By Sean Coughlan
BBC News Magazine
As England cricketer Andrew Flintoff has found, a father's decision not to be at his child's birth raises eyebrows nowadays. But times have changed so much, midwives now worry about all a mother's friends and family turning up as well.
"There are people who seem to be treating births as a consumer experience," says Billie Hunter, Professor of Midwifery at the University of Wales, Swansea.
Rather than asking about whether the expectant dad should be at the birth, Professor Hunter is now more worried about the line-up of other relations and supportive friends wanting to be in the delivery room.
"The creeping number of people at births is a worrying trend. It should be very intimate - women need to be able to relax," she says.
"It almost seems that 'seeing a birth' has become one of those 101 things to do before you die. The reason for being there should be to support the woman - not to view the birth."
Until the 1970s, fathers were often excluded from births, but now she says a wider range of friends and family are turning up - which can be intrusive to the expectant mother and get in the way of the medical staff.
Most fathers now see it as their duty to be present at the birth
"It's gone from being a very tightly controlled situation in the 1950s and 1960s - and I sometimes fear that it's swung too far the other way," says Professor Hunter.
There have already been similar concerns in the United States - with warnings that giving birth shouldn't be treated as some kind of spectator sport or emotional tourism.
And there have been accusations that some of the friends turning up at the maternity ward think they're playing out a part in medical television shows.
Pregnancy information websites have debated the issue of "labor room parties". Carmen, writing in Pregnancy-Info, expresses unease at the prospect of only having her partner present when she gave birth.
For her first child she said she was accompanied in the birthing suite by "my partner, his mother, my best friend and my grandmother".
Another contributor, Tara, said she had 12 people present when she gave birth - "close friends and some of my family".
Such concerns about crowd scenes at the bedside show how far maternity wards have changed. A generation ago, fathers-to-be would have had to explain why they wanted to be present. Now they need to have a good excuse to stay away.
England cricketer Andrew Flintoff's decision to stay on tour when his partner is due to give birth has become a pundits' talking point.
According to the National Childbirth Trust, more than 90% of women giving birth are accompanied by their partner.
And Gillian Fletcher, a former president of the NCT and an ante-natal class tutor for more than 20 years, says that it was a myth that in the past men wanted to dodge the maternity wards.
Fathers not allowed
"Fathers were kept out rather than wanted to stay out," she says. That changed in the 1970s - and she says that for most men it has been a positive experience.
Television medics have glamourised the hospital wards
But she warns that men should not be pressurised into being present - and that if they want to be there they need to be warned about the sights and sounds to expect during labour.
The least ambivalent voice in the question about who should be present is from the fatherhood campaigners, Fathers Direct.
Jack O'Sullivan, author, former newspaper columnist and co-founder of Fathers Direct, says that fathers should be there for the big occasion.
"It would be a great misfortune for a parent to miss such a great moment. And to tell your children about the first moments when you held them is so poignant," says Mr O'Sullivan.
Being at the birth sets a pattern for fathers remaining involved through children's lives, he says.
And he also robustly attacks the idea that there is anything non-masculine about fathers wanting to be present at the birth - and dismisses the idea that men would prefer to be in the pub.
"I don't know why they wheel out the 'Why oh why?' commentators over this - because it's completely out of step with modern society. Men are not being frogmarched into the delivery rooms."
He also says that there is nothing "traditional" about men being excluded from the rearing of young children. As evidence he quotes the sturdy man of the countryside, William Cobbett, who in 1830 wrote:
"There is nothing more amiable, nothing more delightful to behold, than a young man especially taking part in the work of nursing the children; and how often have I admired this in the labouring men of Hampshire.
"It is, indeed, generally, the same all England; and as to America, it would be deemed brutal for a man not to take his full share of these cares and labours."
My friend recently became a father for the first time and his partner demanded that her mother and two sisters were to be present. My friend was very upset with this and did not enjoy the experience at all, which I find very unfortunate.
My mother-in-law wants to be at the birth of my first child in eight weeks time - I am horrified at the thought of having her there but she's been truly upset at my refusal to allow her into the delivery room/hospital/10 mile radius, as she believes it is her right to see her granchild born. I don't expect labour to be the most relaxing experience and I can't think of anything worse than having people watching me. I would like my husband there as I expect I'll be petrified, but reserve the right to throw him out of the room if I need privacy and fully intend to divorce him should he inform his mother I'm in labour and allows her anywhere near me. As if pregnant women don't have enough to worry about.
I gave birth to our child in the US (as an expat). Not only did my mother in law turn up, she then felt the need to invite the rest of the family, who traipsed into my delivery room. Since then, they have not bothered with my child, forgotten birthdays and even her name. This does nothing but highlight that their interest was not to welcome our child to the world, but to satisfy their own needs.
My mother was in attendance at my first two children's births, along with my husband. However, when I had my third child, I was told that I could only have one person with me and my mother had to miss out. I believe that the woman should be able to have the people there that she seeks support from, but I also agree that the amount of people in attendance should be limited. As usual it is a case of a fine balance that should be able to be achieved.
Nicola Priest, Reading
I became a father five weeks ago for the first time and was present at the birth - I can't imagine wanting to be anywhere else. My mother-in-law also wanted to be there, but was barred by the medical staff.
Graybo, East Sussex, UK
As a student midwife I have seen how wonderful it is for the woman to have the people with her in the room when she gives birth. But I also know how frustrating it can be trying to manoeuvre round a large group of people when you're trying to help the woman at such an important time.
I was at the birth of both my girls and it is a truly incredible experience. I also cut the cord on both of them and was there to look after them during periods when my wife was otherwise occupied. Had I not been there they would have been passed to someone else who did not have an emotional attachment. Those first few minutes are so precious and should not be missed! It must have been a heart wrenching decision for Freddie.
I have been present at the birth of all our children, and on each occasion I was asked to cut the umbilical cord. I know it is well intentioned, but really, why do they do that? I know why I was there, and it wasn't to cut the cord. It changes the experience from something amazing and personal to something akin to cutting the ribbon at a supermarket.
I'm expecting and don't want people at the birth. I can't think of anything more abhorrent than everyone seeing me in a state of puffing and panting and extreme pain. I'll let the dad in but only if he doesn't go down the business end .
I wouldn't be of any use at my wife's side when she'd be in labour as I'd pass out straight away and probably have to be taken to casualty. My wife would have plenty of other things to worry about at the time.
P. Williams, Bangor
We only have one child and do not plan anymore. It was a wonderful thing seeing my son for the first time and any father who would rather be at the pub needs their head examining.
I was at both my children's appearances into the world and cannot comprehend any individual wanting to pass the occasion up. In addition, my wife had major complications with our first and if I wasn't there (let alone down the pub) I would have been unaware that she was in a life or death situation. For any prospective dad, my advice is be there.
I was at the birth of both my children now teenagers and I can honestly say that it was a dreadful experience. Of course having the baby at the end is a beautiful experience but I felt ill equipped to counsel my wife through her difficult time of labour and actually it something now that we find awkward to talk about.
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