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To have or not to have… Siblings at Birth

by Samanda Rossi, owner, doula and educator at Naturally Prepared

One of my very first jobs as a doula was to attend a birth with a friend’s 4 year old son. She wanted him there for his sister’s birth, and I was to accompany him on the journey. I attempted to keep him busy at the hospital while his mother labored. After many hours he melted down, fell asleep, and couldn’t be roused to witness her come earth-side. That was about a dozen years ago. I learned a lot from that (and many subsequent) births, and experienced the quandary many parents find themselves in regarding siblings and birth myself.

In my Preparing for Birth Refresher class, we spend time discussing siblings and birth. As with all of my childbirth preparation, I stress the importance of being flexible. You can (and should) have plans for siblings, BUT you cannot predict or plan how it will unfold. Whether you wish them to be there or not, you may decide to change or alter course in labor. I really wanted my first son to be there for the birth of his brother. He was 2 years and 9 months. We felt we prepared him for what to expect, but my labor was long, hard, and done mostly during the day when he was awake and lively. He wanted ME, he wanted IN the tub, he wanted to run and play in the space I needed a sanctuary in. His grandmother came to the rescue and kept him occupied. He returned about 30 minutes after his brother was born that evening and we all snuggled into bed together. It wasn’t what I thought I would want, but it’s what worked for us at the time and what I needed.

The day you give birth you’re only job on that day is to give birth to this new baby! It is NOT to be the other child’s mother. This may sound harsh, but it is necessary for your body and heart to open up to this new being. Many mothers in labor find themselves pushing their other child away during the actual labor (myself included) because that’s what their body and heart demands. You should be prepared for these feelings.

It’s important to have flexible plans when it comes to siblings and birth. One scenario is that they are in attendance by plan (or inadvertently if it is precipitous or if timing works out that way). Either of these is why it is so important to prepare siblings for what they may see and hear in case they do attend the birth (planned or unplanned). Another scenario is that they are not in attendance (either by plan or circumstances). Many times births happen at night, so childcare plans should include that possibility (as well as a little one being woken by the sounds or energy in the space). Either way, it’s important for someone to be the child’s “doula” during labor or birth. Someone to accompany them in the birth space, in another room, or away from home as the family and child decide is appropriate in labor. It’s very important that this person is someone that the Mama feels comfortable laboring around and being her most vulnerable, and that the child feels safe with. However, it should not be someone that you want to definitely witness the birth or who may be voyeuristic about the birth in case you (or the child) decides they don’t want to be there. It shouldn’t be anyone that Mama might rely on for support during the labor—her partner, doula, midwife or assistant. It’s also important to remember that children have short attention spans, and labor typically takes place over the course of many hours.

Whether or not you think you would like siblings to be present, it’s very important to prepare them for what labor might look like, sound like, and be like. Here are a few of my favorite suggestions from my class handouts:

– Read books and watch videos, especially ones with vocalization! My favorite book to prepare children is Runa’s Birth by Uwe Spillmann. It’s a homebirth (in Germany). The illustrations are realistic but soft, and the story is narrated by the little boy awaiting the birth of his sister.

– Draw pictures of what contractions are like—how they start out low and far apart, but get closer together and higher. You can do this together with drawing waves, mountains, flowers opening, etc… and explain to them that the uterus (or baby holder) gives the baby hugs to help the baby out.

– Explain to them what the environment will be like and what to expect—how the room(s) will be set up, who will be there, how you might use a birth ball (show them your moves), that there will be a tub/pool (let them know they probably won’t be able to get in with you, but they are welcome to take a bath or enjoy their own pool outside if weather permits). Let them know that Mamas and Baby’s need it to be quiet, dark, and warm.

– Share with them the sounds you may make in labor! Groan, grunt, moan and have them do it alongside you. See who can be loudest and lowest!

– Let your child know that the baby already knows his/her voice and will recognize it after birth. Give him/her ideas of things they can do to help – singing to baby, playing peek-a-boo, getting diapers/supplies, reading to the baby, counting fingers and toes. It is a good idea to have a quiet activity bag you frequently refill with fun, quiet things for when you are nursing/tending baby. We also found it helpful to have outings/playdates (like meals, very appreciated for new parents) arranged for our son.

Welcoming another child into our family was amazing, hard, stressful, and full of joy. In some ways it was easier, in other ways, so much harder. Today, my sons are 11 and 8 years old, sleeping through the night, eating me out of house and home, and the best of friends!