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Present From The Start

By Sophie Fletcher

Allowing Your Child to Attend a Sibling’s Birth and Ways to Prepare

I’m often asked whether it’s a good idea to have siblings attend the birth of their new brother or sister. It’s a question that’s almost impossible for anyone other than a mother to answer, as only a mother knows her own child and how he or she might respond to the experience. And just as important, how will the mother feel about having her son or daughter there? Will it relax her, or will she be anxious about how they are processing the experience?

There is little research on this subject, but most of the research that exists suggests that children respond positively to birth, and that there is a sensitive bonding period for siblings and newborns at this stage. This bonding period may be very important for long-term relationships, as there is some indication that the initial reaction of older children to their baby sibling is a good indicator of what will transpire in the next year, and may even set the course of a lifelong relationship.

I know many women who have had their children attend a birth, and their reports are largely positive. Women say that their contractions eased, and some of their most intense emotional experiences were when they were holding hands and smiling at their child.

Having your child at the birth can help release oxytocin. Birth photographer Danica Donnelly describes her experience this way:

I didn’t know you could have a “favorite” contraction, but my favorite one was when my 3-year-old son climbed up on the bed and held my hand during the contraction and looked into my eyes and smiled at me. I can’t remember if he said anything to me, but just looking at his sweet face and knowing that he was loving and supporting me and that he wasn’t scared, but rather excited for baby brother, made that contraction so easy to get through that it almost disappeared.

I also hear women say that they had planned for their child to be involved, but in fact their child slept through it, and woke up in the morning to climb into bed with them and the new baby. Others were woken up just after, or before, the baby was born. What seems to be very consistent is that the child is in the house with a dedicated carer, a grandmother or friend, and carries on with their day in a very normal way—perhaps wandering in for short periods of time, but nearly always being there at the last moments or just after baby is born.

This makes a lot of sense to me. Having a dedicated carer for a sibling takes any what-if anxiety away from the mother, but it also maintains a consistent routine for a child during a very transitional moment for them, a time of great upheaval and change. It also ensures that the child is still close to his or her mother and conveys the message that “there is space for all of us.” Imagine as a young child being an integral part of the preparation and day that your brother or sister is born. It’s a different experience than if your mother was taken away, and then later you visit her in hospital and she has a tiny baby that everybody is cooing over.

If you’re having a homebirth, you can, of course, have as many birth partners on hand as you wish; having a child attend a birth in a hospital or birth center is much less common, and varies significantly from country to country, hospital to hospital.

Presence at a sibling’s birth can normalize birth for children, a perspective that lasts a lifetime. I hear a lot of women say that being present at their sister or brother’s birth created a powerful bond with their sibling, but also helped them see birth as something very normal— a powerful gift for any woman.

Here are some suggestions for preparing for having your child attend your birth. If you have any suggestions or something that you want to share, please do—I’d love to hear your stories!

Things you can do to prepare

  • Talk to your child and other women who have had a child at the birth.

  • Do your research and make sure you are making the right decision for yourself and your child.

  • Find a trusted friend or relative to be a dedicated carer for your child during the birth.

Things you can do to prepare a sibling for birth

  • Read books about the arrival of a baby brother or sister.

  • Talk about birth being hard work and effort.

  • Find some videos you can watch together.

  • Prepare them for what they might hear and see.

Things the sibling can do before the birth

  • Listen to baby’s heartbeat during midwife visits.

  • Help blow the birthing pool up and fill it for a trial run.

  • Help get snacks together for Mom—maybe baking granola bars?

  • Design an affirmation board (for hypnobirthing moms).

  • Do yoga positions with mum (if they are doing yoga).

  • Shortly before the birth, make a birthday card for the baby.

  • Take part in a blessingway ceremony (dependent on age).

  • Help decorate the baby’s room.

Things the sibling can do on the day (dependent on age)

  • Go for a walk with you while you’re in early labor.

  • While you’re in early labor, your child can make a birthday cake with you.

  • Help fill your drink bottle.

  • Be a photographer of the event.

  • Help get cold cloths.

  • Hold your hand.

  • Cut the cord.

  • Help weigh the baby.

  • Snuggle up with parents and baby afterward.