(An article by MICHEL ODENT. Odent is a French obstetrician that founded the Primal Health Research Centre, introduced the concept of birthing pools and home-like birth rooms into maternity hospitals in the 1970s, and is also the most well-known trainer of doulas worldwide.)
Leading obstetrician Michel Odent has been instrumental in influencing childbirth practices for decades. Here, with a view that will outrage many – but will strike a chord with thousands of others – he describes why he believes that when a woman goes into labour, her partner should stay well away.
For many years, I have not been able to speak openly about my views that the presence of a father in a delivery room is not only unnecessary, but also hinders labour.
To utter such a thing over the past two decades would have been regarded as heresy, and flies in the face of popular convention.
But having been involved in childbirth for 50 years, and having been in charge of 15,000 births, I have reached the stage where I feel it is time to state what I – and many midwives and fellow obstetricians – privately consider the obvious.
That there is little good to come for either sex from having a man at the birth of a child.
For her, his presence is a hindrance, and a significant factor in why labours are longer, more painful and more likely to result in intervention than ever.
As for the effect on a man – well, was I surprised to hear a friend of mine state that watching his wife giving birth had started a chain of events that led to the couple’s divorce?
Women should be left alone to give birth in peace without the distraction of their partner at their bedside
Or another lady describing how the day after her husband had watched her deliver their child, he had fled to his hometown of Rome, and never returned again?
For many men, the emotional fallout of watching their partner have their baby can never be overcome.
When I was first involved in obstetrics in the Fifties, it was unheard of for a man to be present as their child was born.
Childbirth was predominately a woman’s business – usually carried out at home – and while a man may be in the vicinity at the time of labour, he would usually be found in the kitchen, boiling copious amounts of water, and therefore would miss the actual event.
However, by 1970, a handful of women started to ask for their husbands to be present at the birth, a shift that began to occur in many Western countries at about the same time.
There are a variety of reasons for this, including the fact that birth was being increasingly concentrated in hospitals rather than at home, and the rise of the smaller nuclear family meant women increasingly turned to their husbands for support in all areas of their life, rather than relying on their mothers or aunts.
What we didn’t anticipate at the time was that this occasional demand from a handful of women would, in a matter of years, become doctrine.
By the late Seventies, all pregnant women were saying they could not imagine giving birth without their husband at their side.
And not only was the husband now nearly always present at birth, but with his wife clasping his hand during labour and screaming out for reassurance, he became an active participant.
At the time, it was widely believed there were many benefits to be had from the father’s presence.
It was said sharing such an experience would strengthen ties between the couple and help the father bond with his baby.
It was said his reassurance would make birth easier, and that the rate of intervention in pregnancy would decrease as a result.
This shift to having the father in the delivery room was one which was shrouded by optimism.
However, little scientific study was conducted to find out if there was any truth to these claims.
And even at the time, I had my reservations. I didn’t want to judge, but I knew from experience that the presence of a man is not always a positive thing.
Fast-forward to today, and there is still a lack of scientific study on this subject.
But having been in charge of thousands of births, at homes, in hospitals, in the UK, in France, with the father present, with him absent, I have reached my own conclusions.
I am more and more convinced that the participation of the father is one of the main reasons for long and difficult labours.
And there are a number of basic physiological reasons for this.
First, a labouring woman needs to be protected against any stimulation of the thinking part of her brain – the neocortex – for labour to proceed with any degree of ease.
This part of the brain needs to take a back seat and allow the primal “unthinking” part of the brain connected to basic vital functions to take over.
A woman in labour needs to be in a private world where she doesn’t have to think or talk.
Yet, motivated by a desire to “share the experience”, the man asks questions and offers words of reassurance and advice.
In doing so, he denies his partner the quiet mind that she needs.
The second reason is that the father’s release of the stress hormone adrenaline as he watches his partner labour causes her anxiety, and prevents her from relaxing.
No matter how much he tries to smile and appear relaxed, he cannot help but feel anxious. And the release of adrenaline is contagious.
It has been proven that it is physically impossible to be in a complete state of relaxation if there is an individual standing next to you who is tense and full of adrenaline.
The effect of this is that, with a man present, a woman cannot be as relaxed as she needs to be during labour, and hence the process becomes longer and more difficult.
We must keep in mind that mammals cannot release oxytocin – the key hormone in childbirth – when they are also being influenced by the stressful effects of hormones of the adrenaline family.
I have been with many women as they struggle to give birth with their partner at their side.
Yet the moment he leaves the room, the baby arrives. Afterwards, they say it was just “bad luck” he wasn’t there the moment their child was born.
Luck, however, is little to do with it. The truth is that without him there, the woman is finally able to relax into labour in a way that speeds up delivery.
After birth, too, a woman needs a few moments alone with her baby, particularly between the time the child is born and she delivers the placenta.
And this is not just about her need to bond with her baby.
Physically, in order to deliver the placenta with ease, her levels of oxytocin – the hormone of love – need to peak.
This happens if she has a moment in which she can forget everything about the world, save for her baby, and if she has time in which she can look into the baby’s eyes, make contact with its skin and take in its smell without any distractions.
Often, as soon as a baby is born, men cannot help but say something or try to touch the baby.
Their interference at this key moment is more often than not the main cause for a difficult delivery of the placenta, too.
But it is not just the fact that men slow down labour that makes me cautious about their presence at the birth.
There are two other important questions that I would like to see answered scientifically.
The first is, are we sure that all men can easily cope with the strong emotional reaction they have when they participate in the birth?
Over the years, I have seen something akin to post-natal depression in many men who have been present at the birth.
In its mild form, men often take to their bed in the week following the birth, complaining of everything from a stomach ache or migraine to a 24-hour bug.
Their wives, meanwhile, are up and about, caring for their baby and in good spirits, and tell me how unfortunate it is that their husband has been struck down by one ailment or another.
But it is well known by those who study depression that rather than admit a low mood, men often offer up a symptom as a reason to why they have taken to their bed.
There are also men who try to find ways to escape the reality of what they have been through.
This could just be a night at the pub, or a day playing golf when their child is a day old.
I’ve known of perfectly well-balanced men who held their wife’s hand through labour then left the next day never to return again.
And in the most graphic example, one perfectly healthy man had his first experience of schizophrenia two days after watching his wife give birth. Was this his way of escaping reality?
Generally speaking, I have noticed that the more the man has participated at the birth and the worse his wife’s labour has been, the higher the risks of post-natal “symptoms” are.
Of course, this is not the case for all men, but it seems without doubt that some men are at risk of being unwell or depressed due to having seen their partners labour.
The final question I would like to see answered is what, if a man is present at birth, will be the effect on the sexual attraction he feels towards his wife over the long term?
When men first started standing at their partner’s side during labour, I remember my mother’s generation saying, very matter of factly, that the couple’s intimate life would be ruined as a result.
And, given that the key to eroticism is a degree of mystery, I am left believing they had a point.
There are many things we do in private in order to preserve a degree of modesty and mystery.
And, for the benefit of our sex lives, it may be worth adding childbirth to this list.
I have three children and wasn’t present at any of their births.
My first two were born before it was considered normal for a man to be at the birth of their child. But my youngest son was born in 1985, at home.
As it happens, at the exact moment our son arrived in the world, the midwife was on her way down the street and I, having made my excuses realising he was about to be born, was fiddling with the thermostat on the central heating boiler downstairs.
My partner did not know it, but I had given her the exceptionally rare, but ideal situation in which to give birth: she felt secure, she knew the midwife was minutes away and I was downstairs, yet she had complete privacy and no one was watching her.
If there are any doubts, we only have to look across the rest of the mammal world in order to see that no other female, save the human female, invites her sexual partner to witness her giving birth.
Of course, it would not be possible for women to give birth alone.
But the optimum situation for women is to give birth with an experienced midwife, or another woman – known as a doula.
The key to the perfect birthing partner is finding a mother figure who can help, keep a low profile and remain silent.
It is only 35 years since men first entered the delivery room, yet we have welcomed them in without question.
At the present time, when birth is more difficult and longer than ever, when more women need drugs or Caesareans, we have to dare to smash the limits of political correctness and ask whether men should really be present at birth.
When we take into consideration the effects of this on male and female, it seems the answer is not.
It is time to go back to basics, and turn modern convention on its head.
When it comes to the delivery suite, men would be well advised to stay away.