whole new path has opened up to you. Take it one step at a time. No one ever learned to raise a child all at once. It takes practice and patience. Most of all, be sure to enjoy yourself and your family along the way.