No, dads don’t make pain of childbirth worse…far from it, in fact!

21 January 2015

Jeremy Davies writes:

This morning we were contacted by a radio journalist who wanted us to comment on a study suggesting that, and I quote, “it might be best for dads not to be present at the birth of their children”.

Having heard of no such study, I turned to Google, which quickly revealed the following ‘breaking news’ headlines:

  • ‘Fathers in delivery room could make pain of childbirth worse’
  • ‘Dads at the birth can increase partner’s pain’
  • ‘Research finds fathers should stay away from attending birth’.

And – perhaps the worst – The Times (not for nothing did it earn its nickname ‘The Thunderer’) with the following headline and introduction:

It’s official: men shouldn’t be at the birth

It seems it really is better for all concerned if fathers stay away from the birth of a child….

I read the reports…none of which contained evidence suggesting any such thing.

After some further investigation I found this BBC report about the study, obviously written earlier in the day, and making no mention of childbirth. And here’s the journal article on which it was based – again, no mention of childbirth.

What the study actually found

The researchers, based at University College London, explored the effects of a partner’s presence on women’s perception of pain – and whether the nature of their relationship with said partner affected this.

To do this, they recruited 39 heterosexual couples and asked them a series of questions to measure how much they sought or avoided closeness and emotional intimacy in relationships.

Each female volunteer was then subjected to a series of painful laser pulses while her partner was in and then out of the room. The women were asked to score their level of pain. They also had their brain activity measured using a medical test called an EEG.

What the team found was that certain women were more likely to score high levels of pain while their partner was in the room. The findings were mirrored in the brain activity tests too – when their partners were present, these women’s EEG traces showed higher spikes of activity in regions of the brain linked with experiencing body threat.

Crucially, the women with this response said, in the survey about emotional intimacy, that they preferred to avoid closeness, that they trusted themselves more than their partners, and that they felt uncomfortable in their relationships.

How the story was spun

Somebody somewhere obviously spoke to co-author Dr Katerina Fotopoulou – her quote may have been put out as a press release, or a journalist may have spoken to her and the papers then copied each other. Either way, the story has been spun to within an inch of its life.

What Dr Fotopoulou said is this:

“This study suggests that partner support during pain may need to be tailored to individual personality traits and coping preferences. Previous research has shown that women prefer to have their partners present during childbirth and they make less use of painkillers after labour. The different results of this controlled experiment could suggest that some of the previous results may not necessarily relate to the sensation of physical pain but the broader meanings and needs associated with childbirth. The physical and psychological nature of labour pain may simply be different than other types of pain.”

So…what this research suggests is that in terms purely of pain relief, some women (those who prefer to avoid closeness, trust themselves more than their partner and/or feel uncomfortable in their relationship) might fare better without their partner there.

But are laser pulses really comparable to childbirth? Well hardly – as Dr Fotopoulou herself admits: “The physical and psychological nature of labour pain may simply be different then other types of pain.”!

And even if they were generalisable as a proxy for labour pain, would the research be telling us that, generally speaking, fathers’ presence in the delivery room was a bad idea? NO!

Still…never let the truth get in the way of a good story, as they say!

What the evidence really says

So, just in case you were wondering, yes, there IS a whole bunch of evidence out there suggesting that:

a) most women like their husbands/partners to be present at the birth (why else would they make that choice – nobody’s forcing them – and in fact we hear of plenty of dads who feel ignored, sidelined or excluded by maternity services….and mums who feel disappointed at how non-father-inclusive the whole experience is!), and

b) their presence is mostly helpful.

Read more in our research summary.

For what it’s worth, what the evidence suggests is that, if anything, what we need is better support for dads, to ‘normalise’ their presence and harness their potential input – making sure they know how to stay calm and be helpful (if they get stressed, this can cause problems for the mum).

Of course, if a woman who struggles with emotional intimacy doesn’t want her partner around, she should be free to choose a different birth partner – or, if necessary, give birth on her own. Although one would hope that in such cases, both she and her partner would be offered some help to work through what sounds like quite serious problems in their relationship….

UPDATE (6 February 2015)

Read NHS Choices’ article: Claims that ‘men worsen labour pains’ are unproven


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