birth

Should Your Children Attend the Birth of Your New Baby?

This article was written for the Yahoo Contributor Network on 25 March 2010.

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When I told people I was planning to have my daughter with us when I birthed my son, almost everyone freaked out. The polite ones would say, “Do you think that’s a good idea?” The people who cared less or were in a state of shock said, “You can’t do that!” And so began my battle with the world to have my family experience this birth with me. My whole family.

My daughter was three and a half when my husband and I began talking about our options. Would she be able to handle it? Would we traumatise her? Would I be able to focus with my daughter in the room? Would my husband be distracted by our daughter instead of being able to concentrate on me? And the most pressing question of all: what would happen if the birth went wrong?

Despite all of the fears I still felt quite strongly that having our daughter with us was the right thing to do. I know my daughter and I know myself. I knew instinctively that this should be a family experience and that we could handle any outcome that eventuated if we took the right precautions. So if you’ve ever thought of involving your other children in your birth, these are some things you should think about.

Is it appropriate?

Not all children should witness such an intense experience and age is a very important factor. Older children may not want to share this experience and their opinions should be respected. Under no circumstance should a child be made to witness something that they do not wish to experience. Younger children may not have the maturity to deal with seeing their mother in pain, or may not be able to keep themselves amused while the parents are focusing on the birthing. Toddlers may be more interesting in climbing all over you.

Choosing to birth in a hospital (which is scary for some of us without the screaming women) may not be the best place to have other children with you. Children are more likely to feel uncomfortable in a hospital and this in turn may cause them more stress than they would normally exhibit in a more familiar environment. Home birthing or opting to birth in a Family Birthing Centre may be more conducive to having other children involved.

There is also a much higher instance of intervention in a hospital and so there is much more chance of your older children witnessing things like foetal monitoring and the administering of pain relieving drugs. These may not be procedures that you wish your children to witness and will really depend on how you feel about it and whether you honestly feel your children will have a problem with seeing you strapped to a machine or with an IV in your arm.

Is it possible?

Intervention that is more serious than basic monitoring or administering fluids is probably not something you want your children to witness. Childbirth is natural. Intervention is a medical procedure. If you have a high-risk pregnancy or your labour becomes high risk then having your children with you really isn’t an option. In fact I sincerely doubt that any hospital is going to allow you to have children in with you unless you have a private room or birthing suite. Even in these circumstances you will need to find out more about your hospital’s policy when it comes to having children with you for the birth.

Prepare, prepare, prepare

In all likelihood it will be impossible to determine whether your child is mature enough to witness birth until you have at least broached the subject many times with your child. This may start off as expressing your hope that your child can attend and extend to include watching birthing videos, reading books together and having discussions with your child about what may or may not occur.

I had many discussions with my daughter about my impending labour. While I made sure that she had the facts (in age-appropriate language), I also explained to her that birth is a natural thing. For example, I told my daughter that it was very likely that I would be grunting or screaming. I explained that birth hurt but at the end we would have a beautiful baby boy as part of our family. I made sure she understood that I had experienced this pain at her birth and that it was worth it because she is here with us now.

We even played games by taking turns at yelling, trying to mimic what she may hear. When I was in labour with my son, my daughter spent much of her time standing next to me in the shower, hanging off the support bar and grunting! When my husband asked what she was doing she said, “I’m helping mummy!”

Have a back up plan

I never intended to allow my daughter into the birthing suite at the Family Birthing Centre without having a back up plan in place. My husband and I discussed this at length then asked for his sister to be “on call”. If at any stage our daughter became distressed, needed a meal or otherwise needed taking care of, my sister-in-law (who lived five minutes from the hospital) would come and pick her up.

We made sure that my daughter understood that this option was available to her. While she was only three at the time, we knew our daughter well enough to know that she would tell us in no uncertain terms whether she wanted to stay or go.

If you don’t have a support person who lives near the hospital, try to find someone who can actually come to the hospital. Depending on how close you are, they may even be able to attend the birth if you and they are comfortable with this. The advantage to this is that they can look after your child without leaving this up to your partner solely.

We were extremely lucky and did not have to even call for assistance.

Bring a sibling bag

Make sure that your other child or children have their own bag. No one knows how long your labour will be and it is of absolute importance that your other kids have things to keep them amused. Bringing toys and books will give children something to occupy them. It will also give them permission to go off into the corner and have a bit of their own time. Packing food, snacks and water is also important so that your partner or support partner is not forced to leave you while they go and hunt down food for the kids!

The hurdles

Be prepared to cop some flak. My parents were dead set against the idea, even speaking with their own GP to try and gather “expert evidence” to support their fears. My mother-in-law was beside herself. Some of my friends knew me well enough to avoid the topic while thankfully others supported me completely. Colleagues pretended to be supportive while doubts flickered behind their eyes. Some weren’t even old enough to seriously consider having children of their own.

It seems that decisions about labour and birth are everyone’s business. It never fails to amaze me just how controversial our own choices can become. The medical profession has put enough fear into the general populace that most people consider handing complete control of women’s pregnancies and labour over to a stranger “erring on the side of caution”. Some people will even treat you as though you are taking needless risks, being selfish or are being just plain irresponsible. It takes a strong woman to stand up in the face of that kind of criticism and make her own informed and instinctive choices.

By the way, all doctors who we spoke to (or my parents spoke to) said they were not in favour of having children at a birth. Conversely, all midwives we spoke to truly supported our decision, even giving sound advice and sharing stories of other parents who had made the same decision.

The benefits

If you have decided it is appropriate and possible to have your other children witness your labour, if you have prepared your child and have a back up plan in place, then there are many benefits to making this decision.

Your older child will not be confused when you suddenly bring a baby home from the hospital. They will know exactly where they came from and will have felt just as part of the experience as you and your partner.

I believe this has prevented my daughter from feeling excluded. She was therefore never threatened by the presence of another little person in our lives. From the moment our son was born, our daughter has been completely involved in this change to all our lives. She was never a bystander, watching from the outside while everything changed around her. I honestly believe that this has given her more stability and security. Sure my kids are still young, but they are extremely close.

My son’s first word was not “Mama” or “Dada”. It was “Amber”.