You’ve probably seen an Instagram reel or emotional black-and-white photo of a new mom, holding her brand new baby, flanked by her partner and her older kids. Then there are the birth vlogs showing entire families coming together to celebrate birth and a new member of the family. All of it can have you wondering exactly how to involve older children in your baby’s birth. Experts agree that if you want your older children to be part of your labor or delivery, it’s important not to romanticize it, as striking as it may seem on social media. Having it go smoothly depends on your preparations: educating your child about labor and birth, planning to have lots of support people present, and working with providers who understand your goals.
“If parents are wanting their children to be super involved, they’re going to want to make sure they’re picking providers and birthing spaces that really speak to that,” says Brandi Jordan, international board-certified lactation consultant (ICBLC), pediatric sleep consultant, doula, and advisor to Swehl’s Motherboard. She’s right — how your children can be involved in their new sibling’s birth largely depends on where you’re going to deliver.
How to involve older kids in a home birth
Historically speaking, home births have always been a family affair, says Rachel Nicks, certified doula and member of the Perelel Panel. It’s likely that if you’re laboring and delivering at home, your children will be present for at least some part of that experience. There are tons of vlogs on YouTube of home births involving older kids, where they help Mom set up her birthing tub, splash around in it with her, and gather around after baby is born to meet their new sibling.
The best way to involve your older children in a home birth is to bring them in just for the pushing and birth itself, according to Nicks. “I would say that's a beautiful time to bring a sibling into the room,” she says. “I would say that is the ideal. If you want that beautiful experience — which it is very magical — is you’re going to have the child come in when Mommy’s pushing to see that baby literally come into the world.”
Why not have your big kid around the whole time? Nicks cautions that even adults have a hard time watching a person experience pain during labor, and depending on your child’s personality, it could be too much for them. Parents should be able to focus on themselves rather than how their kids are reacting to everything.
Also, labor is a long process. “It's very normal for labor to last over 24 hours. Some of us have magical six hour births, but that's not everybody. And sometimes those fast and furious ones are traumatic,” she says.
If your child wants to take part, watching some home birth videos can give you ideas of how other parents incorporated their older children into their births. In them, you can see older kids:
- Helping parents blow up a birth pool.
- Playing in the tub with Mom while she’s in early labor (i.e. not in pain or needing to focus).
- Rubbing Mom’s back or fanning her.
- Giving lots of hugs and kisses.
- Reading positive birth affirmations to Mom.
How to involve older kids in a hospital or birth center birth
Jordan recommends her clients labor at home for as long as possible before heading to the hospital or birth center in general, but it’s something to consider if you want to involve your children in the process. Depending on the visitor policy where you’re delivering, this might be the only part of your labor your kids can participate in. If your kids want to be involved, plan some tasks for them to help with during early labor before you leave the house. She says older kids could:
- Learn birth affirmations to recite with Mom.
- Grab water or ice cubes as needed.
- Pick up a special lemonade or drink with another caregiver to bring to Mom.
Just be sure you’re clear on the signs of active labor so you know when it’s time to head to the hospital or birth center.
How old does a child have to be to be in the delivery room?
It depends. Every hospital and birth center has its own policies about how many people can attend your birth, and their own unique age restrictions. Depending on your child’s age, that could mean they’re not allowed in the room while you deliver, but can visit you postpartum. During Covid, many of these visitation policies got even stricter, so be sure to check with your hospital or birth center about who they do and don’t allow in the room during birth and after.
“As a general rule, you’re going to have your partner and one support person, which would be your doula,” Nicks says. “To paint a picture of a hospital, when you feel like you’re in active labor, you’re going to go and be put into triage with one person. And if you’re lucky, maybe the other person can be in the waiting room, so two max. And then when you transfer into the labor and delivery room, you can have two people. Kids are not involved in that setting at all.”
Birth centers are designed to mimic a home setting, and will have their own varying policies about kids. “Check your midwife or your birth center, because depending on capacity or intimacy of space in your room, they may allow the sibling to be with you,” says Nicks.
If your older children can attend, be sure you have someone there whose only job is to watch them (which is a good idea for home births, too). “Make sure you have someone else that can take care of their primary care outside of the birthing parent and the partner, whoever that is. If you have a partner, you want them to be focused on the birth and caring for you, or maybe they are caring for the other children and you have a doula or someone who’s supporting you,” says Jordan.
How to prep older kids to be involved in your birth
If you’ve decided to want your older kids to be around for any part of your labor or birth, you need to do plenty of prep with them ahead of time. These experts recommend that you:
- Explain what being at a birth is like (in age-appropriate ways). “If you’re going to have a child present at the home birth, you want to be quite a bit more detailed in your explanation of what birth looks like, what the sounds might sound like, and understanding that Mom is OK. You want to have a lot of conversations,” Jordan says.
- Talk often about the baby, as though they’re already a member of the family. “It's much better for that eldest sibling to understand that someone’s coming and how their new role is going to elevate them versus replace them,” says Nicks. “When the baby kicks, we talk to baby, we connect to baby, we rub Mommy’s belly with oils — all of that is going to make that eldest sibling feel connected to the baby before it’s born and just make that a smoother transition.”
- Take a birth class that includes education for older siblings. “When I had my second child my oldest was 8. We went to childbirth education where one of the days everyone could bring siblings to the class,” says Jordan. “They got to learn about birth in a kid-appropriate way and they felt part of the equation. He did some massage to my shoulders, and he gave me a cold towel on my forehead.”
- Ask your doctor or midwife if your child can come to an appointment with you. “With a midwife, they’re coming to the house for those meetings and so they’re able to incorporate siblings. My son was able to listen to the baby’s heartbeat, she would do the palpation and show him here’s the head, here’s baby’s shoulder, and he was included in that. So that was really useful for him to kind of understand where baby was and how things were going to go down,” says Jordan.
Ultimately, both experts want pregnant parents to remember that birth is about them. The most important thing is to make sure you’re supported and cared for while you labor, and to be honest with yourself about having your children there will add more joy to the experience, or just more stress.
“If you decide, you know what, I need to cocoon myself and I really can’t take having my kids be a part of this, that needs to be OK too,” Jordan says.