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Preparing Older Children for Birth

"The greatest gift you can give your child is another sibling." attributed to Saint John Paul II

It truly is such an incredible ETERNAL gift to give your child the gift of a sibling! But how do we practically prepare them for the upcoming birth of that baby and the transition it will be for the whole family to welcome this new person? How do we address questions appropriately, talk about the birth process, and perhaps even welcome them into the actual experience? Below are a few tips for doing just that.

Don't avoid the questions!

The journey of pregnancy and birth is an absolutely beautiful and organic way for children to naturally understand the purpose of our sexuality, the meaning of our bodies, and the design of God for marriage and family. Covering it in shame, untruths, or deflecting genuine questions can not only lead to a child believing that those things are shameful but also discourage them from asking you questions about important things in the future, especially surrounding sexuality, gender, puberty, and more. Welcome the questions! It's beautiful they want to know more! It's natural for them to be in awe of the process or want to figure it out. If you don't know the answer to something, find out. That doesn't mean they have the right to know every detail and we should do our best to give information that is age appropriate, of course, but do your best to satisfy their natural curiosity in an honest and appropriate way.

Use biologically accurate language and information.

When answering questions or talking about pregnancy or birth, it's important to use biologically accurate information. The baby isn't in your belly or stomach, it's in your uterus or womb. The baby doesn't come out of your belly button or butt, it comes out of your vagina or birth canal. There's no need to obscure healthy information or lie about the design of our bodies. Talk to them about the beauty of the amniotic sac, the umbilical cord, the placenta, and that baby is currently living in amniotic fluid. When they almost inevitably ask how the baby comes out, you can say that God gave women a special opening for that called a vagina or birth canal. When labor comes the womb opens up and pushes the baby down and out through that opening. Don't be afraid to give more detailed information if you sense they would like more understanding. If you need to address cesarean birth, you can say sometimes a doctor instead cuts the womb open to take the baby out that way. The older a child is, the more detail you naturally give.

When they also inevitably ask about how the baby got in there, you can give honest but age appropriate information that you discern is best, always making sure it is truthful and presented in a beautiful way free from shame. Much of the particulars will depend on their maturity and how much information they are really asking for. Some examples are: "God put it there." "Daddy and Mommy asked God for the gift of a new baby and He said yes." "God gives married people the chance to love each other in a special way with their bodies and that sometimes makes a baby!" "When Daddy's sperm meets Mommy's egg, a whole new person is made! Isn't that amazing?" All of those are honest and respectful of God's design and the child's dignity. There's no need to deflect with stories about storks or watermelon seeds or shutting the question down. If they are ready for more information about the sexual act, then as parents you are the perfect people to share that with them. (See some of the books in our recommended list if you need more help with this!) When we truly believe in the beauty of God's design for the body, that should naturally reflect in our demeanor and our conversations with our children. Ideally, it should be a joy and privilege to share this beautiful design with them!

Involve them in the pregnancy.

Read books to them about the development of the baby. (You can maybe read the weekly baby update from the Made for This Birth app to them!) Have them talk with the baby in your womb or play music for them. Let them feel the baby move and kick. Talk about the things that they will be able to do together some day. Teach them normal newborn behavior and that baby will likely sleep and nurse a whole lot and not be able to play much right at the beginning. Focus on what they CAN do with the baby when he or she is born - sing to them, help get diapers, hold them, give gentle kisses, tell them stories, teach them how to smile and talk, etc.

Involve them in helping you through the pregnancy, too. Some ideas for that are always making sure Mommy's water bottle is filled or helping with some extra chores or talking about the different foods you're making sure you eat to keep you and baby healthy. Many out of hospital midwives welcome older siblings to prenatal appointments and have the older child assist and teach them about what they're doing and why.

Make it natural.

In our family we share our gigantic excitement with the older children that God has given us a new baby but we also allow it to be a completely normal and natural thing as well. Sometimes overemphasizing the transition or the challenges that might occur is a self-fulfulling prophecy. For example, we avoid ourselves and discourage anyone else from introducing ideas to them like, "are you excited for the new baby??" or "do you love the new baby?" Our experience has been that that can actually backfire, introducing ideas into a child's innocent mind that weren't even there! We don't mean not allowing a child to have hard feelings about a new sibling but more often than not, younger children will take their cues from us. We find it much more helpful to just take for granted, in a way, that everyone is thrilled and how good and normal this is. Overemphasizing the preparation to an odd amount, hyperfocusing on the child's emotions, or anxiously tiptoeing around a child's response can make the child suspicious or unsure of whether they should be troubled about this. We also don't encourage extra gifts for older siblings after a baby is born if they are presented as a sort of "consolation prize". Having a new brother or sister IS the gift!

Taking this approach has also meant that our children have never exhibited signs of "jealousy" of a new baby. It's just part of life that a new baby is coming or when the new baby is here! Dad steps in to take on a greater role when mom can't be there for them and in God's beautiful design for family and holiness, older children naturally learn that they sometimes have to wait for things or can't and shouldn't always immediately get what they want. We've found the biggest struggle with older children after birth is not actually the baby but is often simply their normal routine being thrown off, missing out on naps or normal bedtimes which can lead to overtired crankiness, and the extra time (and sometimes overindulgence!) with grandparents or other people helping out. Sometimes it can be the mother having more complicated feelings surrounding adding another baby and the change ahead much more than the children but that can sometimes be projected onto them as she works through those.

That's not to say there won't be difficult moments, especially if the next older sibling is very close in age and is a baby or toddler themselves, of course. There will be moments when you feel stretched beyond what you can do. There will be moments when you do see that an older child needs some extra attention and can try to address that as best you can. But rarely is "jealousy" at the root. It's simply children having needs (or wants) and we parents sometimes being limited in what we can offer at one moment. Enlist help as you can, have a basket of books or activities you can do with the older child while you nurse or lay in bed postpartum, and try to take a moment each day to ask God for the grace needed at the time needed to meet the needs of your children. Much like labor, sometimes the trenches of motherhood are about getting through one "surge" at a time, trusting that you will have the strength needed at the time it's needed!

What about the actual birth??

Many families choose to include their older children in the birth itself, especially if choosing a home or birth center birth. On the whole children do beautifully when invited into the birth room, better than some adults! If they haven't absorbed fears about birth from others, aren't exceptionally sensitive to others' discomfort (especially that of their mom), and are generally able to follow direction, it can be a life-changing experience to witness the birth of their sibling. It can change the course of their own fertility, pregnancy, and birth journeys in the future!

The majority of children will respond how we respond. If we are viewing birth as normal, if there is not panic surrounding it, if we prepare them a bit for what they will see, they will reflect that. What we tend to see in the birth space is that older children aren't worried or overwhelmed, they instead like to participate or watch in curiosity. If anything they sometimes just get a little bored with the process if it starts taking longer than they anticiptated or their attention spans can hold!

To address the question of whether it's "proper" or appropriate, this is something that is left to the husband and wife to discern. There's no blanket rule from the Church regarding who should be invited into a birth space. When we look back on history or in many cultures, there wasn't necessarily even a choice or second thought about it. Children were just naturally present out of necessity or circumstance or cultural norm. Each situation is individual and should ultimately be the decision of the mother and father alone. There's certainly nothing inherently immoral about it and surely the presence of one's own children is more traditionally normal and more congruent with the vast majority of human history than the presence of a multitude of strangers, extraneous staff, and male obstetricians that has become normal in the modern medical industry! It hardly makes sense to question the appropriateness of one's older children if one is not going to question the appropriateness of those modern cultural norms.

Having children present for a normal, physiological, beautiful birth can be a powerful force in changing the narrative of birth in our families and in our culture at large. For young boys, it can be an incredible experience of seeing feminine strength and beauty in action as well as their father serving and loving their mother as a true man and husband. It can set them up to better support their own wife someday. For young girls, it can normalize the experience of birth and help them understand the beauty and brilliance of their bodies and be confident in their own ability to possibly birth someday, too. For both, it solidifies a clear connection that birth is the fulfillment of the marital act and hopefully should be reverenced and treated as such.

A few things to think about:

YOU are the priority.

What is of the most importance is that their presence is truly supportive to you, the mother. This is a time when what feels best to YOU matters most. If older children being there would lead to tension, anxiety, stress, or fear then that matters more than any experience they have, however good and beautiful. Extra tension or stress or feeling "on-call" is not helpful for labor and can even inhibit its natural progress pulling a mother out of her natural labor zone. This is one reason it's SO common for mothers to not have labor pick up or even start at all until any older children are in bed and her mind and body can finally safely let go. However, if the presence of your older children and feeling like everyone is together would feel supportive and intimate and right, then that's a good sign they should be there with you.

Take it to prayer.

It's also important to tune into what God is asking of you for this birth. It might be very clear to you that you want them there or it might be the exact opposite. You might feel very convicted that you're meant to birth with a minimum amount of people present or the opposite. If you're unsure, it's certainly something you can take to prayer and ask for clarity on. God loves to be drawn into these decisions and plans for our families. And sometimes, as is the nature of life and birth, we don't have much of a choice how it unfolds and our children are around when we didn't plan on it or our children aren't there when we did. Plan, prepare, and then surrender it to His perfect timing and will.

Consider age.

While it's possible, toddlers are the most challenging age to have at a birth. Under age three tends to be very difficult to keep occupied or out of equipment or not distracting. If you would like the possibility of your toddler or younger children being there, have a plan for who will take care of them during labor when you or your husband can't. Have someone you can call, whether family, friend, or a sibling doula, who will be in charge of them. That way if they do get overwhelmed or distracting or need attention or it's too much for the mother to have them there, someone else can step in and help, either taking them to another room or away from the home or birth place completely. This is also a time when a good video might be a helpful tool, even for the most screen-free of families!

Preteens and teenagers can often be a huge help during birth with tasks that need to be done, helping with younger siblings, stepping in and offering support to mom, prepping food, and more. Especially when it comes to daughters, it can be a beautiful opportunity to serve in a doula role and reclaim some of the traditional feminine family and community support during birth that has largely been lost in the institutional birth system of the last century.

You know your children best.

While as a general rule children aren't really all that phased by birth, there are some kids who might not do well in the birth room. If a child is particularly sensitive or prone to worry or is very needy, it might not be the best idea to have them there. If they're old enough, talk with them and see how much they would like to be there and if you feel they can be prepared enough, the choice is ultimately yours.

It might not need to be all or nothing.

If birthing at home or in a birth center, there might be the option of coming and going to the child's comfort level or interest. Especially in the home setting it's not a "spectator sport" confined to one room and it can often fit naturally into the day. There are also ways where the children can be there but the birth itself is "veiled" a bit more depending on the set up. For example, with a water birth, those on the other side of the room will not see the actual emergence of the baby head on (no pun intended) but are still present for such a special family moment. If it's more comfortable for you or them, children can be present in the house knowing what is going on but in another room and ready to come in immediately after baby is born, or be present in the home and not come in until whenever you decide!

Prepare them for the sounds, sights, and smells of normal birth.

They should know ahead of time that there will be blood and it doesn't mean anything is wrong, that it's part of the process. They should know women can be loud when giving birth with moaning, yelling, or grunting. Let them know beforehand that Mommy is okay, it just means she is just working very hard.

Prepare them to respect the space.

They should know, to the extent its possible, that the room should be quiet, sacred, not chaotic, and that what mom says goes. That means if they are asked to do something or they are asked to leave the room, they need to honor that right away. Let them know these expectations beforehand.

If you have specific preferences and rules, make sure they are clear on what they are. Whether that's not touching the birth pool or staying in a certain section of the room, that there not be extraneous chatter or joking, or even that you'd like them to be in charge of helping somehow like with giving sips of water or making sure a certain playlist is on.

Consider watching birth videos together.

There are now hundreds of birth videos on YouTube or Instagram that might be helpful in preparing your child for what to expect during birth. Preview them to make sure you feel they are a good fit and appropriate. If you're uncomfortable with human birth videos, you can also choose to watch animal birth videos instead.

Prepare with books.

There are some really great children's books available on preparing for a new sibling, the process of pregnancy, fetal development, and on the birth process itself. We have a list of some of our top recommendations here, also including books on sexuality and the body:

For older children, especially teenage girls, you could certainly give them some higher level reading on pregnancy and birth (like maybe this one here ;) to help them learn, understand the process, and be a helpful support before and during it.

Have Snacks and Possibly Activities Ready.

This is mostly for the younger age set but having a basket of snacks ready that are set apart only for the birth and accessible when it's time can be really helpful. Some people even choose to have a few new coloring books, toys, games, or puzzles to keep kids occupied especially if mom is laboring for a long time (or what feels like a long time to a 5 year old!). Constant interruptions for snacks or other needs aren't ideal for labor and that might be mitigated by having a few things to keep them busy and also make the event feel even more special and celebratory for them.

We firmly believe that birth is a sacred event in a family's life. Whether to have the whole family present for that event or not is a decision that is yours to make. For many families having their children present leads to some beautiful, important, or even funny memories. Like with so many family decisions, this is ultimately what works best for your unique family in your unique situation.

Another Great Read on This Topic:

Inviting Your Older Kids to Your Upcoming Home Birth article from Beautiful One Midwifery


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