How to Be a Supportive Partner During Pregnancy (and Beyond)

HOW TO BE A SUPPORTIVE PARTNER DURING PREGNANCY (AND BEYOND)

David Howard

THE GIST

  • Numerous studies have shown the benefits of having a partner who is supportive or perceived to be supportive. Conversely, having a partner who is perceived to be unsupportive is a predictor of depression and anxiety both before and after a child’s birth.
  • Start early. Being a supportive partner begins in the months before delivery, when an expectant mother’s anxiety levels may be rising about giving birth and the changes a baby brings.
  • Make a plan for your supportive role both during and after the baby’s arrival, but be flexible. There’s no script for how things are going to go.
  • New research indicates that supporters may need support of their own: They can feel isolated or rejected but question the legitimacy of their experiences.

If you’ve watched any movies with birth scenes, you may have noticed that the partner’s role often fits into one of two categories: He — and it’s always a he — is a comically inept second fiddle, fainting just when he’s needed most, or else absent entirely, inhaling a cigar in a nearby pub. 

These dated archetypes exist for a reason. What actually comprises a supportive partner has only come into focus in recent years, as fathers and same-sex partners have become more central to the birth and all that comes after. But the research is resoundingly clear: A strong mate makes a difference. Having a supportive partner is good for everyone involved, including the baby.

The scientific literature is less clear on what specific strategies best support pregnant women — it’s tough in a clinical setting to isolate the benefits of, say, a well-timed hug or a promise to handle 3 a.m. feedings. But the three researchers I spoke to distilled their studies into some real-world advice.

WHAT TO DO

  • Connect with each other well before the due date.

This should be even more of a priority than buying the right stroller. “The focus is so much on practical needs,” said Dr. Pam Pilkington, Ph.D., a perinatal psychologist who practices at the Centre for Perinatal Psychology in Melbourne, Australia, and founder of Partners to Parents, a resource site developed by a team of researchers and psychologists at Australian Catholic University to provide guidance for partners. “During pregnancy, people perhaps don’t focus on the couple relationship, or supporting each other emotionally as much as they could.”

In practical terms, this means talking often and openly about how you’re both feeling — anxious, excited, uncertain, whatever it is, Dr. Pilkington said — then validating each other, making sure you both feel heard and accepted. An example: After a month at home, a new mother might say, “I feel trapped here all day while you’re at work.” The supportive answer here is not, “I need to work so we can pay the bills. Why don’t you get your mother to come help?” Rather, a validating answer would be: “I’m sorry that you’re feeling pinned in place. It sounds like you’re missing seeing your friends at the office.” 

Trying to build mirroring-and-validating skills during the relative calm before your child’s arrival will help cement your bond for the challenges to come, Dr. Pilkington said.

  • Make your good intentions known.

Making yourself of service to another is what’s known in scientific vernacular as “offering social support.” Researchers call it a mysterious force that has tangible benefits. “There’s a magic about social support,” said Dr. Christine Dunkel Schetter, Ph.D., a professor of psychology and psychiatry at UCLA who has studied its effect on stressful situations, including pregnancies. “And the magic is that when it’s really working in these kinds of situations, it’s about things that take place between two people. And it’s about what one person says to the other, or does, that makes them feel better.”

Part of the magic of social support?Even when an expectant mother merely perceives that she has a supportive partner, she’s more likely to come through pregnancy happy and healthy, research shows. Studies have variously found that partner support is associated with better birth outcomes and lower levels of distress and depression among both mothers and infants.

But follow-up is key, too, said Dr. Dunkel Schetter. If you don’t actually come through on a promise to assume half of the diaper-changing duties, the benefits of perceived support quickly trail off.

Sometimes, supportive partners will learn that the best kinds of support are nonverbal — offering a hug during a low emotional ebb. And the support should be offered unconditionally. “The person giving it can’t say, ‘Now you owe me, you’re obligated, I’ve done so much for you,’ ” said Dr. Dunkel Schetter.

CenteringPregnancy, a program developed by the Yale School of Nursing, provides social support instruction, among other services, in a group setting for women and their partners; it’s now available in health-care facilities around the United States. (You can find a nearby location on the website.)

  • Take a birthing class — but be open-minded when the day arrives.

Classes like the Bradley Method, which teaches that childbirth can be managed through deep breathing and the support of a partner or labor coach, can be helpful in making you feel more prepared, and offering a sense of what to expect. But Dr. Pilkington pointed out that birth is not the same as being a cast member in a play. The baby sometimes rewrites the script. Things take unexpected turns, or the mother’s preferences before going into labor might change 12 hours in. The partner should avoid rigid thinking about how it was supposed to go, and instead help the mother roll with whatever’s happening and support her choices along the way, Dr. Pilkington said.

  • Have a plan for the weeks after the baby arrives…

Specifically, the partner can draw up an action plan in which he or she commits to executing certain helpful tasks. Maybe it’s late-night feedings if the mother is going to pump breast milk or your baby is on formula. Maybe it’s a daily break that the mom can count on, like taking the baby out for a walk so she can nap or take a bath, said Dr. Pilkington.

  • … But be flexible.

Planning to do those 3 a.m. feedings is one thing. The searing exhaustion that kicks in after four weeks of doing that is another. During your child’s early life, it’s best to expect some meltdowns. (The baby will cry sometimes, too.) Revisit the plan anytime based on whatever challenges you might face at each stage of your baby’s life. It’s O.K. to ask for extra support from friends and family, Dr. Pilkington said. Both parents can use a break in the first couple of months of their baby’s life.  

  • Know your role with feeding.

One task the mother generally handles alone is breastfeeding. But a 2015 studyled by the University of Ontario Institute of Technology suggested that a partner’s active involvement —learning how breastfeeding works and providing encouragement — leads to “significant improvements” in breastfeeding duration. Then think of simple, commonsense ways to step up: Helping the mother stay hydrated by offering a glass of water, bringing healthy snacks and providing a comfortable environment, Dr. Pilkington said.

For parents who can’t breastfeed or choose not to, Dr. Pilkington says it’s important to remember they haven’t failed. “How parents feed their infant is a personal choice that should be based on their specific situation,” she said. If the mother is pumping, you can help maintain the equipment and offer to bottle-feed using the milk. Parents feeding their baby with a bottle — whether it’s formula or breast milk — can split overnight duties, one taking the 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. shift, the other holding down the 2 a.m. to 7 a.m. slot, for example. Partners using formula can make sure there are adequate supplies on hand at all times and know how to mix it. Some formulas can be premixed and stored in the fridge for up to 24 hours, which could save an exhausted mom from having to drowsily scoop powder in the small hours of the night.

  • Expect that your sex life will change — for a while, at least.

This is a biological imperative, so expect the temperature to be dialed down in the marital bed post-birth (for a duration that depends on the circumstances of the delivery; consult a professional). And even after you’re medically cleared, that doesn’t mean you’ll feel the same or have much energy for sex early on. Make a point to seek out alternate forms of intimacy, like hand-holding and cuddling, Dr. Pilkington said. The key, again, is to maintain an emotional connection and strong lines of communication.

  • Look for signs of your own stress, and act on them.

The psychological effect on partners after a baby’s arrival is mostly a black hole in the scientific realm. Dr. Pilkington noted that only 19 of the 120 recent studies around pregnancy touched on outcomes for fathers or partners, and researchers openly acknowledge the need for more research. But the few studies that have been done show that fathers can struggle to navigate this interlude. Dr. Zoe Darwin, Ph.D., a lecturer in maternal health at the University of Leeds in the U.K. who has conducted some early inquiries in this area, found that men often feel stressed and detached but want to keep the spotlight on the mother and child. “The research that we’ve done,” she said, “found that although some of the men we spoke with felt excluded by maternity services, and had experienced significant stress in this period, they often questioned the legitimacy of their experiences and their entitlement to support.” If you feel yourself struggling, let your partner know, and consult a caregiver.


WHEN TO WORRY

If you’re struggling with depression or anxiety, you may need more than a hug or the sage words of a parenting class. Seek professional help from a counselor.

SOURCES

Dr. Pam Pilkington, Ph.D., perinatal psychologist who practices at the Centre for Perinatal Psychology in Melbourne, Australia.

Dr. Christine Dunkel Schetter, Ph.D., professor of psychology and psychiatry at UCLA, expert on stress processes in pregnancy

Dr. Zoe Darwin, Ph.D., lecturer in maternal health at the University of Leeds in the U.K. who specializes in mental health and wellbeing during and after pregnancy.

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