A Phenomenological Study of Children Who Witness the Birth of a Sibling:
An Abstract of Dr. Issokson's Doctoral Dissertation
In 1990 I completed my psychology doctoral dissertation exploring the phenomenon of children being present at siblings' births. The birthing community was quite supportive of my research and it seems only fitting that I share with you some of my findings. The purpose of the study was to explore the experiences of children, ages 5 to 7, who witnessed the birth of a sibling one to two years prior to the interview. The study looked at how they experienced their participation in this event, how they made meaning of it, and the meaning they made.
There has been controversy over whether witnessing childbirth is beneficial or detrimental to a child's well-being. Research has not drawn conclusions in either direction. Little research has been conducted which has allowed the children to speak about their own experiences. I wanted to gather firsthand material from a specific age range of children in order to begin to explore age-related issues as they are relevant to witnessing childbirth.
I interviewed 12 children, each of whom had witnessed the birth of at least one sibling. Nine of the births occurred at home, three were in hospitals. There were no apparent differences between the responses of children who witnessed home births and the children who witnessed hospital births. However, this deserves further study. All were healthy births.
The children were neutral to positive about their experiences at the births. Themes of enjoyment, anticipation, and pride emerged from the data. In addition, the children were impressed by and sensitive to their mothers' efforts to give birth. They regarded birth as a time which warrants special behavior and were happy that their families were together.
For the remainder of this article, I would like to share some quotes from the children in order to paint a picture of a young child's experience at the birth of a sibling. As you read on, it is important to keep in mind that these quotes are from young children, they are from a small sample of children, and they are retrospective. Therefore, these children's experiences are not necessarily generalizable to all children who witness birth.
In general, the 12 children in this study found birth to be an enjoyable event. They used words such as "wonderful," "exciting," "good," "interesting," "pretty neat," "fun," and "important" to describe their experiences. Clearly, the highlight for most of the children was the moment at which they first saw the baby. According to a 6-year-old girl, "I saw and that was the best thing. I was glad to be there when the baby came out."
A few of the children expressed concern and preference about the gender of the baby. In addition, some of the children were excited about the fact that they were the first ones to announce the sex of the baby. A 7-year-old girl said, "I wanted to watch 'cause I wanted to know if it was a boy or girl right away...The most important part was that it was a girl." A 6-year-old girl said, "Well, it was kind of exciting. I yelled, it's a boy, it's a boy 'cause me and my dad were the first ones to notice and only his head was out...he looked like a boy."
Many of the children felt proud at having been able to help with the birth. A 6-year-old boy who had seen several births shared the following: "I helped with the midwife. That was my first time catching one.... Catching sort of felt more important. That's what I really wanted to do. I've been talking about that...'cause it looked so exciting to do that."
The hard work of giving birth made an impression on the children. While the boys seemed proud of their moms and impressed with their strength and endurance, the girls seemed to want to alleviate their mothers' pain. A 6-year-old boy said, "It was good that my mom did all that work. She was the one who was there and pushed and pushed and pushed." A 7-year-old girl expressed the following: "Well, she couldn't look. She did whatever the nurses said. She couldn't look 'cause she was hurting too much.... Of course I didn't want it to hurt my mom. Every time I went up there I said, 'Mom, just calm down.' It made me a little sad."
Many of the children perceived that there was a special way to behave at a birth. A 7-year-old boy expressed this well when I asked him what he would tell other children to prepare them to be at a birth. "I would tell them to stand back. Don't go up there and just touch the mom while she's having labor 'cause that would make the baby jumbling around...to just sit down and be calm and don't go up real close to the mother."
For the children in this study, birth was clearly seen as a time for family togetherness. I asked the children to draw a picture of the birth. Rather than drawing graphic birth pictures, almost all of the children drew pictures of their families being together with the new baby. In addition, the theme of happiness pervaded these pictures. Many of the children went to great lengths both to draw smiles on the people in the pictures and to describe to me how happy everyone was.
One of the most interesting findings of the study was in the area of children's knowledge of the birth process. I was curious to see if children who witness birth relinquish age-appropriate fantasies of birth, if they incorporate their experience into their fantasies, or if they understand birth from a factual, experience-based perspective. I asked the children to tell me a story about how babies are born. None of the children actually told me about the graphics of birth. Instead, their stories focused on conception and life in-utero. One way to understand this is that while the process of birth is taken for granted in some way, perhaps because it has been witnessed, the children need to continue to explain what they cannot see. Conception and life in-utero are still somewhat of a mystery to them.
One of the factors that allowed for the children in this study to have a positive experience is that they all had support people available to them during the birth. Of all the guidelines I could recommend, this one is crucial. Another factor that contributed to the children's positive experiences was that family-centered birthing was congruent with the lifestyles of the children's families. That is, these families were open about and comfortable with nudity, sexuality, and expression of emotion. The children were involved in the pregnancies early on and they were included in the birth plans. They were prepared for the birth. In the few quantitative studies that have been conducted, this has proven to be one of the determining factors in whether or not children have positive experiences witnessing birth. It is important to mention that family-centered birthing does not necessarily mean that siblings will be there for the entire birth event. In fact, this is not the right choice for all families. There are a variety of ways in which families can involve older siblings in a birth. Families must choose what feels right for them.
In this study, each subject's interview data was unique, reflecting the individuality of each subject. However, there were also many similarities in their responses. This speaks to the idea that despite individual differences in lifestyle, birth is a universal experience inherent in which there are universal emotions that are experienced. In addition, while each family in this study could be considered "alternative" in its approach to birthing, the families also represented a wide range of socio-economic, educational, and religious backgrounds. This makes it clear that all types of families choose family-centered birthing.