5 Things NOT to Say to a Woman in Labor – And What to Say Instead

If you’ll find yourself near a woman during childbirth sometime soon, you’re in the right place! As a birth doula, I watch and assist many women through the process of childbirth and have learned over the years there are several well-intended things that partners or myself say that usually end in frustration or “the look” from her (you know what I’m talking about).

If you’re nervous about what to say now, don’t worry! Here’s some of the most common things people say to try and comfort a woman in labor, why some are better than others, and suggestions to try instead.


1. “It’s going to be ok”

Her logical brain probably already knows this, but her logical brain isn’t there anymore. In childbirth, a woman reverts to a very primal and raw state. When you say something like this, it makes her feel like her roller coaster feelings and emotions aren’t valid and she’s acting irrationally (which she might seem to be, but it’s all part of the process). Can you imagine what it would feel like when you’ve already lost control of so many things and now someone you love or respect tells you you’re not thinking clearly on top of it all? Even if your intentions are good, this phrase may not come across helpful to a laboring woman.

Try This Instead: During difficult moments try saying something like, “This is hard work, you’re doing great” or “I’m here, you’re not alone” or “I know you can do this and I’m going to help you”.

Try This Instead: Since your instinct is telling you to say something like this, she’s probably struggling at this point. If she’s trying to put on the brave face or holding back tears, give her permission to feel whatever she’s feeling in the moment. You could say something like, “Whatever you’re feeling right now is ok. You can let it out and we can be brave/strong later.” Sometimes just taking a moment to “loose it” can help release built up emotions and find new motivation afterward. A melt down likely won’t last long and don’t be alarmed, this is all part of the beautiful process!


2. “Just relax”

Learning to relax during labor and letting your body work for you is GOLD. Helping a laboring woman relax should be a partners #1 job! However, saying “just relax” may not be the best way to help her. Anytime you use the word “just” it may sound like you’re minimizing her efforts.

Saying “Relax” was a very common answer when I took a poll of phrases laboring women didn’t appreciate. My favorite response was, “No one in the history of relaxing ever relaxed by someone saying relax!!!”

It’s almost certain that she is TRYING to relax, trying VERY hard, and now she’s frustrated because you’ve reminded her she’s failing without offering any real suggestions.

Try This Instead: Give her a kind command or suggestion such as “Drop your shoulders” or “Relax here” while you touch a spot like her shoulders, forehead, or hands. Give specific directions based on observations you see in calm clear ways.

Try This Instead: Sometimes saying nothing is better than anything. Just DO something to help her relax. Massage her back, rub her shoulders, or turn on some soothing music. Dim the lights and be close to her to set an atmosphere where relaxing comes easily to her.

BONUS TIP!! Do you already know what helps your partner relax? Do you know what kind of touch she likes? Her favorite soothing music? Now would be a great time to find out and try a few things so you are prepared with a plan.

**Every once in a while, the word Relax is actually ok. Especially if she’s using something like Hypnobabies where there are specific cue words such as “relax” or “release”. **


3. “Breathe”

In the right moment, this phrase might actually be fine and I’ve found that about half the time woman LOVE or HATE this word. It’s guaranteed that she knows she’s supposed to be breathing, but she may be struggling to find the rhythm or remembering not to hold her breath.

Breathing patterns and techniques are a great way to focus and manage the intensities of labor. Also, oxygen is essential for both the mom and the baby! So reminding her to breathe is good, but be mindful of the way you encourage her to do that and find something that works best for her.

Try This Instead: Breathe with her. If you breathe loud and slow like you want her to be doing, she’ll likely follow without having to mentally process any verbal information. (BONUS TIP: Grab a breath mint before you start blowing in her face!) You can try saying “Breathe with me” and then help her find a natural rhythm of breath by doing it along with her. A good place to start is breathe in for 4 counts and out for 8, but it’s more important that the rhythm feels natural so her body and baby get the oxygen they need.

Try This Instead: Notice how many of these breaths her normal contraction lasts. Then at the beginning of the next one you could say, “OK, 5 breaths together now”. Sometimes having a end in sight makes the surge easier to tackle.


4. “How are you doing?” or “Are you ok?”

Really, questions of any kind should be avoided. It takes SO much physical and mental energy to bring life into the world and many women enter a mental state sometimes referred to as “labor-land”. All her energy is being directed to birthing this baby and her mental capacity to think of anything else or answer vague questions is compromised. How is she doing? She’s in pain, she’s tired, she’s focused, but she can’t find those words. Is she ok? Probably, but this question is annoying even when you AREN’T in labor, so just don’t even ask.

Try This Instead: Especially when things get more intense, ask only Yes or No questions. Do you need water? Yes. Are you too cold? No. Try not to ask more than 1-2 questions in a row.

Try This Instead: An EVEN BETTER option would be to ask no questions at all! Just put the straw up to her mouth and say “drink”. If she’s sweating, just get a wash cloth and put it on her forehead. Really take time to notice her and see how she’s doing without asking questions. (This is a great skill to learn and practice in all interactions with her!)


5. “What can I do?”

I know you would do anything to help her in this moment.  You want to protect her and take away the pain if you could. If you’re not familiar with the labor process it can be frustrating not knowing what she needs you to do! With all her energy being used to birth this baby, the last thing she needs is to be holding your hand and walking you through the process too. What can you do to help her in labor? Ask her this question RIGHT NOW. Talk together about a plan, what she expects from you, and brainstorm some ideas so you have a list of things to try when the birthing day comes.

Something else to seriously consider is hiring a birth professional such as a doula. A birth doula isn’t just there to help the laboring woman, but can also help you too. You can ask your questions to her and she can share with you some helpful things to do. She’s trained in comfort measures, what the normal process and milestones look like, and ideas to help partners be involved! Read more about what a doula does here or Pin It for later.

Try This Instead: Just do something. It may seem bossy or abrupt, but she’ll let you know if it’s not what she wants. She won’t be offended and neither should you. Move on and try something else. Many women don’t even remember the abrupt nature of their speech or commands from others after the birth. They often have kind and pleasant memories of being so well supported and cared for while they worked so hard to bring new little life into the world.


BONUS TIP! Here’s an extra tip for you that she doesn’t know she wants but she’ll be thankful for! 

Make noise WITH her.

When a woman is clenching up and being vocal in a tense, high pitched way try encouraging her to moan “lower”.  Say the word “lower”, then moan lower with her. A low, guttural moan or grunt helps naturally relieve tension in the shoulders and pushes the diaphragm down also relaxing the abdomen and pelvic floor. Make an open Oooooo or Aahhhhh sound instead of an Ehhhhh or nasal moan. Being vocal during labor can make some women feel embarrassed, but they are more likely to use this natural and helpful technique if someone is doing it with them. Don’t be afraid to help her feel comfortable listening to her body and surrendering to the natural process of childbirth.

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Every woman is different and some of the phrases bother some more than others. The BEST advice is to experiment and talk before the birthing time about things she may find helpful or annoying. Having a few ideas in your back pocket and clear expectations from her will make for smooth sailing! You may still run into bumps along the way, but learn and move on. Birth is an incredible and unpredictable process, so enjoy the unique experience. Good luck!

If you’re looking for more tips for a birth partner, read:

5 Tips for Birth Partners – Advise from a Doula ~~ (Pin it for later)

or this article

7 Steps to a Perfect Birth ~~ (Pin it for later)

~ All things for you and your new little life ~

5 Things NOT to Say to a Woman in Labor - And What to Say Instead

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