Mum and writer Milli Hill investigates the growing trend for allowing your kids to meet their new baby sibling right in the delivery room, and shares her own birth story too...
Letting your children watch you give birth? Won't they be scarred for life?
This is the question the world is asking this week, following Jamie Oliver's cheery revelation that daughters Poppy, 14, and Daisy, 12, witnessed the birth of his son on Sunday, and that they even helped cut the umbilical cord.
Why would anyone want their child to witness the 'horrors of childbirth'? I felt this way once, too. As I prepared for the birth of my second daughter after a fairly traumatic first birth, I felt anxious. I was planning a home birth, and my first-born girl, then aged two and a half, was my biggest worry. She had never been away from me for long – but where would she go when my baby was being born?
My midwives, wise and calm as all midwives tend to be, met my worried gaze and asked me this simple question: 'What don't you want her to see?'
My list was long, and fairly typical of most 21st century women's expectations of childbirth: blood, gore, screaming, swearing, panic, emergency, horror.
Wisely and calmly the midwives met my gaze again and told me, with such quiet conviction that I really believed them: 'Birth doesn't have to be like that. Your birth won't be like that. It will be beautiful.'
Jools Oliver hit the headlines this week, after allowing her two eldest daughters to be present for the birth of her fifth child
And they were right. My labour began in earnest on the lunchtime of a summer's day, and by early evening my daughter was born in the birth pool. My first born, looked after by her aunt, popped in and out of the room throughout the afternoon, but mostly found it boring once she'd been firmly told she couldn't get in the water with mummy. Seeing her during my labour inspired me to carry on even when it was tough, and the moment when she brought me a bunch of hedgerow flowers will be etched on my memory forever.
She watched the birth from a perch half way up the stairs, and jumped in quickly afterwards to meet her sister.
When I gave birth for the third time, I didn't worry at all about what to do with my other children, then aged five and three. They slept through most of my night-time labouring, but ate their cereal in the next room while I pushed my baby out, and then leapt in excitedly to see him, bringing him a large collection of books to read – start them young! The three year old cut his cord and is proud to tell the story to this day.
Ehrin MacRury Wren, from London, gave birth eight weeks ago to baby Alastair with sibling Archie, five, and Hattie, two, present. She feels that the fear of having children around birth is more about our negative expectations than the actual reality of what birth is like.
'I think when lots of people think about birth they think of loud, frightening TV births', she told me.
'Ours was very calm and quiet, and sometimes a bit giggly! We had 80s music on the radio and sang along in the pool. When the baby arrived the other two were ecstatic, singing Happy Birthday to him before they went to bed! If either of them had had a problem they could have gone to another room but as it turned out they thought it was all pretty normal – perhaps because it is', she added.
Ehrin MacRury Wren: 'They all sang Happy Birthday'
Image: Ehrin MacRury Wren
Jacque Gerrard, the Royal College of Midwives Director for England, agrees that children will usually take childbirth in their stride: 'Birth is a normal life event and children are often involved in a pregnancy so carrying this on into labour can be quite natural', she told me.
'If it happens in a prepared, loving and supportive environment, having children at the birth is really positive and healthy.'
Cutting the umbilical cord is beautiful, and so positive in terms of the relationship with the new baby.'
In a world that is often so fearful of birth, we also need to challenge our own expectations as we talk to our children about what birth will be like. In my case, I learnt to explain to my girls that the loud noises mummy might make in labour (which I had always found terrifying to listen to myself), were not the sounds of pain or distress, but of 'effort' – 'just like the sounds you'd make if you had to move a wardrobe from one side of the room to the other', I would tell them, feeling secretly reassured by this analogy myself.
So many of us have received such negative messages about birth, from television programmes, overheard comments or the dreaded school video, designed – perhaps - with the sole purpose of putting you off sex and babies for life. But when children attend birth, they don't bring any of this baggage.
Alison Walsingham during labour with son Caelan: 'He totally gets it'
Image: Tree of Life Doula Photography
'To my son it completed the whole pregnancy', says Alison Walsingham, from Kent, whose son Caelan was there for the birth of her second baby. 'He didn't go to Grandmas and come home to a new baby or wake up and her be there. He witnessed where his sister came from and he totally gets it.'
Alison Walsingham and son Caelan: 'Mummy sounded like Darth Vader'
Image: Tree of Life Doula Photography
'In his words, he says mummy sounded like Darth Vader and he saw his sister come out of mummy.'
Being present for birth is a gift to children of any age. For the Oliver's teenage girls, how wonderful for them to know how simple and normal birth can be, in an age that tends mostly to view the event with dread and fear. I hope that my own daughters will grow up to see birth as 'just something clever that girls can do', rather than, as a Daily Mail columnist described it this week, 'brutal, terrifying... no child should witness it.'
This view is quickly becoming dated, and Jools Oliver's decision not just to welcome her teenage daughters into her birth room, but to share with the world that she did this, is a powerful sign of this turning tide. It's really got people talking, most of all because many people's expectations of childbirth are pretty low – just as mine were once.
In the future, thanks in part to Jools Oliver, the idea of birth as a terror that must be kept hidden from view might well be a thing of the past, helped along by the women lining up to share their stories of calm and positive births using the hashtag #siblingsatbirth.
Jools's action is forcing the world to ask itself some tough questions about our expectations of childbirth. We're forced to consider what it is about birth that we don't want others to see? And more importantly to ask, if it really is so horrific, does it have to be this way?
So what do you think?We asked you if you'd ever consider letting your child be present for your birth over on the GoodtoKnow Facebook page, and here's what you had to say:
We didn't plan it but my eldest watched her younger brother being born at home. Since then we've also watched horses, lambs, kittens, and a rhino being born online. We're all mammals, we birth live young. There are some really horrible things in the world I would prefer my kids didn't watch, but not nature - it's awesome. - Mel Beard
My eldest daughter who was 14 when her brother now 5 was born, watched and cut his cord. - Tennille Mcconkey
If they're old enough, why not .. Would encourage a beautiful bond ! - Cyn Wray
I dont agree with it but hey each to there own - Emma Grundy