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Should my child attend the birth of their new sibling?
by Dr. Susan Bartell

Of course people will have very different reactions to this idea. Some will think it's terrific, a really wonderful shared experience for parents and child as well as a powerful bonding moment for the child and his new sibling. Other people will be shocked at the thought and terribly upset that a parent would even think of exposing a child to such a traumatic experience. One mom told me that she didn't think she would be able to concentrate and that she might even be embarrassed for her child to see her in labor and giving birth. Still other parents will be on the fence, unsure of which is the right decision for their family. This article will take a look at the pros and cons of this issue to help you decide which choice is right for you. We will also make some suggestions about how to make the experience as positive as possible, if you do decide to have your child at the birth of your next baby.

The truth is the experts don't agree either.

The experts who favor having a child present say that it can be a powerful and positive experience for the child and parents and that having the child present contributes to a feeling of family closeness. They also feel that since parents include the child in as many phases of the pregnancy as possible, having the sibling at the birth is an extension and natural conclusion of this. Many midwives, who tend to be more accepting of children at births than traditional obstetricians, report that most children are thrilled to be there, and that they have an opportunity to bond with their new sister or brother immediately. Other supporters contend that having the child at the birth may reduce sibling rivalry later on.

Even amongst the supporters, there is disagreement as to the ideal age at which children can benefit from this experience. Many feel that a child must be adequately prepared before attending a labor and delivery. And in order to prepare a child she has to be able to understand verbal explanations quite well. So amongst these experts there is a general consensus that about three years old is the youngest age that a child can adequately comprehend what is being explained, and then ask questions if necessary.

Other proponents feel that depending upon the child and the birth, there should be no boundaries on the age at which a child can attend. One seasoned midwife, who's attended at least three dozen births at which siblings of various ages were present, told me that in her opinion "the real young ones seemed almost oblivious, as long as they were being held by a trusted adult, usually a best friend of mom, or granny. They haven't learned as much fear yet, in my opinion."

On the other hand are those who believe that it could be very traumatic for a child of any age to view his mother in labor and giving birth. They believe the sight of blood, and seeing their mother in pain can be very traumatic for a child. These experts also believe that viewing the actual birth could be overwhelming. Another issue is that the child's presence might be distracting or difficult for the mother who already has a large enough burden in laboring and giving birth. Some obstetricians are worry that the child will get in the way. Still others say that you never know when there might be a crisis during labor and delivery that may frighten you and your child and which you may not want her to observe.

It may depend on your child's temperament and age.

Regardless of what the experts say, you have to use your good sense about your child to make the final decision. For example, you may have a very sensitive child who gets scared and even has nightmares, very easily. You may not choose to have this child at a labor or birth. What's more, you can't assume that an older child will not be scared. There are six year-olds who are tough and fourteen year-olds who are very sensitive. Sometimes younger children are more open to the idea, and as they get older they become uncomfortable with the idea of seeing their mother in this way. This is particularly true of adolescent boys who may be extremely opposed to witnessing their mother give birth.

Okay, I've decided I want my child to attend the birth, now what?

Here are some things you should do to make the experience positive for you and your child:

  • Ask you child if he wants to attend. Never force or coerce a reluctant child or teenager and tell him that he can change his mind at any time. Also, tell him that he can leave at any time during the labor or delivery if he is uncomfortable or scared, and you will not be at all hurt or upset.
  • Prepare your child in a calm and matter-of-fact way, by describing what she should expect to see. Use age appropriate language and don't spare the details. Children need a realistic idea of the pain and blood they may witness. Explain that mom's body makes a LOT of extra blood for the birth and that it is SUPPOSED to come out. They also need to know that it will probably take a long time (like three or more TV shows) and that the baby may be blue and cry a lot when it is born.
  • Get at least one video that shows childbirth and encourage your child to watch it as often as possible before the actual day (try "Spiritual Midwifery", which can be ordered through www.farmcatalog.com). A book with graphic pictures is also very useful ("Giving Birth" and "A Child is Born" are both recommended by parents who've had their children at a birth. Check the recommended reading section for further details.)
  • Explain that having a baby is very, very hard work and that sometimes it helps to make "real big work noises" and "hard, hard work faces." In fact it's a good idea to encourage your child to practice making funny noises and funny faces with you, focusing on exerting effort.
  • Ask an adult with whom your child is comfortable, to be responsible for him throughout the entire process. This person should not be the father or anyone else who will be directly involved in the labor and delivery. This adult and your child should both know that if the child cries, becomes scared or asks to leave, he should be taken out immediately. Your child should be told in advance who is going to be in charge of him. Older children and teenagers also need the support of an adult, but of course they may not need to be "taken care of " in quite the same way.
  • If your child is very young (and even with older children), you may want to consider having her at the delivery only. It may be hard for a young child to endure a long wait and see her mother in labor. But witnessing the birth may be exciting for her.
  • If the child will attend the labor and delivery, pack some snacks, drinks toys and books for him and even arrange a place to sleep.
  • Remember this is a big decision, and you should always give yourself the option to change your mind, even at the last minute or during labor.
  • Arrange to have your child interact with the baby as soon as possible after the birth.

One last thing, if you are still really unsure whether your child will respond positively or negatively to the experience, consider this: if you allow her to witness the labor and delivery she might be scared by it. If so, there is a possibility that she will continue to feel upset long after the birth. This would obviously be stressful for her, for you, and for her relationship with the baby. Remember you can't undo it once it's been done. So if you really think your child is the type who won't respond well to this experience, go with your gut feeling and don't do it. You can always videotape the birth and let her watch it afterwards when there is time to stop and process it as you go along. For those who feel it would be a wonderful experience for your family, be open, be flexible and most of all listen to your child.

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