If you already have children, you may be wondering how involved they should be with your pregnancy and how best to prepare them for the birth of a new sibling. They will most likely have many questions. Keep in mind that there are no correct answers to these questions. You must decide what is appropriate for your child. Most child psychologists believe that sheltering children from intense life events is not necessary, and that children do best when adults talk with them honestly about difficult situations like death, divorce, bankruptcy, and war. That also holds true for happy life events such as falling in love, marriage, and, of course, birth.
When deciding if your children should attend the birth, the location will be a consideration. More and more hospitals are allowing siblings to attend births, especially if it is within an alternative birthing center. Freestanding birthing centers generally welcome kids and if you are going to birth at home, you are free to decide whether your children will be present.
Your child’s age and emotional state will also affect your decision. If you feel that your child will be overwhelmed by the situation, you may decide that it would be better for her to stay with a friend or relative until after her new baby brother or sister has arrived. If so, talk to your child in advance about where the birth will be, who will care for her, and when she will be able to see the new baby.
ADVANTAGES OF INVOLVING CHILDREN FULLY
If you feel that your child would benefit from attending the birth, there are many advantages:
- When children witness the birth of a sibling, there may be less rivalry and jealousy afterward. While this has not been documented in any controlled studies, many parents agree that children who witness birth more intensely bond with their new sibling.
- By involving children in birth, family bonds can be strengthened. Even very young children can retain memories of a sibling’s birth.
- Teenage children can benefit from witnessing birth; it can become a “real” experience that can help to guide their decisions regarding sexual behavior.
PREPARING YOUR CHILD
If you decide your child would benefit from being present at the birth, talk to him about it. Ask if he wants to participate. You can start off by asking simple, age-appropriate questions such as: “Do you want to keep me company at the doctor’s office today?” You may have to make decisions for toddlers—watch to see how they react during trips to the doctor’s office, or while watching videos that describe birth to young children.
Older children may initially say they do not want to attend the birth, but would like to help out by cooking or cleaning. Respect their wishes, but leave the door open for them to change their minds.
There are other things you can do to prepare your child for both the months ahead and for the birth itself:
- Share children’s books and videos about childbirth and becoming a big sister or brother.
- If you have been struggling with fatigue or nausea, reassure your child that you are okay and that this is temporary. Explain that you may not be able to give him as much time and attention as you would like to because you aren’t feeling well. Make sure that he gets attention at other times, or from someone else.
- For a homebirth, explain what room you will be in and which friends and family will be there. If the birth will not take place at home, take your child on a tour of the facility you will use. Have your child meet your care provider at least once.
- Check to see if your childbirth educator, midwife, or birthing facility gives a sibling class to prepare for birth.
- Identify a close adult friend or relative who will be your child’s support person during labor and birth.
- Role play with your children. Rehearse with them some of the sounds you may make during labor.
- Encourage them to express their feelings about the birth process artistically, in drawings or paintings.
- Tell your child the story of her birth. Children usually love to hear about their entrance into the world, and this is a way to give them extra attention while reassuring them that birth is safe and natural.
- Questions about reproduction are likely to come up, so be prepared to discuss where the baby came from in the first place.
DURING THE BIRTH
During labor and birth, women tend to vacillate between an inward focus and a need for social interaction. You may feel like interacting with your child more during certain times in your labor, especially nearer the beginning.
Your child’s special support person will be his most consistent source of contact. That person should follow your child’s lead at all times. If the child expresses a wish to leave the room at any time, this should be respected. Your child’s support person should be on the lookout for signs of fatigue, sensory overload, or distress, and should suggest a play or rest break.
Prepare your child for the fact that the birth may take place at night, however, and ask her if she wants to be awakened.
Emergencies are not a part of most births, but they do happen occasionally. There are also moments of drama and tension in birthing situations. Since the purpose is to prepare your child—not to frighten her—be matter-of-fact about this and explain that everything will work out fine.
AFTER THE BIRTH
Your child may have unanswered questions about the birth. If so, or if the experience turned out unexpectedly and frightened or upset your child, you can try one of the following exercises that help children understand their feelings:
- Artistic Expression: Ask them to draw the birth scene. Children tend to draw as they perceive, not necessarily as life presents itself. Allow yourself to respond emotionally, not in an analytical way, to understand what they have created and what it reveals about them. Ask questions about their creation, rather than immediately commenting on it. Notice how different colors, shapes, and textures make you—the viewer—feel. Then try to describe those feelings to your child. This will give them the non-judgmental recognition they need.
- Recall processing: Recall processing is a technique that allows a child to safely remember a scene and discharge any emotions connected to it. Have your family sit in a circle, or on a bed. Ask the children, either one at a time or altogether, to close their eyes and “see” the birth scene. Ask them to tell the story as though it is unfolding now (“Mommy is leaning on Daddy and breathing hard and moaning”). When they’re done ask them to share their feelings further: what they liked, what they didn’t like, what worried or frightened them. All feelings are okay.
- Role Playing: Most children love to role-play. If yours does, then set up a birth scenario. You can use yourselves as the actors, or a doll family and building blocks to set the scene. Allow your child to take the lead. This will help whatever thoughts and feelings she has to come out. Do not worry if what they create does not resemble what actually happened. Play is usually symbolic.
Since children learn by repetition, you may wish to repeat an exercise that is helpful. Even a child who witnessed a calm and orderly birth might need to retell it in order to understand what happened. There’s no need to force your child to talk, however, if she does not feel the need to do so.
If you talk openly about what happened, and give your child lots of opportunities for self-expression, then there is little reason to be concerned. If, however, your child shows signs of distress such as withdrawal, big changes in appetite, or extreme irritability, consider seeking outside help from a child therapist.
Your entire family will be starting a new journey together, no matter how many children you’ve already had. As you grow and adapt, keep all lines of communication open. This will make it easier for your new family to move ahead—together.
Peggy O’Mara is the editor and publisher of peggyomara.com. She was the editor and publisher of Mothering Magazine from 1980 to 2011 and founded Mothering.com in 1995. The author of Having a Baby Naturally; Natural Family Living; The Way Back Home; and A Quiet Place, Peggy has conducted workshops at Omega Institute, Esalen, La Leche League, and Bioneers. She is the mother of four and grandmother of three.