Skip to Content

What Not to Say to a Woman in Labor (And What to Say Instead!)

Planning on attending a birth? Whether you’re a doula, grandmother, or spouse, it’s important to learn what not to say to a woman in labor and what to say instead.

In my years of birth work I have heard my fair share of golden nuggets said to laboring moms. Some things were truly golden nuggets – amazing, helpful, and encouraging! And some were the other kind of nugget, likely coming from a good place, but nonetheless, very unhelpful.

This article will help guide birth partners away from the latter nuggets, also known as what NOT to say to a woman in labor. And as a gift to all the new moms out there, I’ll even talk about what to say instead. Birth team, care providers, dads looking for tips in the delivery room… ready to dive in? Let’s go!

WARNING:  Reading some of these might piss you off. They pissed me off. Prepare to get pissed.

TIP:  If after reading this article you’re starting to thing that maybe your choice in care provider isn’t the best fit. It may be a sign that it’s time to fire your OB.

On This Page

13 minute read
You don’t have to be a hero.
I hate to see you in pain.
How are you doing?
Just relax.
What can I do?
I’m so tired.
Just breathe.
You need to be quiet.
Don’t push.
You’re going to tear.
Our Words Matter

10 Things to NEVER Say to a Woman in Labor

1. “You don’t have to be a hero.”

This phrase is one of the most bothersome things on this list. If you take away one thing from this article, this is the one.

I have heard this phrase said to women in two scenarios. Scenario 1 is when a laboring woman is trying to decide whether or not to get an epidural and scenario 2 is after a laboring mom has received an epidural.

Scenario 1:  If a woman is trying to make a rational and educated decision while in labor (a very difficult thing to do when in pain!) about whether or not to get an epidural saying “you don’t have to be a hero” is playing to her emotions and vulnerability – which isn’t fair. If she’s questioning this choice instead of immediately signing up for anesthesia, she likely has a reason for the hesitation. I guarantee she doesn’t want an unmedicated birth to become “a hero”. Maybe she was hoping for a natural birth, wants to reduce the chance of further interventions like pitocin, or maybe she’s simply wanting the best start for her baby – I don’t know. But by saying “you don’t have to be a hero” to “help” her make a decision is minimizing her concerns when in a very vulnerable position. It’s a low blow.

Scenario 2:  If a woman has ended up with an epidural when it was not in her original plan, people will want to help her to feel better about her decision by saying “you don’t have to be a hero”. I get that you want to help them to feel better, but really? Again, we’re disregarding mom’s thoughts, opinions, and feelings!

What to Say Instead

  1. If a woman is debating to get an epidural, first continue to encourage her where she’s at. Could she just be asking for more support? Sometimes during a normally progressing labor when a woman asks for an epidural what she may really be asking for is more support. Maybe she thinks that she’s not doing something right or that things aren’t progressing fast enough, and because of that is asking for an epidural. Reminding her that she’s doing everything perfectly and that things are progressing normally can be very helpful.
  2. Alternatively if a woman, for whatever reason, needs an epidural one thing we can do is to see if she has any concerns or questions. Maybe there are concerns about the risks compared to the benefits. Either way, let’s not blow her off by saying “you don’t have to be a hero” but instead validate her concerns.

If a woman has received an epidural and it was not what she originally planned for, by saying “you don’t have to be a hero” you’re not being helpful. In fact, it is dismissing her feelings and making you feel better instead. If you want to help a woman process through difficult birthing decisions… validate her. Here are some things you could say instead.

  • Tell her that what she did took a lot of courage.
  • Tell her that it’s ok to be sad about losing out on an unmedicated birth.
  • And that you know she’s a good mom and wants the best for her new baby.
  • Tell her that sometimes all we can do is our best, and keep doing the next best thing.
  • Tell her that even though the epidural was not her first choice, it’s important to still stay present and work hard for her baby. Say that her baby needs her to not check out.

2. “I hate to see you in pain.”

Once upon a time I was hanging out with an amazing woman in the hospital while she was in labor. She was rocking it! We were in the bathroom, things were really intense but there was nothing wrong and she was handling things well (as well as you can in transition, you know?). In walks her well-meaning OB and says, “I hate to see you in pain.”

Um… get another job?

Another time, a well meaning grandmother was allowed into the L&D suite at the hospital to say hello to her daughter (Why did they let her in??!!). Her mother walks in with a worried look on her face, grabs her daughter’s hand and says, “I hate to see you in pain.”

Um… go away?

You see, the problem with the phrase “I hate to see you in pain” is that they’re making the birth all about themselves. The observer doesn’t like the way she’s feeling, wants the laboring woman to stop being in pain… so that the observer can feel better. You guys, BIRTH IS ABOUT A MOM AND BABY, not about the birth team (or onlookers). Don’t make things about you, make it all about mom!

What to Say Instead

If a mom is in labor and things are intense, there is nothing wrong. Nothing is wrong! Nothing needs to be fixed! In fact, she is likely rocking it. And you know what? She needs to hear that.

  • Tell her she’s rocking it!
  • And tell her things are getting more intense because she’s progressing, which means she’s getting closer to meeting her baby.
  • Tell her things are normal and she’s doing great.
  • Tell her these things a lot. She needs to hear it from you!

3. “How are you doing?”

If possible, avoid asking a laboring mom questions that can’t be answered with a simple yes or no. As soon as signs of labor begin on into active labor, a woman’s “thinking mind” quiets down while her body works hard to deliver her baby. As labor progresses the thinking mind goes further and further away. All her focus and energy is being spent on coping through contractions and then resting between contractions.

The question “how are you doing” is even more difficult to answer because a laboring mom probably doesn’t feel very good. Maybe she’s tired, hungry, nauseated, in pain, or emotionally spent. Not only is this question difficult to answer because it can’t be answered with a simple yes or no, but it’s hard to answer because she doesn’t feel good… but she’s in labor so…

What to Say Instead

Instead of asking a laboring mom how she’s doing try some of these ideas and phrases.

4. “Just relax.”

When labor gets more difficult and painful, especially during transition, a laboring mom might react by becoming fearful and tensing up. Unfortunately, when she tenses up, she will experience more pain, which will lead to more fear and tensing up… you get the idea. This is the fear => tension => pain cycle.

When a mom is fearful, tense, and in pain, telling her to “just relax” isn’t very helpful. As much as she would love to, she probably doesn’t know how to relax.

What to Say Instead

Instead of saying something general and non-specific, try pinpointing specific areas on her body to relax.

  • Say things like “relax your jaw”, “drop your shoulders” or “open your hands”. Maybe she doesn’t know how to relax, but she might be able to drop her shoulders.
  • Also, it might be helpful to remind her to not fight each contraction, but accept it. Saying things like “let it happen” or “ride each contraction like a wave” might help her with that.

5. “What can I do?”

Asking a laboring woman “what can i do?” is sweet, and I’m sure well-meaning, but not that helpful. Like I previously mentioned, a woman in labor is not in her thinking mind, and she might not know how someone can help her. You likely won’t get any good feedback when you ask her what to do. 😉

What to Say Instead

Instead of asking her what to do, try anticipating her needs. If you’ve never been at a birth before, this might be a little difficult, however, here are some suggestions.

  • Offer her water with a straw. Say, “take a sip”. A laboring mom needs 8 ounces of water per hour, so this is an easy need to anticipate.
  • Create a serene, calm birthing environment. If the lights are on, dim or turn them off completely. If people are chitchatting, politely ask them to stop or step outside. You might even be so bold as to turn on some music. 😉
  • If she needs to get out of the tub or shower, think about what she’ll need in order to do that comfortably. Will she need a towel? New clothes? Slippers? An adult diaper because her water has broken? Figure that out and make it happen.

The Birth Partner (below) is one of my favorite books for dads/partners that are wanting to be very hands on in a birth. I love the illustrations and it’s easily navigated during a birth. This is a must read for those wanting to be a good support!

The Birth Partner 5th Edition
Buy Now
We earn a commission if you make a purchase, at no additional cost to you.
03/13/2024 04:45 pm GMT

6. “I’m so tired.”

During my last birth my husband said this quite often. It actually didn’t bother me, probably because I wasn’t in active labor for most of the experience. However, after he told me he was tired he would immediately apologize and say he wasn’t the one having a baby. Ha! You see, by saying that YOU’RE tired you’re making it all about you again. And really? If you’re tired, imagine how tired this laboring mama must be?

What to Say Instead

If she has adequate support, perhaps take a 20 minute Power Nap. Find some coffee, brush your teeth, pull it together, and be there for her. You can sleep another day (or year from now teehee). I don’t have a suggestion on what to say instead for this one. Maybe just keep your mouth shut. 😉

The spoken word is a powerful thing, and even more so for a woman giving birth. Here are 10 things to NEVER say to a woman in labor and what to say instead.

7. “Just breathe.”

In the midst of an intense labor a woman may not be breathing in a way that is helping her progress. Maybe she’s not breathing that much – sometimes moms hold their breath as a way of coping through contractions. Maybe she’s taking quick, shallow breaths. Either way, whatever she’s doing is not working for her but she might not know how to change her breath to better cope through labor. There are a few helpful things to say to her instead of “just breathe”.

What to Say Instead

  • “Notice your breath.”
  • “Deep slow breaths.”
  • “Breathe for you baby.”
  • “Notice your outward breath.”
  • “Breathe with me… in… and out…. in… and out. Yes, just like that.”

8. “You need to be quiet.”

If you have a problem with a laboring mom being loud you probably should leave her birthing space. If a mom is being loud during her labor or pushing, she likely needs to vocalize as a way of coping through her pain. Birth can be noisy.

However, some sounds are more helpful than others. High pitched sounds can make her feel more tense, which can increase her pain. Loud vocalizing for an extended period of time can deplete her energy quickly.

What to Say Instead

Here are some ideas to help mom vocalize in a way that helps her to relax, conserves her energy, but still allows her that outlet.

  • Suggest she make deep, low sounds. High pitched sounds can make her tense, but low sounds can have the opposite effect.
  • Vocalize with her. In fact, moan louder than her. By doing this you will help her to feel more comfortable vocalizing in the way she needs (which can be an odd thing for a woman to do as we are conditioned early on to be quiet).
  • Suggest humming or singing.
  • Suggest a mantra like “I can do it” or “I can”.

9. “Don’t push.”

Sometimes a woman begins pushing before her cervix or her care providers are ready. If a woman is pushing involuntarily… it’s helpful to remember that she can’t help it. She can’t turn the pushing reflex off! By saying “don’t push”, neither mom or care provider will be happy – nobody gets what they want!

What to Say Instead

Here are some ideas to say instead.

  • “Let’s change position”. Sometimes by changing positions you can decrease the urge to push. If a mom has been in an upright position, try side-lying.
  • “Try horse lips”. Blowing air through pursed lips can be a helpful distraction from the urge to push. Do this during contractions.
  • “Try tiny, gentle pushes only.” Mom might not be able to stop pushing, but she likely can make her pushes smaller and less forceful. Focusing on gentle, small pushes is a way to slow the pushing down if it’s not time to push yet.

10. “You’re going to tear.”

Yes, I’ve actually heard an OB tell a mama she’s going to tear. Le sigh.

What do you think the physical response would be to hear that you’re going to tear? Yep, to tense up. And tensing up is not one of those things that is helpful to prevent tearing!

What to Say Instead

If you think someone is going to tear, don’t tell them they’re going to tear! Instead tell them they’re going to get HUGE. Make it the mantra of the moment.

“I’m going to get huge.”

In Ina May’s book, Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth, which is an amazing natural pregnancy resource, this exact thing happened and when tearing was expected to happen… but it didn’t!

“I kept thinking while I was pushing, I’m going to get huge. I’m going to get huge!” she said.”
Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth

Ina May's Guide to Childbirth: Updated With New Material
Buy Now
We earn a commission if you make a purchase, at no additional cost to you.
03/13/2024 09:20 pm GMT

Our Words Matter

The spoken word is a powerful thing, and even more so for a woman giving birth. If you are privileged to attend a birth read this list, study up, and make sure your words are gifts not curses.

Please share this post to spread the word about how to treat a lady in labor! Our new parents deserve it!

Link faron

Wednesday 16th of October 2019

If you think about it, some of the people panic and just say words they don't mean. The words here shouldn't piss you off but it should be a tip that you should say things to help the woman in labor.

"you don't have to be a hero."

now that saying is not needed.

"I hate to see you in pain."

ok, now this quote could mean different things. the creator of this page only focuses on the selfish parts, "saying that I hate to see you in pain” is that they’re making the birth all about themselves. The observer doesn’t like the way she’s feeling, wants the laboring woman to stop being in pain… so that the observer can feel better."

look, i don't think anyone has the time to think straight because giving birth is important so no one is focusing on themselves! their minds are too occupied with the woman screaming her ass off while pushing life out of her woman hole! so saying that does not mean that they are thinking of themselves but is worried for their loved one.

"I'm so tired."

yes i understand that after giving birth, the energy is literally sucked out of her but it's the same for the soon to be father. seeing their ladies in pain and struggling can make them feel anxious, and it activates their fight or flight instincts, but once the high is over, they feel tired too since the rush is out of them.

the rest of the words are pretty much explainable.


Thursday 9th of July 2020

You are literally why she wrote this. Birth is NOT about anyone else but the laboring mother. My husband wore a brightly colored shirt and I snapped at him. He turned cold and upset. The next time I delivered, we discussed this thoroughly and he told me he already picked out monochromatic clothing and apologized for his childish behavior.

Intentions don't matter during this time. You don't intend to run over someone's foot but it still hurts.

Fathers have a tendency to make it about them. They are vital roles, yes, but they are not the laboring mother.

Gabby Young

Wednesday 21st of November 2018

I sent my husband this article when I was 9 months pregnant with our second child as I thought it was a great refresher. I think every birth partner should read this at least once, but more likely more, during their partner's pregnancy.


Sunday 21st of January 2018

How about telling a mother to push before the baby is ready? My third LO was sunny side up. Cannot put into words how painful pushing was even with an epidural! After several unsuccessful pushes I looked at my stomach and asked my baby to please turn the right way. The nurse looked and me and said the baby has nothing to do with it, that it was completely up to me to get the baby out. I was furious. Still cannot stand that nurse. I was just about ready to give up. Luckily I’d had two previous pregnancies that were fairly easy; so I decided to take a break and lay on my right side for a bit and relax. Before I knew it my body started pushing on its own and he came out soon after.


Friday 17th of November 2017

My daughter’s father is not a part of her life but my parents being the nice people they are call him to let him know his daughter was being born when I went into labor 3 1/2 weeks early. Shockingly he show up to the hospital it took all of 15 minutes of him being there before I had him kicked out. Why might you ask, because he asked me when I planned to start working out again cause if I lost the baby weight I might be hot again and he think about getting back together with me again. My dad almost got in a fist fight in the room with him. Lucky he is no longer apart of my life and my husband adores I and my daughter and we have started the process of him adopting her. We are expecting our second in May and I cannot began to tell you how different this pregnancy has been just because he is my rock.


Monday 27th of November 2017

I love this. So glad you have a rock!


Wednesday 14th of June 2017

Hello I was 26 years old when i had my son ..i focused on reading on about pregnancy and newborn stage and never read anything about labour. I told my nurse while laboring that i have had a dream that i was not able to push my baby out and they had to use a forcep which had injured my baby's face was a horrific dream which i couldnt stop thinkibg about .... My nurse ignored me while i told this story but brought it up while i was pushing telling me to push or we would have to use the forceps...can u believe that shit???? Im a nurse myself and i cant even think to use a deep fear like that to encourage any of my patients !!!