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Delivery Dads : Fathers take active role in their babies' birth. Critics say doctors are putting themselves at risk.


During the births of his first two children, Craig Mathew was hardly what you would call a non-participating father.

He gripped his wife's hand and smoothed her brow during labor.

He cheered her on as the doctor eased both babies into the world.

He snipped both umbilical cords.

He photographed the moment his wife first held each child.

But last month, when his wife was wheeled into a Thousand Oaks hospital's delivery room for the birth of their third child, Mathew had decided to be even more involved in the event.

So this time, he delivered the baby himself.

"It made me feel so much more a part of it," said Mathew, whose movements were overseen by his wife's obstetrician. "Mothers get to bond with the baby right away and hold him right after he's born, but the fathers have to just stand by watching. This gave me the chance to bond not only with my son, but also with my wife."

Mathew, it appears, isn't alone. Local obstetricians say an increasing number of fathers in the county have grown tired of standing on the delivery room sidelines and now ask to deliver their babies themselves. And despite medical and legal concerns of physicians critical of the practice--and questions about the possible legal implications for hospitals--many of the fathers are granted their requests.

"Just a few days ago I had two fathers ask about it on the same day," said Dr. Ned Lindsay, an obstetrician in Simi Valley who said he allows fathers to take over in certain low-risk cases. "I show them where to put their hands, which is how you teach other doctors to deliver. It's kind of like having a co-pilot."

Although no statistics are available on the number of obstetricians in the county who allow fathers an active role in the delivery process, a survey of physicians revealed that their number may be growing. Several obstetricians said they now permit it if their hands are guiding the father's hands the entire time. Others said they feel comfortable enough to stand next to the father and give only verbal instructions.

Dr. Terry Cole, a Ventura obstetrician, estimated that one out of 10 babies in his care is now delivered by the father. "This is just a further extension of the public acceptance of prepared childbirth classes and husbands participating in the birth," Cole said. "Whenever the fathers ask about it, I say the same thing: 'As long as your wife is in a low-risk situation in labor, and as long as she doesn't mind your being at that end of the table.' "

Cole and other obstetricians who allow the practice stressed that they are always prepared to take over instantly if anything were to go wrong. And since fathers are only allowed to deliver the child if the mother's labor is progressing normally, they said, they consider the risks to be minimal.

"It's not like we're letting him do a Caesarean or stitch her episiotomy," Cole said. "The father's just there to make the catch."

But the issue, many other physicians argue, isn't quite that simple. For one, critics say, precious moments could be wasted during the 20% of cases in which problems arise during labor. Moreover, opponents charge that having untrained fathers at the delivery table actually could cause complications.

Among other things, Ventura obstetrician Jeffrey Richardson said, "If they let the baby's head pop out too quickly, the baby can get bleeding within the brain and the mother also could get a bad tear."

Other obstetricians cited such potential problems as injury to the child's neck if too much pressure were applied or if the umbilical cord became wrapped around it, damage to the infant's shoulder if the child were positioned improperly, and lung problems that could develop if the infant inhaled fluids at birth.

"I went to school for nine years to learn how to do this," Richardson said. "It's not always that simple."

Richardson said he occasionally allows fathers to ease the baby out once the head and shoulders have been delivered, after most problems are apt to take place. But allowing fathers to take over completely, he said, "is like doing your own appendectomy."

Lindsay, who said he has never had any complications arise because of a father's participation in a birth, disagreed. "It's not that hard to do, like brain surgery where a little slip can mean a major problem," he said. "If you run into a little problem, you just have the father step aside."

That outlook appears to have worked out for obstetricians at Kennedy Memorial Hospital in New Jersey, where more than 2,000 babies have been delivered by their fathers. So far, according to an account in American Baby magazine, the hospital reports that the practice has resulted in no complications and that all the fathers and babies have come through the experience just fine.

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