A survey on a popular parenting website recently asked the question, “Do you think older siblings should be present at birth?” As one might imagine, the ensuing comments reflected a wide spectrum of attitudes toward childbirth. Some mothers wrote that they would like to, or even had already, shared the beautiful experience of their baby’s birth with his or her older siblings. Others wrote vehemently that the labor room was no place for a child. Here are just a few of the comments that struck me:

On the pro-sibling side —

1. My six year old daughter is very excited to attend the birth of our third baby. (We also have a 3 year old son.) She was the one who expressed interest in attending the birth. I am having the baby at a Birth Center. In this home-like setting she will be able to participate as much or as little as she likes. We have discussed the birth process at length and have even watched some videos so that she will know what to expect. I think it will be a great way for her to bond with the baby and a way to remind her that she is an important part of our family. Plus, she is a female and may have children of her own one day. How many of us have had the opportunity to attend a birth before we have our own children? I think this will help her see that having a baby is a natural thing and give her confidence when it is her turn.

2. My 2.5 year old daughter watched my 2nd daughter’s birth (it was a c-section) from start to finish from a viewing room, on the side of the operating room. 
It was SO GREAT having her there (with Grandma) because it took my focus and stress away and I just loved seeing the excitement in my little girl’s eyes, as she watched her little sister come into the world.
And on the anti-sibling side: —

 1. Would you let your kids watch the “making” of the baby, too??? They have NO business being in the room while the mother is giving birth! Outside waiting with a grandparent is fine, but certainly not in the same room!

2. There is no question in my family that being there wouldn’t work for my kids. My girls, 3 & 5 are very protective of Mommy. They would be completely traumatized by the birth. If they were older, I would consider it, but at their ages and with their personalities, we will leave that process to a movie in health class.

3. To expectant parents, birth is a natural and beautiful thing. To a child, it is confusing and icky and scary. I know there are a lot of people here that think their child was ok with it, but trust me, they don’t see it the same as an adult does. There are just some things you don’t show off to a child-no matter what age. My opinion: leave the children out of the delivery room and in the hands of a caregiver until the baby and mommy are more “presentable”.

And my personal favorite:

4. I think small children need to have mostly positive associations with the birth of the new sibling. They have the rest of their life to learn about real life and how their sibling really got there.

A common thread that one might expect runs through all these comments, namely, the parents who view childbirth as normal, healthy, and empowering invite their older children to witness the event, while the parents who see it as scary, traumatic, and shameful (or “icky”) do not. It’s no surprise, therefore, that the pro-sibling numbers seem to be much higher among home-birthers, since regarding childbirth as natural and healthy is a prerequisite of sorts for choosing to birth at home.

As I read through page upon page of the survey respondents explanations for their positions, an even more important distinction became apparent.  The pro-sibling (dare I even call them “pro-birth”?) parents seem to recognize that they have the power to influence their children’s attitudes toward childbirth and family. Not only do they know birth is healthy, they are also raising their children to see it that way. As Kathy blogged about recently,our culture faces an epidemic of fear about birth. What better way to combat that fear in the next generation than to help them understand the inherent well-ness of birth while they are still young?

Of course, the anti-sibling parents exercise that same influence over their children’s worldview, whether or not they recognize it. As many readers commented, children are sensitive creatures. Children whose parents regard birth as scary will likely grow up scared of birth themselves, regardless of whether they witness one first-hand.  The last comment, while short, says it all: To the writer, the process of birthing the baby leads to “negative associations” (which the writer, interestingly, equates to “real life” in the next sentence).

Until relatively recently in history, birth took place not in the hospital with doctors and nurses, but in the home with a midwife and female family members. By the time a woman gave birth to her first child, she had likely had the opportunity to witness several babies enter the world. Ask a pregnant woman today whether she has ever witnessed a birth in real life, and her answer will likely be “no.” Our culture has televised births (a disproportionate number of which end in cesarean), movie births (in which the deliveries are either comical or end in tragedy), and books about pregnancy and birth. Yet our direct exposure to normal birth is almost nil.

I can’t help but think that the children, especially the daughters, of the pro-sibling / pro-birth parents will have better birth experiences in adulthood than the children of the anti-sibling group. Imagine a generation of young women who were raised to recognize birth as sacred, healthy, and empowering – women whose earliest family memories include experiencing the beauty and nature of childbirth.  If more girls grew up with this perspective, I believe maternity care could change dramatically in a generation.

Sadly, in this particular survey, only 27% of respondents voted to allow siblings to witness the new baby’s birth. (To be clear, there was no “maybe” option — a full 73% of those taking the survey voted “NO” to children’s presence at birth.) For those of us hoping to see dramatic changes to maternity care in the next generation or two, these numbers are discouraging.

I am convinced that those of us with positive birth experiences, those of us who recognize birth as healthy and empowering, have not just an opportunity but in fact a responsibility to share that wisdom with the next generation of mothers.  I am not advocating inviting your neighbor’s children into the labor room. Yet I do advocate healthy dialogue about your healthy, positive birth stories. You don’t need to bare all the finest, most personal details. But consider sharing your views on birth, particularly your attitude toward your own birth experiences, with the young women (or even the young men) in your life. It may be just the “normal” perspective they need.