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London - When Alison Campbell was pregnant with her third child she was determined to have a home birth.
She made all the plans: arranged for a birthing pool to be set-up in the dining room, booked an independent midwife, and asked her good friend Tracy to be on-call to take care of her two daughters. But that wasn’t all she wanted.
Her contractions kicked off late at night so she gathered her birthing team around her. Then, when it was clear the baby was about to be born, Tracy raced upstairs to shake the children awake. Jemma, then six, and Emily, three, tip-toed downstairs in their pyjamas to help their mum give birth.
Both had designated jobs. Emily stood at the top of the pool, dabbing her mother’s forehead with a cold cloth, and Jemma kneeled by the midwife, observing everything, offering encouragement saying, “Mummy, you’re doing very well”, after each big contraction. Although most people would be appalled at the idea of young children witnessing their mother give birth, these girls were utterly unfazed.
They had been thoroughly prepared for this day: watching birthing videos while their friends watched cartoons, and sharing specially-written “home-birth” books (in which the whole family is present) as bedtime reading.
They watched intently as their baby sister, Hope came into the world, then pulled on their swimming costumes and leaped into the pink-tinged birthing pool with their mother. Jemma was handed a pair of scissors to cut the new baby’s umbilical cord.
Alison, 33, from Glasgow, admits that some of her friends were horrified when they heard her birthing plans.
“I’m pretty sure some of them thought I was bonkers,” she says, “but I wanted the birth to be a family celebration — the girls are part of the family and I wanted them to be part of the birth.”
Both of her elder daughters had been born in hospital, but Alison was determined that this would be different: “I’m no hippy, but I felt strongly that birth is so often over-dramatised on TV, with women comparing stories of long labours and “my birth experience was worse than yours” one- upmanship. I wanted my children to understand that birth doesn’t have to be scary or dangerous, and is certainly not something to be fearful of.”
When she gave birth to her fourth baby, eight months ago, little Hope, now three, joined in the proceedings, and this time it was Emily who was given the job of cutting the cord.
To many, the idea of inviting small children to watch childbirth is extreme and unorthodox, but more people, like Alison, are asking that their other children be present at the birth. They argue it helps the family bond, prevents older children becoming jealous of the new baby, and — unless anything goes wrong — passes on a positive message about the childbirth process.
In the US, sibling involvement is a growing craze, with increasing numbers of hospitals saying they are fielding requests from families to have children present during delivery.
Because hospital births are a lucrative business in the US, many units are competing to attract mums-to-be by allowing children to be present.
But in this country, the practice is still taboo — many people are shocked by the idea and the vast majority of hospitals and birthing units actively discourage it.
A spokeswoman for the Royal College of Midwives, Gail Johnson, says the official line is to encourage midwives to have an “informed discussion” with the family, but she warns it may not be appropriate for everyone.
“It can be distressing for children to see their mother in pain, she may use language in labour that she normally wouldn’t dream of using in front of her children, and the blood and faeces that are a perfectly normal part of birth can be shocking to a child,” she warns.
One mother who knows including children in the birth doesn’t always go to plan is Aja Clarke — she was convinced she wouldn’t mind her nearly two-year-old daughter Kitty being present while she was giving birth to Tilly last month, but was surprised at how differently she felt when her labour kicked off.
“My mum had offered to come and look after Kitty, but my contractions started in the evening when Kitty was in bed. We assumed the baby would be born before morning so we didn’t bother to call her,” she says.
However, Aja’s labour took longer than expected and it was 7.30am before she reached the most intense and painful pushing stage — just as Kitty woke.
“I was lying on the sofa, my waters had just broken and the sitting room was a complete mess,” says Aja.
“It really wasn’t the idyllic birthing environment I had wanted Kitty to witness and I felt very strongly that I didn’t want her to see me like this.
“I was exhausted after 12 hours of contractions, woozy from all the gas and air, and really worried that the whole thing would freak Kitty out. I didn’t know how I would explain to a toddler that ‘everything is ok’ when it so clearly wasn’t.”
A second midwife is routinely called to be in attendance at births, so she was sent upstairs to try to keep Kitty occupied while the first midwife helped Aja through the final stages of labour. After an hour (during which Kitty had a bath and showed the stranger all her toys) a friend of Aja’s took over the childcare, and all the potentially frightening evidence of birth was cleared away.
“Kitty was easily placated, luckily, and rather bemused by her new playmates,” says Aja. “She came downstairs quite happily when her new baby sister had been born.”
Margaret McAllister, a child psychologist working in Scotland is another sceptic. “I’m not sure watching your mother giving birth forms an appropriate part of your experience as a developing child,” she says.
Contrary to the expectation that the experience bonds siblings together, she warns it could have the opposite effect.
“If the child connects the birth with distress — either their own or their mother’s — there is a risk of engendering adverse feelings towards the new arrival,” she says. “This could cause anxiety and worry, possibly for many years into the future.
“It is self-centred of a mother to want to share her experience instead of considering the impact on her other children.”
Midwives warn that mums just don’t know how they are going to feel in labour. Some may find they unexpectedly don’t want their children around and their presence can make it difficult to focus on the labour.
Although Belinda Fountaine’s birth with Olivia six weeks ago was very much a family affair, and Belinda was thrilled to have her boys (James, four, and William, two) around to witness the proceedings, it wasn’t as easy as she had expected.
“I was keen my boys didn’t feel they were being pushed aside and had to get out of the house to make way for the new baby,” says Belinda, 32, from Oxfordshire.
“I was happy with the idea of them just being around when I gave birth.” Like Alison Campbell, she read specially-written books to the boys to prepare them, and arranged for her mother to supervise childcare, but it turned out to be a tough job.
“I found myself in full labour just at the point where the boys were eating their tea,” remembers Belinda, “they were all excited, running around, continually coming over to me in the birthing pool to ask whether the baby was out yet.
“It was sweet, but I every time they leaned on the side of the pool it disturbed my focus and when things got really intense I remember grunting to mum: ‘Just get them out of here!’”
It was only afterwards that Belinda’s mum confessed to how difficult it had been to keep the boys distracted and away from the birthing pool — at one point she’d had to take them outside to stand in the rain.
Although Belinda did look up as Olivia was born to see her mother and two little boys quietly looking on, the idyllic moment was short-lived when Olivia let out some lusty cries which set William off in confusion.
He vividly remembers “baby crying!”, and although James is happy to describe in anatomical detail how his sister was born he does remember being shocked by the sight of the ‘yukky’ water his mother was sitting in.
“I think it was tough on the midwife, too,” admits Belinda. “She was amazingly patient with the boys and says she was delighted they were there, but I do remember she sent my husband Tony and the boys to her car on the pretence of fetching some kit, purely to get them out of the house for a while.”
Just as a pregnant woman has no idea how she is likely to react to the presence of her other children at the birth, there is no way of knowing how the child will respond — whatever their age.
Oxfordshire independent midwife Liz Nightingale is a veteran of sibling births, and as such is armed with tips for helping children of all ages get the most out of the experience — without being traumatised by it.
“The under-twos are usually unaffected,” she says. “To them it is just another weird thing and if everyone else is happy, they go along with it.”
However, she warns that children of pre-school age do need some familiarisation and recommends the family sit down to watch DVDs or read books (such as Hello Baby by Jenni Overend and Julie Vivas) to prepare them for the experience, perhaps playing “moo-ing games” so they get used to the noises their mummy is likely to make in labour.
It also helps, she says, if they understand that labour might hurt, but that it is a positive pain — a bit like when you run fast, and your body is working as hard as it can. And it is important to give older children the choice as to whether they really do want to be there or not.
Alison Campbell’s midwife, Carrie McIntosh, had invited her children to be with her when she gave birth to their brother, Arran. Her daughter, Katie, then ten, was enthusiastic and joined her mum in the birthing pool to cut the cord. But her son Finlay, then eight, was not so keen.
“I went in to labour as he was getting ready for school and offered him the chance of a day off to stay home for the birth,” says Carrie. “I knew he was rather squeamish, but when he said he’d rather go to school he made it abundantly clear he really didn’t want to watch.”
Carrie believes the experience has closely bonded Katie, now 15, with her younger brother. “She is almost like a second mother to him,” she says. “It has also had a positive effect on her relationship with me — it is a lovely gift for a woman to give her daughter.”
Katie remembers every detail. “I expected the whole thing to be loud and for there to be a lot of blood, but it was the opposite,” she says. “I wasn’t worried — more fascinated.
“I spent the whole time leaning over the side of the pool trying to see the baby’s head and I was the first person to spot Arran coming out.”
Alison Campbell’s girls also have great memories of their mother’s birth. Emily, now seven says: “At first I was nervous in case anything went wrong, but I was so excited to see if it was a girl or a boy. Mummy did make funny noises which made me laugh — I was very proud of her when Libby was born. When I cut the cord I was shaking.”
Jemma, ten, adds: “I wasn’t scared because I’d seen lots of birth videos. My friends asked why mum didn’t have the baby in hospital but I told them that it is better and more relaxing to have the baby at home with all her family.”
Until the 1970s even fathers were considered to be too much of a liability during the birthing process, and were routinely made to wait outside (or were busied fetching not-always-necessary hot water and towels).
So it is a giant leap for many men to have to deal with their children running around as their partner gives birth in front of them. Certainly Alison’s husband Danny was shocked when she first mentioned the idea.
“My reaction — which I managed to disguise quite well — was one of dread.” he says. “All these negative thoughts came into my head about what would happen if things went wrong.”
But for the Campbells, the family birth experiences — twice — were only positive. Alison says: “I feel I have done something very important for my daughters. I’ve shown them what a special and beautiful thing birth can be, how normal it is and how it is something to be celebrated.
“I truly believe the memory of their sister’s birth will live with them for a very long time.”
However, it is clear that this is not a decision that can be taken without considerable thought and preparation.
As midwife Gail Johnson says: “Even if all goes to plan, labour can go on for a very long time, and can be pretty boring for young children — personally I don’t know if there is a tremendous benefit to witnessing the actual birth when siblings can be brought in to see the new baby immediately afterwards.”
Twenty-two percent of hospitals in the US allow siblings in the delivery room, while in UK hospitals the practice is discouraged. - Daily Mail