Determining what's right for your child
When it comes to siblings attending the delivery, one of the most common questions parents have is: Are my kids old enough?
Robin Elise Weiss, childbirth and postpartum educator, certified doula, doula trainer -- and the mother of four -- says age is not the most important factor in deciding whether your children should attend the birth, but rather their temperament and how much you have prepared them for this exciting time.
"It's also important to allow the child the right to leave and the option of changing (his or her) mind," says Weiss, whose older children began attending the birth of their siblings at the ages six and four-and-a-half. "Being flexible goes both ways and is very important."
For example, Weiss says, parents may think they'd like the child to be present for the whole birth but find it works better to have them come and go with a support person specifically assigned to the older child. "Or perhaps they show up just for the last few minutes of labor and birth," she says. "Maybe your child will be bored and want to leave. You need to be prepared for this and not be hurt by their decision."
Mindy Haines' daughter was all set for the birth of her brother until just before his birth. Haines, of Millersville, Maryland, discussed the details of childbirth with her daughter, then six, ahead of time.
"She decided that she didn't want to be in the room when Spencer was born, but that she wanted to meet him as soon as he was cleaned up," Haines says. "So, when I was 9 centimeters, my girlfriend called my mother-in-law and she brought Amanda to the hospital. They waited in the waiting room until 20 minutes after Spencer was born. Then they came back and spent several hours with us."
Clare Albright, a southern California psychologist, mother and author of 100 Tips for Parents of Two Year Olds, says in most cases, families should wait until their older children are at least six years old before they attend a birth.
"During the labor, the older sibling will see the mother in a great deal of pain, probably making unusual and loud noises," Albright says. "Before six, the child's brain is not physiologically developed to the point that it can reason in an abstract way. Instead, young children reason in a concrete, ego-centric way. Children over six could view their mother expressing pain and understand the concept, 'Mom is in pain but she doesn't really mind because it's well worth it to bring our new baby into the world.' Children under age six process their mother being in pain by thinking, 'Oh no, Mom's probably mad at me? What did I do? This is so scary! She's not safe so I'm not safe! Something terrible is about to happen! I've never seen Mom act like this before!'"
Albright says while she feels allowing a child under age 6 to attend the birth can be traumatic for the child, for children over age 6, being present at the birth can foster feelings of inclusion and belonging in the older child. "I do believe that going through an intense, emotional miraculous event such as viewing the birth of a younger sibling will most likely lead to a special bond with that younger sibling," Albright says. Weiss, too, says viewing the birth creates a special bond.
"Our three year old witnessed his sister's birth this past fall. He actually stood right next to me on a stool. He was so thrilled," Weiss says."He was quiet and peaceful during the birth, and very wide-eyed. My husband actually caught the baby with our practitioner standing next to him. When my husband handed me the baby and stepped aside, Isaac grabbed his arm and hugged it really tight and said, 'She came out! She came out!' He hopped up next to me on the bed and said it was his turn to hold the baby. He was singing and dancing all day, telling everyone who would listen. We have honestly not had a single problem in six months with him and the baby."
Diana Fusco, of Belair, South Australia, had her then one year old son, Arin, attend the birth of his brother, Devin. "Although I know he was probably too young to remember much if any of the birth, it meant a lot to me for him to be present. We went into this pregnancy as a family and went into the birth as a family also," Fusco says.
Fusco says she and her husband decided to allow Arin to attend the birth because they wanted their son to know where his brother came from. "[We] wanted him to be part of the event rather than suddenly having a strange baby foisted on him," she says."Devin was born in a birthing center attached to a hospital. Across the hallway there was a little waiting room for friends and family. A good friend who knows Arin well set herself up in this room with Arin so that he could come in and out of the room as he wished. That way he could decide how much he could handle. He left the room during the pushing, and came straight back in as soon as Devin was born."
Fusco says Arin handled the majority of her labor well. But when given the chance to attend the birth of Fusco's third child, her eldest declined, since he has a strong aversion to blood, and because the middle child was "into everything" at age four, it didn't seem appropriate to have him there.
"I think we know our children and we know if they can handle it or not," she says.
Preparing your child
Weiss reminds parents to talk about all aspects of the birth, including the fact that babies are born naked and how and why the umbilical cord is cut.
"Many children play with clothed or diapered dolls, and [naked newborns] can be a shock for them," she says. "One little girl was very upset over cutting the cord because no one had talked to her about it. She thought the baby was having its tail clipped like a puppy! Preparation ahead of time can alleviate these miscommunications."
Albright recommends parents find a simple book about pregnancy and show the older child how the new baby looks during different stages of the pregnancy. Weiss says it's also important to not only show pictures, but videos particularly ones that include a similar setting, such as a hospital, so the child becomes familiar with the instrument table and other devices used in the delivery room.
"Practice vocalization with your child," Weiss adds. "'This is what Mommy may sound like: Ahhhhhhhhhh!' They not only get the reality of the situation but will have fun practicing too."
To prepare her daughter, Haines said they watched A Baby Story on TLC and brought her along on a few prenatal appointments. Haines says she planned for her mother-in-law to attend to her daughter while Haines was in labor. Weiss says having a support person for your child is a must, and it has to be someone who you are not counting on to support you during your labor and delivery.
"So if it's really important that your mom be at the birth, don't assign her the task of taking care of the older child. You might even consider hiring a doula or childbirth educator to do this job," she says. "Sometimes you can find a training doula who needs a birth for certification purposes who would be willing to assist you, perhaps for a lesser fee."
Have a labor bag ready for your child that is filled with fun things to do, games, snacks, et cetera, Weiss says.
"Consider giving your child a disposable camera. You might get some really great photos," she adds. You may also want to assign your older child a job during your labor. "Being the resident ice-chip-fetcher or cold-rag-wringer are great jobs for kids, particularly those in the age range of three or four years old," Weiss says.
When it comes to making the decision of whether or not to invite your child to the birth, and how -- if at all -- to involve them at the time, you really have to rely on your own best judgment. You know your child better than anyone!