Although Miss Manners never got around to writing about childbirth, there still are a few rules for polite delivery room behavior.
Once upon a time, before the first birth plan was drafted or parents learned their unborn children’s gender, laboring women were attended by nurses and delivered by doctors while nervous dads paced the hospital’s halls. The rooms were sterile, the patients flat on their backs, and photos of this secretive, life-altering event were forbidden.
Fathers began showing up in the delivery room in the 1980s, and by the late 1990s, childbirth had morphed from a private medical procedure into a spectator sport complete with music, professional birth coaches, and personal videos to commemorate the occasion.
Since pregnant women are now the guests of honor at their own personal delivery parties, it’s good to know a few basic rules of etiquette before your water breaks at midnight and you’re too excited to think straight!
The Guest List
If you’ve become addicted to childbirth shows on television, you may have the misguided idea everyone you’ve ever met, from Uncle Eddie to the postman, is allowed in the hospital delivery room. While an eager crowd of onlookers makes for great TV, it can also make for an unruly mob of gawkers getting in the way of the professionals trying to help deliver your newborn. That’s why most hospitals only allow two or three well-mannered support persons in the room during a routine vaginal delivery.
If you desire a larger audience, you may prefer the more relaxed environment of a birth center such as The Birth and Women’s Center in Dallas, Texas, where mothers are attended by certified midwives in a homelike setting and there are no limits to the number of people who can take part in the celebration.
The Kiddie Conundrum
“Children under 12 years of age are discouraged unless they are a sibling to the newborn,” recommends Sandy Smith, labor and delivery nurse manager at Centennial Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee.
While your young cousin may beg to attend the birth, remember that it’s a long and often boring process that can tax the attention span of the heartiest kid. Childbirth is also a messy and dramatic event that can scare even a grown-up, much less a kiddo. And though you may want to share the miracle of birth with your younger children, keep in mind that kids see the world through self-centered eyes and will have little empathy for your delicate situation. The last thing you need when you’re nine centimeters dilated is to have your toddler beg you to refill his sippy cup or demand that you take him to the potty. Even if Daddy wrangles the little ones, that distracts his focus from you during your time of need.
If you think the children in your life would prefer watching you give birth to cooling their heels at home and watching SpongeBob reruns, make sure you’ve got a friend or family member who’s willing to attend to their needs and escort them into the hallway if necessary.
Rules for Relatives
Friends and relatives would do well to remember that they are honored guests at a miraculous event and to conduct themselves appropriately. That means no gossiping amongst themselves while ignoring the mother-to-be, and only positive words of affirmation and support should fall from their lips. Phrases such as, “Wow, that’s gross!” or “Honey I hate needles, I just can’t watch you get an epidural” are strictly forbidden. If the Mama can endure it, loved ones can plaster on a smile and get through it too. Eating Egg McMuffins and sipping caramel choco-lattes in front of someone who only gets ice chips is also a big no-no.
The best guest is one who smiles often, tells the mom how great she’s doing, offers foot rubs, and frequently asks, “What can I do for you? Your wish is my command.”
Partner, Protector, Punching Bag
Guidelines for fathers and other labor coaches are similar to those for other participants: stay positive and supportive, don’t nap in front of a laboring woman, and by all means don’t complain about how uncomfortable or tired you are. Childbirth partners are in the unique position to either encourage or annoy the heck out of the guest of honor simply by opening their mouths, so a few extra suggestions, if you please.
Women, as individuals, are motivated by different means. Some respond to the “You can do it!” kind of cheering, while others prefer whispered words of inspiration or the beauty of silence. Your pregnant partner may even vacillate between preferences during labor, so ask her ahead of time what sort of coach she needs you to be and check in with her throughout the big day to make sure you’re giving her the encouragement she wants. Case in point: A certain writer’s husband got so caught up in the moment that he grabbed her shoulder in a steel death grip while repeating the phrase, “You got it babe!” four hundred times in a row. His behavior, although well intentioned, became so distracting that I, um … I mean … the writer, had to stop pushing the baby out to tell her beloved spouse to release her rapidly numbing arm and shut up until it was time to cut the cord.
That said, remember that any encouragement is better than none at all. Even if your partner gets angry with you as her intense emotions peak or completely ignores you as her mind turns inward to focus on her body’s cues, you should continue to support her throughout labor and delivery. Standing in the corner wringing your hands or getting huffy because she snapped at you is never an option.
By all means bring your video camera to the hospital, but be prepared to turn it off during the actual delivery. Many hospitals forbid the use of photography during C-sections and vaginal delivery for fear of the film being used against them in a malpractice case. Other doctors argue that video could benefit them in a lawsuit and allow parents to film whatever they like. Jenny Holland, office manager of The Birth and Women’s Center, where all photography is welcome, says, “We’ve had professional photographers come in for births.” Make sure to check with your OB or midwife before the big day arrives.
On that note, impeccable delivery room etiquette dictates that parents and relatives should ask nurses, midwives, and any medical staff for their permission before taking their picture. Most people recognize that this is a joyous occasion and will happily oblige. However, if your baby needs some supplemental oxygen or meconium suctioned from her airway immediately after the birth, suppress your shutterbug instincts and stand back until things settle down again.
Tools of the Trade
Birth centers usually provide labor tools such as birthing tubs, rocking chairs, and birthing balls because the majority of women who deliver there do so naturally. Since many moms who go to the hospital opt for pain medication, hospitals are less likely to provide balls or tubs. While it’s perfectly acceptable to bring your own birthing ball or rocking chair, some hospitals may not be so keen about an inflatable kiddie pool assembled in the delivery room, so get permission ahead of time if you’re feeling the urge to submerge.
Setting the Mood
Music, candlelight, and scented lotions—the same relaxation techniques that got you pregnant in the first place are sometimes the things that can help calm your mind and speed labor along. Smith says, “Music is welcome and is a great relaxant,” but open flames and smoke are prohibited because delivery rooms are equipped with oxygen masks attached to the walls. Holland says that candles and incense are permitted at her birth center because the oxygen is kept at a safe distance.
If aromatherapy is what you need, certified doula Jeannie Casey of Nashville suggests essential oils. “I always carry peppermint because it makes you happy and energetic. I also use lavender because it’s calming and soothing,” she says. As someone who has seen plenty of delivery rooms, Casey recommends that parents bring their own portable stereo with their favorite music because not all hospitals provide them.
What about Mom?
When you’re in labor, the rules of polite society go out the window, so stop trying to be a good girl and instead focus on the job at hand. Don’t apologize for anything you say, and don’t feel embarrassed about anything that happens. It’s all normal, and the folks who work there won’t be offended. Casey says, “As a laboring mother, you don’t have the energy to say ‘Excuse me, would you please hand me some ice chips.’ You just say ‘ICE!’ If you don’t feel like talking or answering questions, let your husband or doula do it.”
Never Say Sorry, Just Say Thanks
Although apologizing for anything you say or do during childbirth is unnecessary, Casey recommends bringing or sending a small gratuity gift such as a basket of candy, popcorn, granola bars, or other munchies for the fabulous nurses who helped bring your beautiful baby into the world. She says, “Since nurses do all the work and the doctors get all the credit, we want to thank them.”
Don’t forget to jot down a quick note telling them what a great job they’re doing and how much you appreciate their kindness and professionalism. Your words will undoubtedly lift their spirits and brighten their day. Because after all, thank you notes are the bedrock of fine etiquette!