What’s been your experience of children being at the birth of their siblings? Has it always been a positive thing? As an Australian College of Midwives accredited Independently Practising Midwife I have attended many home births where children observed the labour and and birth of their sibling. From toddlers to teenagers, the experience has proved to be universally positive. The key element to having a successful family birth is good preparation. It is important that everyone who is likely to be present knows what to expect, and what is expected of them – and that goes for the siblings’ support people as well as the children.
In what way do you believe that children can benefit from being at the birth of their siblings? Sharing the birth of a baby is a profound experience for everyone present. For young children the wonder of seeing a brother or sister come into the world creates an immediate bond and deep sense of belonging to the family. Depending on the ages of the siblings, parents can prepare them for the sounds they will hear and what they will observe the mother and the midwife doing. Understanding at a level which is age- appropriate can be achieved using story books and selected birth videos, family discussions and fun role-plays. Children who are well prepared for the birth scenario often become confident supporters of the labouring woman. I have seen many tender moments shared between a mother and her child in the lead up to a natural birth and I know many children whose favourite video is their own birth.
In what way may it be detrimental? When discussing the option of having siblings present for the birth I have always advised the mother to offer the child the choice of being present, or not – and the opportunity to change his or her mind at any time before or during the event. Sometimes a mother is really keen for an older child to witness the birth of their sibling, but ultimately it should be the child that decides. Having a “what happens is meant to be” attitude is helpful. If a toddler sleeps through the birth but awakens to find the baby has arrived the child does not comprehend whether the new baby arrived minutes or hours ago. Likewise, if an older child insists on being present but changes his or her mind when the heat is on, that should be accepted as their preference without disappointment on any one’s part. I have never observed a detrimental outcome among siblings all family births I have attended have been prepared this way, and “Plan B” was in place for the siblings in every case.
Why do you think some mothers make the choice to have their children at the birth of their siblings? Mothers and fathers are exquisitely connected to their children and desire their presence and involvement in this profound family event. I have experienced a variety of birth scenarios involving siblings, including a mother whose partner had recently left her and having her 4 year old daughter present was her only support person other than myself. I have provided childbirth education to a Muslim woman who had no understanding of her own anatomy even though she was pregnant for the 6th time. Her two teenage daughters attended all antenatal visits and supported her during her first active birth and witnessed their baby brother’s birth in their bathtub.
What advice would you give mothers who are considering this? Discuss the coming event with all the family and prepare that child with story books about birth and home birth. If you have a video of your previous birth show that to the child and carefully observe his/her reactions and talk over any concerns. If in doubt about how the child will cope with the experience don’t force or coerce the child to participate, and leave the final decision with the child.