When I arrived in Great Britain last week, the most talked-about health topic in the British press concerned fathers-to-be.
Should they or shouldn’t they be in the delivery room?
It was a discussion that seemed oh-so-1970s. But then Britain has always seemed to me behind America in terms of letting go of long-ingrained gender roles.
The firestorm began when Dr. Michel Odent, the well known (in Britain) French-born but longtime London-living obstetrician, proclaimed his belief that men — fathers and physicians alike — should stay away during the birthing process.
“The ideal birth environment involves no men in general,” the 79-year-old Odent told a reporter. “Having been involved for more than 50 years in childbirths in homes and hospitals in France, England and Africa, the best environment I know for an easy birth is when there is nobody around the woman in labor apart from a silent, low-profile and experienced midwife – and no doctor and no husband, nobody else. In this situation, more often than not, the birth is easier and faster than what happens when there are other people around, especially male figures – husbands and doctors.”
Here’s Odent’s reasoning: The presence of a male in the delivery room causes women to become tense, which slows down their production during labor of the hormone oxytocin.
“If she can’t release oxytocin she can’t have effective contractions, and everything becomes more difficult,” Odent said. “Labor becomes longer, more painful and more difficult because the hormonal balance in the woman is disturbed by the environment that’s not appropriate because of the presence of the man.” He blames this “masculinization of the birth environment” for the recent rise in Caesarean sections in the U.K. (Almost one-quarter of all births in the U.K. are by Caesarean section. In the United States, the rate is even higher — about 31 percent.)
The idea that the mere presence of a man in the delivery room slows down oxytocin production is a provocative theory, but Odent doesn’t cite any research to back it up. Nor could I find any in a quick search of Pubmed.
Still, there is some research that suggests the presence of a supportive woman (a doula) in the delivery room along with a male partner can have both psychological and physical benefits for the mother — even, perhaps, lowering the likelihood of Cesarean section.
I personally hope we’re not going to go back to the Dick Van Dyke Show days when bumbling (as they were inevitably portrayed) fathers-to-be were relegated to hospital waiting rooms instead of participating in one of the most transformative moments of their lives — the birth of their child.
That said, not all fathers should be allowed in the delivery room. Case in point: the drunk 30-year-old dad-to-be who two weeks ago groped a nurse’s breasts as she wheeled his wife into the delivery room in a Utah hospital.
That father was quickly carted off to jail. “Obviously,” noted a police officer with dry understatement, “he wasn’t there for the birth of the child.”