Kids at Birth

Last week I did a prenatal in a woman’s home. Her four children were in the room. As I got ready to listen to the baby’s heartbeat with the Doppler, the three-year-old (whose birth we had also attended) says, “I’ll get you a tissue” — to wipe off the ultrasounds gel. Children are so smart and aware and they love being involved in the process. Some kids measure their mom’s belly for us. We let the other children pick out the hat for the new baby and help put it on at birth. I give women a feedback form afterbirth and one question is for any suggestions to improve our practice. One mother suggested having other kids put the receiving blankets under their shirt to warm them for the baby and we’ve added that idea for ones that want it.

I have had wonderful experiences with children at birth. They do need some education and preparation just as the parents do. But children of all ages do very well with a little attention to their participation. We suggest that parents read books and watch videos with their kids. Marjie and Jay Hathaway have written a book Children at Birth that is excellent and there is a video with the same name. The video “Special Delivery” by Rahima Baldwin shows children involved with births. A Child is Born by Lennart Nilsson has wonderful pictures of the baby’s development week by week and kids love sing how “their” baby looks at whatever stage mom is in. The “Miracle of Life” is a video sometimes seen on PBS using Nilsson’s photography and is quire remarkable for all ages.

It is helpful to prepare children for the sights and sounds of birth. I told my kids I might grunt or make noise as you do when lifting a heavy load or doing some hard work. One of my videos shows the woman’s thighs colored by Betadine scrub used for washing in the hospital. Many children think it is blood and we discuss this. Blood is not a big concern for adults as well as kids viewing birth. If an episiotomy (a cut to enlarge the vaginal opening) is not done, and it is rarely truly necessary, there really is not much blood until the placenta separates. Either way if children are prepared for it and know it is normal and nothing is wrong, they are not alarmed.

I do ask parents to have a person at the birth to be the children’s advocate. Someone who will feed them, take them for a walk and answer their questions; someone who will not be disappointed if they miss the birth because the children needed to be somewhere else. This frees up the father ti give his full attention to the mother and mom to fully relax as she knows her other children’s need are being attended to.

The only negative experience I’ve had with a child at birth was when a family came to visit unexpectedly from out of town. The daughter was 10 and had not been prepared in any way to witness a birth. The laboring woman was on her hands and knees when the bag of waters broke, splattering against the wall like a giant water balloon. The girl jumped a food of the floor. After the birth she said, “I’m never having a baby.” I suggested she ask the mother if it was worth it and of course she said it was well worth every minute of labor. This does show the need for preparation especially with older children who are able to think about different aspects and particularly if it is not their mother giving birth. In fact we require the same education for adults at the birth if they are unfamiliar with the process.

At one birth the father was not able to be present as he was working in another state. The first child was a little boy around 2 1/2 years. During the birth he was behind me at the end of the bed with his head on his hands watching in fascination. As soon as the baby came out he ran around and climbed up next to his mother, kissing the baby and saying, “My baby, my baby” over and over. Being involved in the process of birth seems to greatly reduce sibling rivalry as the children do see its as their baby too and go into nurturing mode.

We encourage children to be involved, but never insist. An advantage of being at home is that the other kids are free to come and go as they wish. Some will choose to sleep right through even if they are awakened. Others will not be happy in their own bed, but can sleep contentedly next to mom even if she’s moaning and moving around.

At one birth, we had a six-year-old boy who was convinced birth was “gross” and he wanted nothing to do with it. We respected his wishes and let him know it was fine for him to watch or not and to change his mind at any time. His mother ended up pushing on her knees, leaning over the bed. The little boy stood poised in the doorway behind her. As just the top of the head started to show with pushing he said, “Oh, it’s so cute, it’s so cute.” The energy of birth is very powerful and will often suck people in. He even looked at the placenta. What may have seemed gross before or in a movies, is very different when you’re there, involved in the process with the people you love.

One three-year-old boy woke up just minutes before his brother was born. His mother was working very hard. He climbed on the bed and started stroking her arm, saying, “It’ll be okay, Mom, It’s okay.” They are so sweet and it’s very joyful to me to see how even very young children will be nurturing and comforting to their mother as well as the baby after birth.

When my apprentice was pregnant with her fourth child, her ten-year-old daughter wanted nothing to do with it and said she would leave th house when she was in labor. Her mother let her know she did not have to watch or be involved in any way, but she did have to stay at home. When I arrived (a 1 1/2 hour drive), Danna was obviously at the end of the first stage of labor. She was kneeling on the floor at the corner of their waterbed. All three children  were on the bed, totally enthralled. Her ten-year-old daughter never moved or in any way indicate she wanted to be elsewhere.

Some parents don’t want their children present and of course we respect their decision. I do encourage them to discuss it with the kids and let them have some involvement with the decision. Even if the other children are not going to be at the birth, having some preparation makes it less frightening and they understand what’s going on.

In Oregon, I attended a birth on Christmas Day with Jan Tritten (now editor of “Midwifery Today”). We both had young children and the birthing mother had a daughter about the same age. When we went to dot he postpartum visit, we brought our children with us and they were all playing together. The little girl had a doctor kit and they pulled out the stethoscope. But they all used the stethoscope on each other’s bellies. You can tell these are midwives’ children we decided.

Kids can bring juice to mom in labor or wipe her face with a cool washcloth. After birth, they can bring a diaper for the baby or make funny faces to keep them entertained while mom is making dinner. The more involved they are, the less sibling rivalry as they feel a responsibility and that they are an integral part of it and not displaced by the new baby. Of course it’s good to make some special time for the other children, perhaps reading a story while the baby nurses or doing something together while the baby sleeps.

I worked with one blended family with a 13-year-old girl. She was somewhat jealous of the man in her mother’s life as she and her mom had been alone together most of her life. She would not talk to us or be involved in any way during the prenatal visits. She felt the baby was going to usurp her place; her mother would no longer care for her and told her she was too old to be doing this, especially at home. During labor she didn’t stay in the room and if she was there, she was glaring at her mother and saying a lot of negative things.

At one point, she and her stepfather left to pick up some lunch. The labor had been progressing quite slowly and I talked with the mother about what was happening and how she was feeling about her daughter’s behavior. She admitted how difficult it was making the experience. I suggested it was important that she share this information and feelings with her daughter. I felt her honest expression would help the labor to progress regardless of whether the girl changed how she was acting.

When they returned, mother and daughter went off to talk and cry a little. At first nothing changed, but withing a short time, the girl was starting to stay in the room and before long she was sitting next to her mother and talking with us all. Labor progressed much more rapidly after this. She still did not want to watch the birth and we respected her decision. However, as the moment drew near, she was right outside the door of the bedroom and would peek around every few minutes. As it happened, she did see the baby come out though she stayed outside the room.

One of the other women at the birth encouraged her to hold her baby brother shortly after the birth. She was reluctant, but did finally consent to hold him and she fell in love. The whole family was so strongly bonded by this experience that the past hurt and distance was left behind and they continue five years later as a strong, close, loving family.

I feel this healing was so important. If the environment had been different, if these feelings had not been addressed and the emotional expression facilitated, a prime opportunity would have been missed. If this daughter had continued to feel separate from this experience, who knows when or if healing would have occurred and their family life would be very different. When my first daughter was being born, I had a friend to be with my boys. She kept trying to take my 4-year-old in the other room to read him stories. He would have none of it and wanted to be right there where the action was, though this was a fast, tumultuous labor and I made a lot of noise. Kids handle birth very well with minimal preparation and can often be a real asset. They come to the experience fresh and open and loving and have less mental stuff to overcome than many adults do. More hospitals and birth centers are willing to have children present and some even have sibling classes. I would encourage all parents to seriously consider involving their other kids to the full extent that they want to be.

2 comments to Kids at Birth

  • Thank you,
    I was looking for things to help my daughter prepare for the birth of our next child.

    This article really helped me with these topics:
    Children at birth. What children can do during labor. Preparation for children at birth.

  • Caroll Dickinson

    Thank you for this article. I offered to take our 31/2 yr. old granddaughter to our home with my daughter went into labor and was told they wanted her home. Now I feel differently and remember back when I took my daughter to a late examination and the Doctor thought she should not be in the room and I said Oh, yes she was going to be there. Later she drew a great picture of where babies come from. Your article brought back these memories and I’m now glad my daughter, husband, and daughter will all be together for the next child.

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