Charlotte Mead* tucked her four-year-old daughter into bed and whispered, "Get as much sleep as you can, because there's a very good chance I will be waking you again soon to go to the hospital."
It was a promise that Charlotte had made her daughter since falling pregnant – a promise that she could be present during her mum's labour, and be the first to witness her baby sister entering the world.
"She was certain from the outset that she'd be at the labour," says Charlotte. "She had attended all the antenatal appointments and scans with me, and had come shopping for new baby things, so it was an assumed extension of the experience."
Charlotte prepared her daughter for the birth by being very open about the topic and answering all her daughter's questions. She also repeatedly read her a book about a home birth that detailed the sounds and sights she might experience – including seeing her mum in pain.
When Charlotte went into labour it was quick. She was in transition and close to delivering when her daughter arrived at the hospital.
"She mostly observed, sometimes wailing along with me when I was having a contraction, and sometimes offering encouragement. But, for the most part, she was quiet and bug-eyed," explains Charlotte. "Once the baby's head was born she exclaimed 'It's an actual real BABY!' and afterwards she rushed over to count the toes to make sure there were 10."
Charlotte believes that her daughter has benefitted from this experience as she now has a deeper understanding of women's bodies, how they work, what they can do, and how pain is part of labour but quickly forgotten.
"She knows a lot about birth, babies and breastfeeding, and isn't shy or awkward about these topics. She breastfeeds her baby dolls and co-sleeps with them too, which makes my heart sing."
So would Charlotte recommend the experience to others?
"If it's your desire, then go ahead," she says. "It's a wonderful – and often never again repeated – experience to bear witness to, and I personally uphold the opinion that it provides for a more immediate and deeper sibling bond."
"My daughter saw me deliver our baby in a natural, intervention-free setting. She saw me in the throes of labour pain and then very soon after in the elation of post-birth, first breastfeed and so on. I hope this fills her with confidence when she comes to deliver her own children.
Lisa Klamer experienced a similar situation when she laboured at home in her bathroom.
"My children didn't see the actual birth of their sister, but came into the bathroom immediately after she was born and before her cord was cut," says Lisa.
Lisa's eldest daughter, Adriana, was given the responsibility of cutting the cord, while her younger twins, aged three, stayed on to watch. They then all helped measure and weigh their sister, get her dressed and give her lots of cuddles.
"They were completely fascinated by the whole experience, and still ask questions about her birth now. Adriana thinks its great that everyone met Lauren at the same time, and knows that she is very unique in that she was able to cut her baby sister's cord and be present for that special time."
Lisa believes that the experience made all her children feel part of welcoming their sister into the world, while also providing them with an education about birth.
"The kids have watched and learnt about how babies come into this world, about the umbilical cord, the placenta, and how their baby sister changed in the first few hours of her life. It was a wonderful experience for our family, and something I think about often."
Lois Wattis, a specialist clinical midwife, has attended many home births where children have observed the labour and birth of their sibling. She says that the experience has proved to be universally positive.
"The key element to having a successful family birth is good preparation," says Lois. "It's important that everyone who's likely to be present knows what to expect, and what is expected of them."
Lois believes that sharing the birth of a baby is a profound experience, and for younger children it can help cement an immediate bond and deep sense of belonging to the family.
"Children who are well prepared for the birth scenario often become confident supporters of the labouring woman. I have seen many tender moments shared between a mother and her child in the lead up to a natural birth, and I know many children whose favourite video is their own birth."
Lois offers the following tips for any mothers thinking about having their children at the birth of their siblings:
- think carefully about your own reasons for wanting your baby's siblings at your birth
- discuss your feelings with your primary caregiver as well as your children if they're old enough to be involved in the conversation
- prepare your children for the experience of labour and birth using birth story books, videos or role playing games
- leave the decision open-ended for your children, and have an alternative "plan B" in place that ensures an appropriate known support person is available for those children
- accept that birth plans don't always unfold as expected, and be prepared for a change of mind (yours or others) along the way
- accept that "what happens was meant to be". No birthing mother needs extra concerns or pressures during labour and birth, so go with the flow as your birth event unfolds.
* Name has been changed