What Every Expecting Dad Should Know About Labor

Man watching wife giving birth
RubberBall Productions/Vetta/Getty Images

There is nothing quite like a woman who is nearing the end of her pregnancy. She is a bundle of physical, mental and emotional issues. She is perhaps more tired than she has ever been in her life. Her back aches and her legs hurt. She is often impatient for the baby to come yet nervous about how much there is to do to get ready. And she may feel anxious about the responsibility of her first or next baby. And she wants to rely on her partner -- her child's father -- to be her rock and her support during labor. 

As the baby's delivery nears, you will need to be watching for some important signs of the impending birth. Knowing what labor is about, what to expect, and what the various stages mean is a very important part of a father's role.

Labor is the process of getting your partner's body ready to give birth. During this labor period, her uterus will contract, with the effect of dilating and effacing her cervix. Dilation is the process of opening the cervix wide enough for a baby to come out and effacing means the thinning of the membrane to allow flexibility for the baby to pass through. At the time of birth, the cervix should be dilated to about 10 cm and it should be 100% effaced. So labor is hard work. Your partner's body will be in overdrive, resulting in real fatigue for her.

Starting Labor

Under ideal circumstances, labor begins naturally. You can generally tell when it is real labor because the contractions will be fairly regular at about 10 minutes apart. If contractions are not regular but more sporadic, these are probably false labor, or what the medical people call Braxton-Hicks contractions.

If labor does not come naturally, many couples will try to jump-start the process with a variety of techniques. Sometimes mild physical exertion like walking or riding a stationary bike can get labor going. Some of you may have been told that sexual intercourse will start labor. There is nothing medical to that, but you can have fun trying. Another common idea about getting labor to start is for the mom to take capsules of evening primrose oil. Some people swear by it, but again there is no medical evidence to suggest that it works.

Your partner's obstetrician may choose to induce labor if there is concern about your partner's health or the baby's health. A synthetic version of oxytocin is administered, but it has to be done intravenously at the hospital. So at least while you are home, about the only thing you can do is wait for the baby be ready and to allow nature to take its course.

Early Labor

The labor process takes a long time—longer than you probably think it should take. Once contractions are regular and 10 minutes apart and are lasting for 30 to 45 seconds each, your partner has hit early labor. You can expect it to take several hours (sometimes more than 24) to work through this process to active labor. It is important for mom to stay hydrated and to try to preserve her strength for what is yet to come. So, as her coach and supporter, you need to remind her to drink water and rest.

Active Labor

After several hours of early labor, the contractions will start getting a little closer together and lasting a little longer. Your partner's doctor will define at what stage of active labor you should report to the hospital. During this stage, the contractions will be lasting a minute or more and they will be very noticeable to your partner. Usually, during active labor, her cervix will dilate to about 6 or 7 cm and will efface to about 70% or so. The labor nurse at the hospital will manually check her cervix periodically (in between contractions) and give you the numbers.

It is also during active labor when you'll be most helpful in seeing to her needs. Generally, the hospital will give her some crushed ice to eat. It will keep her hydrated without filling her bladder too full, which makes for a pretty uncomfortable delivery. You can also rub her back and rub her legs. One of the things many laboring moms like is a couple of tennis balls put in a sock and then used to massage her lower back. Just keep being supportive and helpful, and remind her how much you love her.


If you thought active labor was intense, you will be surprised by what happens during the transition phase of labor. Contractions are now two to three minutes apart and lasting about 90 seconds. Things go into hyperdrive—the contractions are right on top of each other, and mom will get no time to rest in between.

During this transition phase, you can count on her just feeling miserable. This is when reality hits for her. She may be really in a bad mood because of the intensity of the experience. Don't take anything she says personally during the transition. But the end result of transition is the target goal—10 cm and 100% effaced. And it generally lasts from 15 minutes to an hour—but it may seem a lot longer.


During this final stage of labor, mom finally gets to have some influence on what is happening. Unlike what you see on TV or in the movies, pushing is not just a couple of grunts and a baby pops out. This stage can take up to an hour or more. And believe it or not, this stage seems to come pretty naturally.

She will generally know when and how to do it. It is clearly the hardest work your partner will ever do; if you need to do a little coaching, however, the important message is for her to push down and out. Give her lots of encouragement and praise for how she is doing. And at the end of all that work, your new son or daughter will be delivered from her body into her arms, and into the rest of your lives together as a family.