How to Handle Your First Child When You Go into Labor with Your Second

Your older child knows there's a baby on the way, but what will you tell her when your contractions kick in or you make a mad dash to the hospital?

My contractions were coming seven minutes apart," remembers my friend Katie. "I had called my husband at work and my mother was on her way, but there I was with my daughter, braiding her doll's hair while I was doing Lamaze breathing! I just didn't want her to get scared."

Most mothers agree that going into labor with their second baby is a completely different experience from the first. "The first time, I was concerned only about myself and my fears," recalls another mom, Michelle. "With my second, I was consumed with details: Would the baby-sitter get here on time? Would my son be upset if he saw me in pain?" In fact, Michelle was driving on the expressway with her 3-year-old son when she felt her first contraction. "I pretended that everything was fine, but every time I took a loud cleansing breath, he looked at me really strangely," she says. "He knew something was up, but I didn't know what to say to him that wouldn't frighten him. I knew I couldn't deal with his crying while I was in labor."

You shouldn't hide the fact that you're in labor from your child, says Marion McCartney, director of Professional Services for the American College of Nurse-Midwives, in Washington, D.C. "There has been so much fear and mystery surrounding labor and birth in our society that our kids grow up being confused and apprehensive about the whole subject," she says. "It's usually better to be open and honest."

How much you should share, however, depends on the age of your child. "A 2- or 3-year-old can be easily frightened if he sees that you're in pain," says McCartney, "so it's best to distract your child and simply say, 'Mommy doesn't feel very well' or 'Mommy needs to lie down and rest.' " For a 4- or 5-year-old, McCartney suggests giving basic explanations along with reassurance that Mommy will be okay. Here are some examples of what to say:

  • "A contraction is like getting bumped in my tummy. It hurts a little, but it pushes the baby down and helps him or her get born."
  • "There's a special way that Mommy can breathe when the contraction comes so that it doesn't hurt as much."
  • "After a contraction, Mommy feels just fine. I just have to rest to get ready for the next one."
  • "Soon I'll go into a special room in the hospital where the doctor and nurses will help your brother or sister come out."

Your child may also become confused or anxious if she's with you when your water breaks. You can explain, "The water helped keep the baby safe and protected, and this is just the first sign that the baby is getting ready to be born."

Having a fail-safe plan can put your mind at ease. Of course, the best strategy for easing your apprehensions is to make definite arrangements for who will stay with your child when you go to the hospital. Since neither my husband nor I had relatives within 100 miles, we were counting on our daughter Annie's beloved sitter, Kate. She was a part-time student at a nearby college, and she insisted that we could call her day or night when I went into labor. "I can be there in less than half an hour," she promised.

But I couldn't realistically expect her to sit by the telephone for the entire month of April, so we came up with a fail-safe plan: If Kate wasn't at home, I would call her mother, who lived around the corner, and she would come over. In addition, a neighbor offered to take Annie to her house in case neither Kate nor her mother was available. Knowing that I had several options really helped me sleep better during the last few weeks of my pregnancy. As it turned out, my water broke at 11:00 p.m. on a Sunday, and Kate made it to our house 20 minutes later. We never had to use either of the backup plans, but I was glad that I had them.

By the third trimester, your child undoubtedly knows that he's going to have a new brother or sister soon. But he may think that the baby is going to magically appear and that life will go on normally. It's important that you prepare your child for what will happen to him that day. Explain, for example, that you and Daddy will be going to the hospital and that Aunt Mary will be coming to stay with him at home.

You will also need to let your child know that it may be a while before he'll be able to visit you and the baby. To a toddler or preschooler, 3 hours can seem like a whole day, and 12 hours can feel like an eternity. Since you obviously won't know for sure how long your labor is going to be, you'll need to prepare him for the seemingly endless wait. Saying, "You might not see the baby until after school is over" or "Aunt Mary might stay overnight if the baby doesn't come right away" can help give him a more concrete understanding of time.

Give your older child a hospital tour. A sibling preparation class is a wonderful resource for your older child, but if your hospital doesn't offer one, bring her to the maternity ward (as well as the gift shop and the cafeteria) in advance of your labor. Remind your child that you'll definitely call her at home while you're there.

Some parents want their older children to be at the hospital when they give birth so that family bonding can start right away. In this case, your child will need an adult to stay with him the whole time, which can take many hours. Most children under age 8 don't have the patience to wait, says McCartney, and even older children can be scared by hospital equipment and the sounds of women in labor. If your child is at home with a trusted caregiver or grandparent, you'll probably feel much more comfortable -- and so will your child.

Copyright © 2000 Joan Leonard. Reprinted with permission from the March 2000 issue of Parents magazine.

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