The arrival of a little brother or sister is a very significant event in a child’s life. Ever since childbirth has become a medicalized and “hidden” event for the vast majority of people, the possibility of being able to witness or support the arrival of a brother or sister is practically non existent. The baby has thus become an abstract Being, that grows inside the belly, and then mummy disappears for a couple of days and returns with a creature wrapped up in blankets and mystery. The way in which each child deals with it and integrates the experience depends on a number of factors, but undoubtedly, preparing her for it can go a long way.
Regardless of where the birth will take place, if the woman/couple so desire, the children can be included in the doula sessions. Coming along for some doctor or midwife´s appointments and scans can also help demystify what will happen when the mother goes into labour, and how or when the baby will come. It´s also a golden opportunity to teach children about how babies are born.
In the case of a home birth, it´s possible for a child to be present, and witness “everything”. In that case, here are some things to take into consideration:
• Arrange for someone to be solely responsible for taking care of the sibling (whether that person comes to the birth or not). It can just be someone who is on call to come pick up the child if needed, or someone who is there just to mind and support her. Labour can be a rather long affair (or how a big sister once put it to me midway “boring!” 😛 ).
• Talk about the birth in advance with the child, explain what sounds to expect, show her some of the birth supplies that may be used.
• Enable the child to get to know the birth team before the big day.
• Watch some birth films together (watch and pre-approve them before hand, so they are age appropriate and you are comfortable with what your child is going to see). These can be a great tool in giving the child an idea of what to expect and what may happen, even tough every birth is so different, of course.
• Assign small tasks during labour, so the child feels she has a role in her own right. Be it hanging the “Positive Affirmations” on the wall, helping to organize the midwives´ equipment, or helping with other preparations.
• Include the child in massaging mum, especially in the early stages of labour, when the labouring woman is still chatty, and responsive. It´s worth explaining in advance that mummy may not be in the mood for much touch or conversation as labour progresses.
• Have a frank conversation with the child, (if old enough to understand) if he or she really wants to be present at the birth. Does she/he want to miss school that day? Does she/he want to be picked up early if things kick off while she is in school? Does she/he want to be woken up if baby makes an appearance in the middle of the night? You will notice that as your pregnancy advances and the “due” date approaches, everybody gets a little more anxious/excited. Your child is no different. Having a clear idea of what will happen, and that she won´t be forgotten regardless of where she/he will be what the baby comes can take a lot of the anxiety away.
• Explore some age appropriate resources together. (books, short films, pictures, etc)
Childbirth is a very powerful, and very beautiful event. But it can also be intense or even scary, if the child is not ready (or even if he or she is!). Witnessing her mother dealing with the waves of the contractions, emitting guttural sounds she has never heard, can be too much for a child. The doula can keep reassuring her everything is fine, that´s the way it´s supposed to be, look, feel, and support the child and / or the person who is in charge of being with her in managing so many emotions, or suggest that they go for a walk, when the mother needs more privacy and it looks like “nothing is happening”. A walk to the park to get some air and give the labouring woman some space can work miracles!
When everything “lines up” and the sibling can be at the birth, it can be a wonderful experience. How special to witness the birth of our brothers or sisters as a child. And to know at such a young age, how birth is like. An event at once so mundane and divine.
Finally, and as always, the final decision on whether or not to have other children at her birth must rest solely with the pregnant/labouring woman. It´s important that she has the autonomy to be alone if she so chooses. And give herself space so she can decide and change her mind when the time comes. Without feeling pressured by others. All this can and should be a topic of discussion during the antenatal sessions. It´s ok to decide there and then. It´s never a guarantee. And let us never underestimate the power of “I will decide there and then, and everything is fine”! It takes a lot of pressure off the woman. Childbirth is not the time to make concessions for others. Nor to give in when something doesn’t seem like a good idea.
Also, the more a woman feels her other children are taken care of and well supported the easier it will be for her to lose herself in the throes of labour, so the lovely hormones can do their amazing job, in her power, with privacy and self-determination. Weather she is having a home or hospital birth.
After all, it is her birth. She owns it.
Photo credits by Patricia Ferreira Fotografia shared with the permission of this lovely family I had the pleasure of supporting.