On Having Young Siblings Present at a Home Birth

To have or not to have young siblings present at your home birth -- a wonderful question with no right answer. 

You've likely already ruminated on this a great deal, with questions streaming through your consciousness -- How young is too young? What if I lose my shit? What if he/she's a hot mess the whole time? What if he/she requires all of my partner's attention? Will I feel alone? Abandoned? Will I be too worried about him/her to focus on the task at hand? Might I traumatize him/her? What happens if we need to transfer?

Well, these are all great questions to ask. No one can necessarily answer these for you, just as with most things birth-related. And there is no right answer. Isn't that comforting? This question is yours, and yours alone, to answer. Sure, it may be helpful to hear how it has gone for others or to see what role their young children played throughout labor and birth. But ultimately, I'd encourage you to let all of the questions bubble to the surface. Acknowledge them. Sit with them. And as you do with all other birth inquiries, go with your gut.

If you sit with your questions and ultimately feel most anxious as you envision your young child in your birth space, I'd suggest you have arrangements for him/her to not be present. Ultimately, it's about creating the environment in which you feel most safe, most at peace. I mean after all, I'm assuming that's why you've chosen to give birth at home in the first place -- to have a safe, peaceful space.

Of course, there are lots of ways a child may be present. You may wish to have a close family friend take him/her as soon as labor begins, or perhaps once active labor sets in. Or maybe you have a close friend or family member present dedicated to just being with and caring for your child, able to go elsewhere when/if you or the child may need. Or maybe you've hired a "sibling doula," a doula who has gotten to know your child (just as a doula gets to know the family and their intent in the birthing process) before the birth and then comes once active labor begins to "hold space" specifically for your child. She may answer questions in developmentally/age-appropriate ways, and be present with and for your child throughout the whole experience. 

A sibling doula is really a beautiful model for those who want their young child present, don't have access to a family member or friend they'd like to have around, and would like to have someone specifically devoted to their young child that isn't one's partner. That said, though, this really only works for some children. I felt it wouldn't work for mine given my daughter had never even had a babysitter. Attempting to have someone else care for my daughter during such a unique time would have been much more stressful on us all, I am certain. 

Of course, the last option is simply to have your child attend the birth -- just there with no additional supports, rolling with it, letting things happen as they do.

If your plan is to just roll with having your child there with no real back up, I would recommend at least having someone reliable that you could call upon should you need to transfer or should things get too intense for all involved.

We had Adiah, then 2.5 years old, present at our home birth last spring. I will say, I had a home birth in large part because I didn't want to be separated from her at a time when, for me, it made the most sense to exist as a family unit, whole and complete. It's just what made sense to me. It's what felt right, deep in my person. 

With that said, at various points in my pregnancy I had various levels of back-up plans for her that I was processing in my mind. By the end I'd come to peace with having the number of a few neighbors to call in the event we needed to transfer. You know, like emergency-type situations. We'd decided that, worse case scenario, she'd transfer with us and I felt confident being alone with my midwives if absolutely necessary until someone was able to come for her. We don't live near family and I didn't have a doula so that was the extent of our "back-up plan." I felt fine about that. To another mama, that may be terrifying to consider. And thus, that might not be the right plan for you. 

I wondered how Adiah would be at the birth. As a birth photographer myself, she'd seen lots of birth images and video segments of births already. She was present at all of my own midwife appointments. She would crouch down and look up at my vagina every chance she got, attempting to see the baby. She was about as in-the-know as a 2.5 year old could be I'd say, for better or worse. 

What I was most unsure about was how she'd handle my birth noise-making. I knew from giving birth to her that I was not a quiet birth-er, at least not at the end. I huff and I puff, I roar, I moo. I'm not angry, I'm not panicked, I'm just... loud. And really all through labor (this time even more so than with Adiah) I'm vocal. It's one of my coping tools, turns out.

Rhythm is a huge part of zoning-in for many birthing mamas. For me, I make repetitive sounds, hums, moans along with rhythmic movements in my pelvis as I shift my weight from foot to foot. I'm a very somatic person having been a ballerina and a Pilates practitioner/instructor. I'm active. I'm on my feet. I'm in motion. I'm out of my head and very much in my body. And... I'm my own accompanist. I think one of the most darling parts of my birth with our son Walden was when Adiah walked in and confidently remarked, "Mama is singing a baby song... to get the baby out." I hadn't even realized until she said so that that was exactly what I was doing -- making noises that sounded like I was singing. I don't think I did that while in labor with her so I hadn't talked to her about my "singing a baby song." That's just what it was to her, without it being explained. To some, what I was doing could have been a self-conscious-inducing act... vulnerable noise making and what not. But to her, it was clear as day: I was singing a baby song. To get the baby out. Duh. Simple as that.

A few photos from my birth with Walden.  Photos copyright to Jessica Liggett Photography.

And so, turns out, I had a quick labor with our second child -- 4 hours from start to finish, all during the day. Unlike with Adiah, I didn't have a labor that went on through night and day and night again. It was short and intense. Who knows what it would have been like to have a light sleeper (as Adiah is) during a noisy night time birth (I've been at multiple home births where the children slept through soundly... I assumed that would not be the case in the close quartered apartment we lived in at the time given my sound making and her sleeping disposition). 

Adiah ate, she visited, she observed, she was respectful without being asked; she knew. She knew what was happening and she intuited what I needed... she's my little empath. It was a gift, a gift to my and my husband's relationship to have her there, and a gift to the whole birthing experience. And I think having her there was a gift to her as well. She was present in the final moments, started to cry as my sounds grew their most intense, and a moment later I pulled Walden to my chest and... wonder! Amazement! MAGIC! She witnessed birth. I did it. She did it. We did it! Our family grew, together, unified, as one.

To prepare her, here's what I did:

  • I showed her birth videos and slideshows I prescreened -- this just happened along and along due to my work. I showed her both human and animal birth. She really enjoyed watching animals give birth and I think it helped show that it's just... what "we" do.
  • We read "Hello Baby" by Jenni Overend. I've also heard "Welcome With Love" by the same author is wonderful as well. "Hello Baby" provides a beautiful, real, mindful window into home birth through the voice of the youngest sibling. I highly recommend getting your hands on a copy of either one!
  • I prepped Adiah for what my birth-y sounds may sound like. When she was already calm and contented, in her safest space, we would cuddle up in the chair in her room and I'd explain (towards the end of my pregnancy) that I would likely make some very loud sounds as I was having the baby. I started by making moan-y sounds and each time I sat down to dialogue (more so monologue) about this with her I intensified the noises I was making and the volume of my sounds. We did this maybe 5 or 6 times total. She's pretty sensitive to noise and I thought it was important to at least attempt to prepare her for what  she may hear and reinforce that it was normal, to be expected. (Of course, I don't expect a 2.5 year old to be able to cognitively understand this, but I thought it better to plant the seed than to not.)

Other than that, we rolled with it. 

A few photos from my birth with Walden. Photos copyright to Jessica Liggett Photography.

So again, I think it was a gift to my toddler to have her present at her brother's birth. And thus obviously I'm coming from the perspective that thinks it's a most beautiful thing to have young (and older of course!) siblings present at a birth. 

But again, if that doesn't feel right for you, then it's not, and that's okay. Because most of all, you want to create a safe, warm, contented environment for mom, siblings, partner, and baby-on-the-way.

And for an exceptionally breathtaking example of young children present and active throughout a home birth, please do yourself a favor and watch this video. Also, thank you Tiff (@namastetiff) for allowing me to share this here. You and yours are radiant light bearers!

I'd love to hear about your experience having your children present at your home birth. Or if you're heading towards your first home birth with a young sibling present, I'd love to hear what you're thinking and how you're feeling about it at present. Does any one particular facet of the situation keep you up at night or most excite you?