Siblings at Birth
By Su Foster
In the not too distant past, birth was a family affair, taking place in the home. Also, families were often larger, meaning that births were a regular occurrence in the lives of many children.
In “civilised” times where modesty prevailed, the children might not have actually witnessed babies being born, but they were often in the vicinity and helped out with whatever needed to be done. As well as being present to celebrate the arrival of the baby, the older children would also share in the care of mother and baby after the birth.
Then came an era where women were packed off to hospital and not even their husbands saw them give birth, let alone anyone else. Childbirth had entered the medical domain, and there was no space for any non-professionals to contribute.
Fortunately, there has been a swing toward less medicalised models of care in birth. Along with the evolution of more gentle birthing practices and mother-centred care over the last couple of decades, families are seeking more home-like settings for birth and more flexibility from hospitals.
Although there is still much work to be done in this area, mothers are already making more choices about what they want for their births, and these choices include the participation of partners, support people and other family members.
Thus we are slowly returning to the concept of birth as a family event. These days many parents are considering including their other children in the births of their siblings.
There are some very positive benefits for children who attend their siblings’ births.
When everyone can share in a special experience, it is a lovely bond for the whole family. In addition to participating in a significant family event, these children are also gaining an early life education in a perfectly natural way.
Some children have difficulty with the transition when mum comes home with a new baby after several days away. This is not usually an issue for children who have been present at the birth, as remaining with their parents during the birth negates any separation anxiety or feelings of exclusion.
Witnessing the arrival of the baby also usually diminishes potential sibling rivalry or jealousy and fosters sibling love and bonding. The children really understand that the new baby is a part of their family and they tend to feel pride more than jealousy.
Having a baby at home is a good way for children to participate in the birth of their siblings. In their own familiar surroundings where they can come and go with ease, the birth of a baby can seem like a natural part of family life.
Of course, many children also attend births that are taking place in hospital or birthing centres, and staff are accustomed to this happening more and more frequently.
Deciding whether to include children at a birth is an extremely personal decision. The age and personality of the child have to be taken into consideration, and also whether or not they actually desire to be there.
Mum also needs to ask herself if she may feel distracted by the presence of the children, and if she is comfortable with the children seeing her during labour and birth.
Once the decision has been made to include a child, a lot of energy needs to be put into preparing the child in an age appropriate way.
I hadn’t really given much thought to this topic until one night five years ago when my friend Elissa rang to say her waters had broken. She was having a homebirth (her third) and it was a really cold night – could I bring down a heater?
I grabbed the heater and a few other things I thought might be useful and dashed off, expecting only to make a quick drop-off. However, when I arrived I was handed a camera and invited to stay and document the event.
The labour lasted through the night, with the baby arriving at dawn. I found myself spending most of the night in the company of Elissa’s five year old daughter Summer, who stayed awake for the entire time. We chatted, read stories together, and mixed massage oil “potions” that she could rub onto her mother’s belly.
Summer was extremely interested in what was happening but was also able to wander off and do her own thing. Their second daughter Eden, aged three, slept right up until the birth.
When the birth was imminent, Eden was gently woken by another friend present. She was brought into the lounge room where she watched with wide shining eyes as her baby sister entered the world.
Immediately after the baby was born the whole family gathered around her to admire and welcome her. As I managed to take some lovely photos of those first precious minutes I was struck by the feeling of wholeness. It seemed so right that the family was united in those moments.
Birth is a normal occurrence in the life of a family. What better way for our children to develop their understanding of life than to witness their brothers and sisters enter the world?
Suddenly I knew that when it came to the birth of my second child, I would most certainly involve my son.
Keegan was nearly five when it was finally time for my second child to be born, so he was already at an age where we could have quite in-depth discussions and his comprehension was very good.
From the time my belly started to show, we talked about how the baby was growing and what was happening. We also talked about the birth and where the baby would came out, how it might feel and what might happen.
I wanted him to have a good understanding of all the potential scenarios, as labour can be so unpredictable. We even practiced making birth noises together, a worthwhile exercise which we both found very amusing!
Keegan was involved in helping prepare the space and the things that we needed for the birth. The making of a birthing cushion* was one family activity Keegan really loved, as it involved a lounge room full of shredded newspaper.
We also had an art session where Keegan helped me make colourful cue cards to put on the walls to remind me in labour to be “calm”, “open” and “gentle” etc.
When it came to the birth of Jorey, we were taken completely by surprise. It was one of those lightning births that you read about.
I had taken a walk down the driveway with a sore back and before I could get back to the house I felt the baby crowning. I had completely skipped the labour altogether!
“The baby’s coming NOW!” I exclaimed, as I held his head in my hand. I was literally pressing the pause button as Ande rushed into the house to get Keegan.
A moment later, they both came flying out the front with the birth cushion. As the baby was born I could hear Keegan’s matter-of-fact commentary as he described what he saw.
We wrapped the baby up in Ande’s shirt and scrambled back into the house while the adrenalin was still high.
Keegan was actually the one who noted the time of birth. He was so cool about the whole thing. To him, it just seemed like the most normal thing in the world to walk down the front steps and see your baby brother being born under the she oak tree.
Afterwards, Keegan kept bringing me drinks and little toys for the baby, and he enjoyed heating up the hot packs for the severe after contractions I was experiencing.
He was also very interested in the placenta, and continually surprised relatives on the phone by reporting that the baby had a “very healthy placenta”.
I had not expected a quick birth as I’d had a long first birth. Having such a rapid birth really made me reflect on how shocking it can be for some families.
Fortunately we were prepared for a homebirth anyway, so we weren’t concerned about the baby being born in our paddock. Also, our son had been fully prepared for the event and so there was no drama there either.
But such a birth could be traumatic, especially for children. So I feel it is definitely worthwhile being ready for any such eventuality, including preparing the children, just in case.
When it came to our third birth, Keegan was nearly six and Jorey was only 14 months, so obviously there was a lot of difference in how I prepared them for the birth. My expectations for Jorey were also very different.
While I knew Keegan would want to be fully present once again, I planned to be flexible with Jorey. It was not so important to me to have him witness the birth, as he wouldn’t consciously remember it anyway. Although it might be lovely, it also might be tricky.
So I invited my friend Elissa, and she was going to look after Jorey through the labour (if there was one). I also had another friend on standby in case Elissa couldn’t get there in time (we no longer live close by).
As it turned out, I had a pretty textbook labour for my third birth, lasting about five hours. It had really started at 4.45am, so by the time the kids were up and having breakfast it was in full swing.
It was really lovely walking around our house in labour while the kids were going about the morning activities. There was something very grounding about it.
Jorey seemed to know what was happening and contributed in his own way. He didn’t ask for a breastfeed like he usually would. He came up to me occasionally giving me cuddles or offering me a toy or a balloon. He even rubbed my belly and patted me as I tried out various labour positions.
After a while the kids were getting a bit crazy, so Ande started drumming and they danced out their wild energy on the deck, so I was able to continue with the focus off me for a bit.
As it turned out, Jorey fortuitously went down for a nap just before the baby was born, which freed up Elissa to film the birth.
We had a birth pool and Ande and Keegan were both in water with me. When things really intensified, I asked Keegan to get out, and he quickly obliged.
As the baby was being born into his father’s hands, Keegan was on the edge of his seat next to the pool, watching with keen interest. A moment after the birth, he was saying excitedly “The baby’s here, the baby’s here!”.
It was interesting that Jorey happened to sleep just long enough for me to give birth. When he awoke soon after the birth, I was still in the pool with the baby.
He was brought to the pool and was all smiles as he met his baby sister, Zahlia. Then he began chanting “Bubba! Bubba!” over and over again.
Throughout the rest of that magical day our daughter came into the world, both our boys were bouncing balls of happiness. They loved their sister instantly and were immediately quiet and reverent when they got close to her.
I often wonder if we give children enough credit for what they can understand and what they can cope with. Although Jorey, still a baby himself, did not see the actual birth, he saw most of the labour and afterwards. There was a lot of “messy stuff”, but he was never worried for a moment.
Most young children have not yet inherited the fears and insecurities of the adult world. Indeed, they are far closer to nature than we are. They are usually not bothered by things like blood or nakedness.
And after all, it’s not that long ago that they were being born themselves. Perhaps in some subconscious place they have retained the memory of that event. (I’ve seen evidence of this, but that is another story…)
As for me, I’m glad that one of my children has witnessed human birth and I feel it’s the best life education we could give him. As one young girl said, “If you are not going to learn from your parents about having babies, who is going to teach you?”**
I like the idea of my children growing up with the knowledge of where babies come from, rather than learning it in the playground or having it revealed to them suddenly when they are ten or so.
I’m almost tempted to have another baby, just so my little girl can have the opportunity to see a birth. Well, OK, maybe we’ll have to settle for watching calves or kittens!
*Birthing Cushion – an eco-friendly way to clean up after the birth. Use an old cotton sheet to make a cushion cover about 1 metre square, then stuff it with heaps of shredded newspaper. Give birth on it (if you can), then compost the whole thing in the garden afterwards. You don’t have to do any washing and your plants reap the benefits!
** Sue Hathaway, age 15. NAPSAC, 21ST Century Obstetrics Now! Vol 3, Chapter 65, pages 857-863
PLANNING FOR SIBLING ATTENDANCE AT BIRTH
BEFORE THE BIRTH
• Prepare children about the birth process as much as possible through discussion, books and videos.
• Younger children may respond best to fictional picture books about babies, while older children may be interested in the scientific realities.
• Keep conversations about birth positive. Carefully explain what might happen in labour, for example:
“It might take a very long time, so we can take some books to read or you can have a sleep if you want.”
“It might hurt mama, but she will be OK.”
“It’s very hard work to have a baby.”
“Mum might need us to be quiet.”
“She might have to make some loud noises to help the baby out.”
“There might be blood coming out, but that is OK too.”
• Make sure children are aware of the plan for their care during the birth:
“Aunty Jo will be looking after you, so you can have lots of cuddles with her.”
“If you are not feeling OK, you can go out with Aunty Jo if you want to.”
“Let’s pack your backpack with some toys and books for you to take.”
• Talk about how children may help during the labour, if they wish to.
• Practice touching mummy in a comforting way (explaining that she may not want to be touched at all!)
• Make birth noises together and show them positions you might use in labour.
• Involve them with plans for things you’ll be using for the birth, for example:
“We might use this massage oil to rub mama’s tummy or back”.
“Mum might like this music playing for the baby.”
“Let’s pick out some clothes for the baby to wear after it’s born.”
• Allow your children to get to know your caregivers and involve them in pre-natal appointments to familiarise them with routine observations – listening to baby’s heart, taking blood pressure and so on.
• Create some birth art – have the kids draw pictures of the baby being born or in mum’s belly, or make pictures or cards to welcome the baby.
• No-one can predict how they might feel in labour, so be prepared to ask anyone to leave your birthing space if you need to, and this includes children. Communicate beforehand that this might happen.
DURING THE BIRTH
• Have a dedicated carer for the children. If they are very young, a carer for each child is a good idea.
• Be sure the children’s carer understands your wishes, will remain calm and positive for the children and is committed to staying or leaving according to their needs.
• Continually reassure children that everything is fine.
If the attending adults remain calm at all times, the children will feel that everything is OK.
• Have some activities ready for the kids to help pass the time – books, colouring in, a new toy etc.
• If you’re at home, they can help bake a birthday cake for baby.
If going to hospital, make sure you’ve got food and drinks prepared for the kids.
• Older children can have a special job to do such as note the time of birth or get drinks for mum.
• Only a familiar face should wake a sleeping child!
• Give the kids a disposable camera – they may enjoy documenting the birth and it might help lessen the intensity for them.
• Have a plan B for the kids, if something unexpected happens and you or baby need serious medical attention.
AFTER THE BIRTH
• Make a fuss of the “big” brother or sister – a good thing to do whether the child has been present or not.
• Debrief your child – talk to them about what they saw and how they felt.
• Thank them for their help/attendance etc.
• Allow the child to tell other people the birth story.
• Have them draw pictures or write stories about the birth.
My Brother Jimi Jazz
by Chrissy Butler
Delightful picture book written from the perspective of a young girl about the homebirth of her brother Jimi Jazz.
Available from www.chrissybutler.com
Welcome with Love (original title “Hello Baby” – out of print)
by Jenny Overend & Julie Vivas
Another beautiful homebirth book, where the whole family is involved in the birth. My children love this book and read it so much they know it by heart!
Available from www.capersbookstore.com.au
Runa’s Birth: The day my sister was born.
by Uwe Spillman & Inga Kamieth
A thoroughly enjoyable storybook to help children prepare for the birth of a sibling or for children in general.
Available from www.birthinternational.com
A Child is Born
by Lennart Nilsson
Quite an amazing photographic journey of a baby developing in utero. Children are fascinated by it. Highly recommended, although children may need your guidance with this one.
Available from www.amazon.com or try Australian bookstores (ISBN: 0385302371)
DVD: The Big Stretch
This is an hour length birth DVD really aimed at mum and dad, but my six year old was totally engaged by it. There are some lovely bits with siblings talking about babies in it and some labour and birth footage.
Available from: www.birthwork.com