When Freja and Erin Keen’s dad picked them up from school one afternoon a few years ago, he had some very exciting news.
Mummy had gone into labour back home, and she was waiting for them to return so they could join in the event.
The little girls, then aged five and six, couldn’t get in the car fast enough. They weren’t just going to be popping into the bedroom to deliver flowers and kisses once Mummy and baby had been cleaned up, either. They were going to be in the room watching. That’s correct: right there, through every grunt, groan and contraction. And at the ‘business end’ of things, too.
Most mothers would baulk at the idea of inviting older children to watch them giving birth. Not only could it be frightening and confusing for children to see their mother in pain, but most women would also worry about being able to ‘let go’ and focus, knowing they had such an impressionable audience. Also, there’s that horrible ‘what if?’ question that hangs over even the most straight-forward births.
Sometimes, things do go wrong, and the mental scars for children, witnessing something terrible, could last a lifetime.
Yet an increasing number of mothers are choosing to have their offspring at their side, with tots as young as two being encouraged to witness the arrival of a sibling.
Following the latest trend was celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, who revealed that his eldest daughters, Poppy, 14, and Daisy, 12, were present when wife Jools recently gave birth for the fifth time.
Jools tweeted: ‘So very proud of our two eldest daughters who cut the cord.’ Amid the flurry of congratulations, there was also an outcry on social media, with claims that children should not be exposed to childbirth, for risk of psychological damage.
Some women are lucky enough to sail through delivery on a lavender-scented haze of oxytocin, but for others it’s a marathon of blood, sweat, tears and expletives.
It’s for this reason that there was a time, until fairly recently, when even fathers weren’t welcome in the delivery room.
Yet Freja and Erin’s mum, Nancy, has no regrets. She says the experience of watching her give birth to son, Torren, four years ago, has helped dismiss any fears and preconceptions the girls might have had about childbirth.
‘In the end, it became a bit of a non-event,’ remembers Nancy, 39. ‘One of them summed it up afterwards: ‘We came home, Mum had the baby, then we had fish and chips and watched Strictly.’ It was about as dramatic as that. And that was exactly how it should be.’
Nancy had always been terrified of childbirth after her own mother had nearly died giving birth to her, a fact that hadn’t been withheld from her throughout her childhood.
But after discovering hypnobirthing, which she now teaches, Nancy overcame her fears.
Her first daughter, Freja, now 11, was born in hospital while Erin, now nine, was born at home.
When Nancy became pregnant with her third child, she and her husband Stuart, also 39, a teacher, from Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, decided to have another home birth. And they invited their daughters to watch.
‘They have always been fascinated by childbirth and had a million questions to ask about it. So they jumped at the chance when we said we were going to use one of our two living rooms to deliver the baby.’
Before the birth, Nancy showed the girls videos of different types of births -water births, noisy births, quiet births -so they knew what to expect. Her mother and in-laws also came to stay, so there were other adults in the house in case the girls changed their minds.
here was also a contingency plan, stresses Nancy, should there have been a medical emergency, so the girls could be whisked away by their grandparents and looked after, out of sight.
However, when the day came four years ago, both Freja and Erin saw their baby brother come into the world.
‘As he was born, they chose to be at the business end, so they saw him coming out,’ says Nancy.
I brought him to my chest and the girls came up to see him, so they were the first people he ever saw.
‘It was an amazing experience and I hope it will mean they will never have a fear of childbirth like I had -it is something that just happens.’
Indeed, four years on, Freja seems totally unfazed by seeing the birth of her little brother.
She says: ‘I remember when Mum was pushing Torren out she was making funny noises which sounded a bit like a cow, which was a bit odd -but then it was over and she was back to normal again. I’m really happy that I was able to be there.’
Nancy made sure she was ready with explanations afterwards.
‘We talked a lot about the birth and the girls were truly delighted to have been there. It was a purely positive experience,’ she says
Michelle Lyne, a Professional Midwifery Advisor at the Royal College of Midwives, says there’s no reason to exclude children from birth.
‘Birth is a normal life event and children are often involved in a pregnancy, so carrying this on into labour can be quite natural.’
However, she recommends choosing a familiar environment in which to give birth. ‘What’s important is that children feel that they can come and go as they feel, which can be easier in the home birth setting and quite normal in contrast to the hospital setting which can seem quite clinical and frightening.’
Lee Wright, a practising midwife and senior lecturer in Women’s Health and Midwifery at Birmingham City University, points out that in many countries, births are often accompanied by extended gatherings.
‘The idea that birth is a traumatic event is a very Western idea. In other cultures, birth is a real family thing and there are a lot of people in attendance.’
Though for parents who are set on a Jamie and Jools-style sibling birth, Lee Wright agrees with Nancy, that it is always wise to enlist some extra help and have a ‘what if’ plan.
‘I would advise any woman contemplating having their children at the birth to have another adult such as a mother-in-law, mother, or partner present, so the pressure isn’t on the mum to be worrying about the children.’
Yet even with the best-laid plans, psychologist Dr Amanda Gummer, Founder of Fundamentally Children, says children should probably be kept out of the birthing suite. ‘It can be a traumatic experience for a child to see a mother in pain,’ he says.
‘It’s also a dangerous time for the health of both mother and baby, and if anything does go wrong, the children in the room may feel responsible and this is likely to have a lasting impact.’
It’s something, Alexandra Shakespeare can identify with, after she endured labour with her then two-year-old daughter, Florence, watching.
Alexandra, 40, a part-time lecturer and brand consultant, and her husband Mark, also 40, a graphic designer, had planned for Florence, now seven, to stay with her maternal grandmother.
But when Alexandra’s contractions began at 3 am on a May day in 2011, her mother didn’t hear the phone. Being new to the area, the couple didn’t have anyone else they could call on, so they decided to take Florence with them to the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford.
They then hoped there would be a crossover period before Alexandra’s Mum relieved them at the hospital.
‘While I was anxious to get hold of my mum, it actually gave me some comfort to know Florence was close by.
‘I was naively hoping she would fall asleep for the majority of it, as it was in the early hours of the morning. But when we got to the hospital, she wouldn’t sit still,’ recalls Alexandra, who describes her little daughter as having gone through a ‘rollercoaster of emotions’.
‘At first she was happy and excited to be there. But once the fun had worn off and she’d exhausted the selection of colouring books we’d brought along, she became scared and anxious that I was bleeding and screaming, so Mark tried to keep her away from the bottom end of the bed.’ As Alexandra’s contractions became increasingly powerful, she found it hard to mask the agony.
‘I was very conscious of trying not to scream when Florence was in the room as I didn’t want to scare her, which took a lot of control. I had to try to compose myself and say to Florence: ‘It’s OK darling, don’t worry, Mummy’s all right.’ ‘
But when Florence became distressed, Alexandra asked Mark to take her out of the room.
‘There were one or two moments when I remember feeling really frustrated that Mark wasn’t with me for every second, and I kept asking if he had made contact with my mum yet.
‘But the hospital brought in a second midwife to help me through it -they were absolutely amazing. They also reassured me that at home births, children are often present during sibling labours.’
Six hours after arriving at the hospital, exhausted Florence finally fell asleep on a sofa in the delivery room. ‘It was a massive relief because I could just go for it,’ recalls Alexandra. ‘Up until that point, I hadn’t been pushing as hard as I could have done, because I needed Mark to be with me, but Florence needed him, too.’ Finally able to focus, Alexandra gave birth to a healthy baby boy, Gabriel, weighing 9lb 2oz.
When Florence woke up, she was thrilled to discover she had a little brother.
Now seven, Florence has recovered from the ordeal. But Alexandra admits the experience stuck with her a long time. ‘She was definitely squeamish afterwards. She couldn’t bear the sight of blood, or even handle a splinter. She kept asking questions about blood and saying she didn’t want to have a baby because it would really hurt and was messy.’
Fortunately, those memories have faded and Alexandra says in hindsight, she’s glad Florence was there for Gabriel’s birth. Her only regret is that she wasn’t able to plan for it.
‘It made us feel like a real family, it was a wonderful thing. She adored Gabriel from the start and is so nurturing. There were some tricky elements, but that’s life, you can’t just wrap them up in cotton wool.’
Neither can you prepare for how your children will react, when you do invite them to the birth, as 39-year-old Karen English discovered.
When she gave birth to her third child, Isla, at home in 2013, she imagined sharing the experience with her two older children, Holly, now seven, and six-year-old Ben, so that they would understand childbirth was nothing to fear.
‘My mum always told me horrific birth stories of forced shaving, enemas and episiotomies, and I didn’t want my children to think that’s what’s it’s like,’ says Karen, a social media manager from South Shields. Holly and Ben had both been born in hospital. Although Karen hoped they would be eager to welcome their new sibling into the world, when the moment arrived, they weren’t really interested, preferring to watch Disney films.
‘I laboured through the night and Ben, then three, slept just about the whole time. He’s a good sleeper and didn’t seem to care at all.
‘Holly, then four, woke towards the end, but wasn’t remotely interested and simply went down to play with her auntie. If you ask her what she remembers that night, it was watching the movie Sofia The Second.’
Fortunately, Karen’s husband Mark, 42, an architectural engineer, was somewhat less nonchalant and stayed at her side throughout.
Karen remembers trying not to make too much noise, in case it upset the children. But she needn’t have worried. She gave birth on the bed, with Ben asleep next door and Holly engrossed in the TV.
Ten minutes later, the children emerged to meet their new sibling.
‘They just accepted she was there,’ recalls Karen. ‘Holly asked if I was fighting a dragon, because I must have been making strange noises, and I told her that mummies have to work hard to help the baby come and sometimes it makes you groan. I asked if she was worried at all, but she wasn’t.’
And Karen says Holly would re-enact the scene. ‘She would put a toy up her top, bend over, make a moaning sound and let the toy fall saying: ‘I borned the baby.’ ‘
Although Holly and Ben may have been less enthralled than anticipated, Karen still cherishes the fact they were all together afterwards.
‘An hour after Isla’s birth, we were all eating buttered crumpets in bed. I can’t think of a nicer way to welcome a new baby.’