What You Should NEVER Say to a Woman in Labor

If you are a first time parent, you probably have some worries about what to expect during labor. If you are not the person planning to birth the baby, those worries might center on how you will support your laboring partner. The discussion that follows will give you some good ideas of what not to say to a woman in labor, and what to say instead.

“You look terrible.”

Labor can be messy and is often very hard work. If you’ve ever run a marathon or done some other feat of extreme physical exertion, think back to how you looked during it. Did you need anyone to tell you that your hair was a mess and your face was all sweaty? Probably not, and no one needs to hear how they look during labor either. If you must comment on a laboring woman’s appearance, try a more empowering option, such as, “You look so strong” or “You look incredible.” But really, it might be best not to comment on her appearance at all.

“Are you okay?”

To be fair, this question might be helpful in some circumstances, especially if you and your partner have discussed beforehand how she would like you to check in with her during labor—something you should absolutely do before the birth. But the key here is tone. If you ask this question in a panicked way, with any hint of your own worry or anxiety in your voice, it could throw the laboring mom off her game. If she hears worry in your voice, she might start to think she’s not okay, even if she’s doing just fine. If you have real concerns about progress or her mental state, it might be good to check in with a care provider outside of the room where she is laboring. Otherwise, let what you say be a response to her cues. If she says she’s not okay, see if you can find out what she needs, perhaps physical or medical support for her pain or some ice to chew or a drink of lemonade.

“You’re so loud.”

Many women surprise themselves and their partners with the noises they make during labor. Women who might be relatively soft spoken in their everyday lives find themselves using vocal toning or vowel sounds to make it through the more difficult aspects of their labors. Your astonishment at how loud your partner is being is not something she ever needs to hear. If you have concerns that she might hurt her voice with high pitched screaming or that her sounds are counterproductive, see if you can make eye contact with her and try to redirect her to use a low “ohhhh” or “ahhhhh” sound instead.

“I’m worn-out.”

It’s not unusual for labor—especially a first labor—to be long and tiring for everyone. That said, the laboring woman does not need to hear about how tired you are because it is not her job to take care of you. If you do need a break to take a rest, make the decision on your own and get someone to fill in for you so that your laboring person does not go unsupported while you take a rest. A doula is a great option for this, but it also isn’t a bad idea to have more than one person such as a family member or close friend on call in case labor does go on a long time and you need back up.

“How can I help?”

Sometimes a laboring woman will be able to answer that question, but more often she will be so focused on her labor that asking her anything complicated could disrupt her rhythm. Discuss ahead of time what she thinks will be most helpful and be prepared to try those things if she appears to need something else from you. Also be prepared to innovate; sometimes none of the things that you discuss will feel good to her in the moment and you will have to think of something else to do. It is a good idea to check in with her about what she needs, but the best way to do so is to ask about specific things so that she can give simple answers: a yes or no or thumbs up or down. Try “Here’s a drink,” and she can refuse it if she wants to, or “Come on up to all fours,” which might sound good to her or might not. If you calmly present options to her, she will feel empowered to choose what works best to bring her baby into the world.

Abby Olena
Dr. Abby Olena has a PhD in Biological Sciences from Vanderbilt University. She lives with her husband and children in North Carolina, where she writes about science and parenting, produces a conversational podcast, and teaches prenatal yoga.

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