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Toddler Tips

Witnessing the Birth of a Sibling

From: NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 21 No. 5, September-October 2004, p. 178

"Toddler Tips" is a regular feature of the magazine NEW BEGINNINGS, published bimonthly by La Leche League International. In this column, suggestions are offered by readers of NEW BEGINNINGS to help parents of toddlers. Various points of view are presented. Not all of the information may be pertinent to your family's life-style. This information is general in nature, and not intended to be advice, medical or otherwise.

Situation

I am pregnant with my second child. My daughter will be almost four years old when the new baby arrives. I'm trying to decide whether to have my daughter present for the birth, or to have her stay nearby with a trusted friend. I would like to know what choices other mothers have made in similar situations, and how it worked out.

Response

Does your daughter want to be present at the birth? Do you want her there? When I was eight years old, my six- and four-year-old cousins attended the birth of their sister. They always talked very positively about this experience, which influenced me to always include my children at the birth of their siblings. My oldest daughter, now 12, can't imagine me giving birth without her there to experience it. She has watched her four younger siblings enter the world. It is a priority of mine to include my children as birth attendants. At our house, the older children have the job of announcing if the baby is a boy or a girl.

Before attending a birth, children should be prepared by watching videos of birth. Explain to your daughter that the birth may be bloody or you may make strange animal-like noises.

No matter where you give birth, you should have a support person for your daughter besides your husband. You should also have an understanding that if you want her to leave or she wishes to leave, it is okay.

One six-year-old I know helped his dad and eight-year-old brother cut the umbilical cord of the new baby. The big brother called it the best day of his life.

Karen E. Wallace
Glen Rock NJ USA

Response

My son, Isaiah, is three years old and recently attended the birth of his baby sister, Amara Katharine, who was born at home. One of my reasons for choosing home birth was because I didn't want to be away from Isaiah. At home we were in a familiar setting with familiar people.

It is important to have someone who can focus primarily on your child. I arranged for a close friend of mine, Amy, to come help. I knew that she could support either Isaiah or me, if he needed his daddy.

We spent a lot of time preparing for the birth. Isaiah participated in all the prenatal visits and we read books about birth. Although Isaiah knew the details of giving birth, our plan was to have Isaiah go outside to play with Amy when the labor was getting challenging. We would call him back in when the baby was born so he and his daddy could cut the cord. We also mentioned that if I needed to go to the hospital, he would go to his grandmother's house.

I experienced a long labor. We spent some of the day together as a family, but found it comfortable for Isaiah and his dad to be engaged in various activities while I focused on birthing. Amy came and we spent some time together while Isaiah and my husband went fishing (just five minutes away). When I went into transition, Amy entertained Isaiah while my midwife and husband supported me. Isaiah was free to come in and check on me until I was not comfortable any more. My cervix was about nine centimeters dilated when I said, "It's time to go outside, get your flashlights. I'll call you in when the baby comes and you and Daddy will cut the cord." He was very agreeable. Soon after, our baby girl was born. Isaiah returned immediately to greet his new sister. I had some complications following the birth, but everyone was calm and answered all of Isaiah's questions. The next hours and days were spent bonding as a family. I believe that Isaiah's transition into brotherhood was easier because he was part of the birth experience.

Kara Forsyth
West Newton PA USA

Response

When my last child was born, we planned to bring my older two sons, ages four and eight. The birth was to be at a birth center. In order to prepare them, we talked about how it might look, noises they might hear, and how they might see blood. They both watched a video of a baby being born and they said they wanted to be present.

I went into labor at 1 am and a friend arrived to watch my children at 2 am. She planned to wake them and bring them over when the birth seemed imminent, since it was the middle of the night. When I arrived at the birthing center, I was already seven to eight centimeters dilated. The next hour and a half were pretty intense. I moaned and moved around, trying to find that elusive comfortable position. I was lost in the intensity of the birth and my husband never called home. I pushed twice and Peter was born at 3:55 am.

In retrospect, I believe that it was best for our children that they were not there during my short, intense labor. For one thing, it would have involved waking them in the middle of the night and driving somewhere. Also, my labor was more intense than I imagined it would be. I was loud and I can see how knowing they were there might have made me feel I needed to squelch my noises. Finally, it would have meant that all five of us would have been very tired and cranky the next day, given the timing.

I think they would have been fine if they had seen the birth, but neither of them ever even mentioned not seeing their brother born. This fact made me reflect on who really wanted them to be there in the first place, me or them?

Catherine Washburn
Baltimore MD USA

Response

My son was three years old when I gave birth to my daughter at home. We did some specific things to ensure he was prepared and cared for during the birth:

  • We didn't start watching the programs or talking about how the baby would come out until the seventh month when the birth was getting closer.
  • We watched television programs that showed birth as a starting point, moving onto a "not edited for television" home birth video borrowed from a friend who teaches childbirth classes. We left the sound off in order for him to focus on how the baby would come out.
  • We arranged to have my mother-in-law present to take care of my son's physical needs and talk to him about what was going on.
  • We had a friend on-call to come and take our son to her house if being around me in labor was too much for him.

My labor started at 10 am and was very active by the time my son nursed to sleep for the night. When he woke up, I was still in active labor. My husband spent some time with our son (I had two midwives attending to me) before my mother-in-law took over caring for him.

The only thing that our son had trouble with was the loud growling noises I made right at the end of the pushing phase when my daughter was actually coming out. My mother-in-law told my son that his sister was about to come out and brought him in to see and he was upset about the noises I made. He wouldn't come into the bedroom to see me after the birth. My husband took the baby out to show our son and he was happy to greet her but he would have nothing to do with me for about five hours after the birth. At some point in the late afternoon, my son got upset because he wasn't getting his way and decided that he wanted to breastfeed. That was the first time he came over to me after the birth. My son and I nursed and relaxed for a little over an hour while my husband cared for our new daughter.

Now, when my son sees a baby on television, he says, "She pushed her baby out" and follows up with bear-like growling!

Margo Trueman
Ridgecrest CA USA

Response

Before the birth of my third child, my daughter was about to turn four. I thought a lot about whether or not to have her in the room during delivery. I had many people tell me that she was too young and she would be very scared to see me in labor. I didn't know anyone who had their three-year-old present during the birth of a sibling. Still, my husband and I decided to take her along.

Long before the expected date, my husband and I explained to our daughter what would happen and that I would be working very hard to get the baby out. She was thrilled to know she would see her new baby sister come out in to the world so she could "hold her!"

When the day arrived, our daughter was with my husband and me the entire time at the hospital awaiting the birth of the new baby. There were a few times our daughter got bored, but most of the time she played with her toys, colored, or looked at books.

When the time came for the baby to be delivered, my husband was at my side while holding our daughter. As soon as our newborn was delivered, my three-year-old shouted, "Pretty baby!"

She was not frightened at all. I think it was a wonderful experience for our daughter to see the birth of her sister. Even a year later, she remembers only positive things about the birth.

Heather MacLean
Cortland NY USA

Response

When we chose a home birth for our second child, we struggled with the decision to allow our 23-month-old daughter, Emily, to attend. We talked with our midwife and read several books including Children at Birth, by Marjie and Jay Hathaway. We decided to include her, but made alternative plans in the event she became distressed by the process. My midwife brought two assistants, Starr and Erin, both of whom Emily got to know during my prenatal care. One was assigned to Emily at all times. My best friend was also on call to come and help if she was needed.

In early labor, Emily helped me make the icing and frost the new baby's birthday cake. We talked and played. When my labor got harder, Starr and Erin traded off playing with Emily and bringing her to me to check on me.

When it was time to push, Emily sat next to her dad and Starr talked her through what was happening. "Do you see mommy's face? She's working really hard to push the baby out. Can you see the new baby's hair?" Emily was squealing with delight and saying, "Hi new baby. Hi new baby," as I pushed and Noah joined our family.

After some snuggles and birthday cake, my husband walked Emily across the hall and tucked her into bed. The next morning she woke up saying, "See mommy, see baby Noah." Emily witnessing Noah's birth has made for a really easy transition for our family.

Danielle Stader
Lancaster WI USA

Response

While many older children are present during the birth of a new sibling, it would not have worked out for our family.

When our second daughter, Alicia, was born, our daughter, Brianne, was almost three years old. Brianne is an extremely sensitive child. She gets upset whenever anything is wrong with me, even if I have a simple mosquito bite.

When I went into labor quickly, she was noisy and kept asking the adults if I was okay. I found her presence distracting and annoying, so my dad took her to the neighborhood park.

After they left, I was able to focus on my needs and concentrate on each contraction in a quieter atmosphere. Alicia was born an hour later, and soon afterwards my dad came home with Brianne. I'll never forget the beautiful smile she had on her face when she walked into our bedroom, saw her sister for the very first time, and cuddled up next to her.

In making the decision for your family, consider your daughter's personality and needs as well as your own. You can always make the decision while you are in labor, depending on how you feel your daughter is reacting. It may help to have a back-up plan in case having her present isn't working out.

Melissa Hessert
Winter Garden FL USA

Response

My son, Harrison, was four years old when my second child was born. We decided to have him at the birth and I am so glad that we did! To prepare him, we brought him to one of our childbirth classes to see a model of the baby with the placenta. We explained how the baby lived inside of me and how she would come out. The biggest issue, however, was having someone be with Harrison at all times at the hospital. Since my parents had to drive two hours to meet us at the hospital, we had a close friend also plan to attend. We had some other friends as back-up, too.

During my labor, Harrison acted the way he does in any new situation. He was eager to see everything from the water breaking to his newborn baby sister. I had a hard time when he had to return to our house with my parents the night after she was born. He cried, too. He was so excited to return to the hospital the next day to bring us home.

To see the love in his eyes as he talked to and learned how to hold his new baby sister was the most precious gift in the world. The joy of being a mother the second time was multiplied by seeing his love for his sister grow and watching his caring nature come to life as he helped me take care of the baby.

I'd heard people tell stories about how their child had a hard time with a new sibling and I knew I wanted to create a different experience. I know that part of his acceptance was all our preparation talks about what to expect and our helping him to define his new role as big brother. I really believe that a big part of the acceptance was because he was there as she came into the world and got to experience the miracle of birth at such a young age. Just as it is important for breastfeeding to be seen as normal and natural, I also believe it is important for childbirth to be seen in this light.

Gina Grothoff
Charlotte NC USA

Last updated Tuesday, October 24, 2006 by njb.
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