Preparing a Child to Attend the Birth of a Sibling
Originally published in the Summer 2015 issue of Baby Beams, the La Leche League of Florida and Caribbean Islands Area Leaders’ Letter
This article aims to help you plan for having your child attend the birth of a sibling. This may not be appropriate for all children and in all cases, but it does seem to improve sibling relationships, reduce the mother’s anxiety during labor because she knows where her child is and that they are being properly cared for, and makes it a family event. Because birth most often occurs in hospitals, it is no longer thought to be a family event. To share a little about me and my story, my first was a natural childbirth in a hospital. My daughter was two and a half years old when her baby sister was born. Baby Sister was born at home with my husband, our midwife, a doula, and Big Sister present. We had a wonderful experience and feel that having Big Sister present at the birth has made a huge difference in her response to the addition of a family member.
Deciding if Attending the Birth is the Right Choice for your Child
First, you must decide if having a child attend the birth of a sibling is the right choice for you and your family. You will want to consider your child’s age and temperament. Is there an alternate caregiver with whom your child could go that you and that child would be comfortable with? In our case, one deciding factor was that there was no alternate caregiver; it was me or my husband. She really hadn’t been separated from us at all and I knew I would feel additional stress if she was with someone else.
Will having your child attending the birth be more likely to create extra stress or reduce your stress? How does your child respond to medical equipment and strangers? How does he or she respond when someone is trying to attend to you? Some children, either because of personality or a traumatic experience, get really upset at the sight of medical equipment or when a healthcare provider attempts to examine or attend to their mother.
Is there another adult who you would feel comfortable having attend the birth who could be assigned to care for your child as needed? Grandparents, aunts, sisters, and friends are often good choices for this role. It needs to be an adult with whom the child is very comfortable, and this person needs to be able to be fully dedicated to your child’s needs rather than having a split duty. This person also needs to have a good gut instinct about what to do and what not to do. For instance, if my daughter is upset, she likes to hold my hair. If someone tried to pick her up and pull her away from me, she would have gotten very upset, clingy, and inconsolable. For her, forcibly trying to take her from me would have been a bad choice considering her personality. Ultimately, what is your gut feeling? Trust your mama gut on this one about what is right for you and your family.
Once you have decided to proceed with having the child attend, some planning is in order.
- Alternate caregiver: Who will your child’s caregiver be during the birth? As mentioned earlier, this needs to be someone with whom the child is very comfortable and who knows the child well.
- Bribery: I do not mean it quite the way it sounds, but it can be good to have many of the child’s favorite snacks or comfort foods on hand. It can also be helpful to have a few small new toys stashed away. This is sometimes a good tool for helping to calm a child who has become anxious or upset, particularly in a situation where mother may not be available.
- G, PG, or PG-13? It is important to decide how much you are comfortable with your child seeing. Some mothers do not want the older child in the room when the younger is born, but rather want them brought in immediately after. My daughter was right there as I was pushing out her little sister. This is a call you and your family have to make based on your child’s personality and your comfort level. Whatever you choose is fine.
- Location: Where will your child be during labor and delivery? If you are having a water birth, will the child be allowed in the tub with you? Be sure the alternate caregiver knows your preferences.
- Sleeping arrangements: It is hard to predict how long labor will last and at what time it will begin and end. Your labor may overlap with your child’s normal nap or bedtime. If your child normally sleeps in your bedroom, you may need to make an alternate arrangement if you are laboring in the bedroom when your child is ready to sleep. You will also need to decide if you want to wake your child up for the birth or allow them to sleep through it if that’s how the timing ends up working out.
- Read, read, read: Read as many books as you can about birth and about becoming a sibling to your child. It is important that the books address things like what labor will be like and where the baby comes out if you plan for your child to be in the room as you are pushing. Some possible titles include Hello Baby by J. Overend, Runa’s Birth by W. Spillmann and I. Kamieth, On Mother’s Lap by A. Herbert Scott, and Baby on the Way and What Baby Needs, both by W. Sears and M. Sears.
- Talk, talk, talk: Talk frequently about what your child should expect. You will want to talk about what labor is like, the noises you may make while in labor, where the baby will come out, who will come over to help, what your child can do to help, who will be there for them, that they might see blood, and what babies are like. It is important to explain that labor is hard work and mother may make noises because she is working hard, but that she is okay.
- Experience and practice: It is helpful for your child to have as few new experiences on the day their sibling is born as possible. What I mean is that it helps for them to have some familiarity with the people, equipment, sounds, etc. before the big day. Take your child with you to your midwife/obstetrician appointments. Let them touch and feel any equipment and hear the baby’s heartbeat. This will make these things less foreign and thereby reduce their anxiety. Asking your healthcare provider to try to build a relationship with the child can help the child feel more comfortable to this person attending you while in labor. When we were preparing my oldest, she and I would practice making labor noises together in the car. I wanted her to have some idea of what she might hear and make it more fun by making the noises together. You can also role play with baby dolls and stuffed animals.
- Finally, be prepared to shift gears at the drop of a hat. Your feelings may change or your child may react in an unexpected way. Prepare your child for the possibility of an alternative caregiver or place. This may mean practice sleepovers at Grandma’s. Have a bag packed, just in case, and make sure there is an appropriate alternative location available, if possible.
I hope this has given you some ideas about how to prepare your child to attend the birth of a sibling. Ultimately, you need to go with whatever is best for you and your family and the more prep work you do with your child, the better.