Birth as a family event:
Including Children at a Sibling's Birth
Birth is a universal experience that transforms a family. The impact on parents and siblings is tremendous. A family-centered birth, one in which all family members have a place in the birth process, can ease this life transition.
For some families, this means that older siblings attend the birth. Depending on age, developmental level and temperament of the children, as well as the comfort level of the parents, some children may wander in and out of the room or be present for the entire labor and the birth. Perhaps the most common reasons families choose to have their children present at the birth of a sibling are:
- A strong feeling that birth is a family event; therefore, all family members should be present to whatever degree is comfortable for them.
- Hopes that their child's attendance will enhance sibling bonding.
- Desires to share the power of birth with their older children.
The idea of children attending a birth causes some adults to feel uncomfortable. Many adults have not witnessed a birth and cannot imagine doing so. Some adults associate childbirth with sex and therefore feel it is inappropriate for children to witness the event.
The subject of children witnessing birth stirs its share of controversy. Some researchers are concerned that witnessing birth is detrimental to a child's well being and development. They say that children are unable to process the experience and do not have adequate coping skills if the stress of the event surpasses their threshold. However, the studies to date have not been able to conclude that witnessing birth is inherently traumatic for a child.
On the other hand, children seem to have an innate curiosity for events pertaining to life and death. Typically, children tend to view birth, whether animal or human, with awe and wonder. As one young child expressed after seeing his sibling's birth, "It was kind of exciting. It was fun. It was important."
With appropriate and consistent support from adults, it seems that children can make sense of an event such as birth. In my own research, I interviewed children ages 5-7 who had witnessed the birth of a sibling one to two years prior to the interview. Responses ranged from neutral to positive about their experiences. Themes of enjoyment, anticipation and pride pervaded the interview data. The children were impressed by and sensitive to their mothers' efforts to give birth. They regarded birth as a time for special behavior and spoke of feelings of inclusion, self-importance and family togetherness at the birth.
Changes in Birthing Attitudes
Until the 1970's, hospital policy did not allow fathers and birth partners in the delivery room. It is now known that the presence of these people actually eases the birth process for most women by providing safe, familiar and consistent support.
Many hospitals have restructured their maternity units to create more baby-friendly and family-centered birth environments. Ideally, this means that in addition to the woman's primary partner, other family members and friends can attend the birth. However, not all hospitals allow for this. If you are interested in having siblings attend a hospital birth, you may want to check the policies of your care providers and hospital before making your birth plans. In general, out-of-hospital birth centers are welcoming of family members at a birth and certainly at home births, all are welcome.