According to a study released earlier this year, 62% of pregnant women who were surveyed had “high levels of fear” about giving birth. There’s a technical term for this fear when it becomes extreme — tokophobia, which comes from the ancient Greek word for childbirth, tókos.

Writing on the study for The New York Times, Roni Caryn Rabin interviewed the researcher, Zaneta Thayer, an anthropologist at Dartmouth College. Thayer has asked her students what words come to mind when they think of childbirth. Typically, they offer words like pain, screaming, blood and fear.

“Then she asks if any of the students has ever seen a woman give birth. Most have not,” Rabin wrote.

That seems to be true for a lot of us. It certainly was true for me before I became a mother. My only knowledge of childbirth came from hearing stories of my own birth — an elective C-section chosen by my mother because she “didn’t want the mess” of childbirth.

When it came time for my own children’s births, I was scared, and understandably so.

Everything I had seen in the media depicted the experience in a terrifying way: women screaming, medical attendants rushing around; near-death experience seemed the norm, at least on TV. A “mess” seemed like the least of the problems when it came to bringing a child into the world.

But with no experience, I had no alternate narrative to consider. Nor do many American women, since we have grown up in a time in which childbirth takes place in hospitals, often with only a spouse and medical professionals present.

In 1900, fewer than 10% of women gave birth in a hospital. Today, more than 98% of women do. The removal of human childbirth from view coincided with the migration from farms to cities, where most of us are distant from even the sight of animals giving birth, as once was common.

Writing last year, Ryan T. Anderson, president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, discussed how frequently his own children encounter life and death on their family farm. He explained, “Our children know quite a bit about the miracle of life, actually. They’ve witnessed goat labor, and it looks exactly as you might expect.” 

Leah Libresco Sargeant later reflected on Anderson’s essay, noting Americans’ “weird tendency to not witness births.

“Unless you’re raising animals on your own land like the Andersons, you’re much more likely to see the mortality than the natality of life. Reading his essay, I was reminded of the gap between how I prepared for birth and how women did historically. I have been present for only two labors, both of which are my own. In contrast, for much of human history (and still the case in many parts of the world), women would see and assist at many labors before experiencing their own.”

But the solution to making childbirth seem more natural and less scary need not involve taking up farming. Could it be as simple as exposing our children to the birth of their siblings?

‘The energy changed’

I have six children, three of whom were born at home. (One was born in a car, but that’s a whole other story.)

Despite my enthusiasm for natural birth, my oldest daughter, 9 at the time, was afraid of birth. During our first two home births, my husband and I warned her there would be some yelling and mess — which, in retrospect, wasn’t putting a positive spin on the experience.

For the birth of our sixth child, she decided she wanted to try out being present. She was scared, but excited to witness the birth of her sibling. She was with me throughout labor. She brought a book into my bed and between contractions she would read or talk to me.

I told her in those early hours what would be helpful to me as labor progressed — that I would need reminding to breathe and relax my muscles as my contractions became more intense. She witnessed the slow progression of my labor, and soon, repeated the advice I had given her just two hours prior about how to manage labor pain. 

At the height of labor, there were five of us in the room — me, my husband, my daughter and two midwives. We told our daughter repeatedly that she could leave anytime, but she insisted on staying. She was enthralled at the process, and soon watched her brother enter the world. As miracles go, it was a pretty big one: One minute, there were five people in the room, and minutes later, there were six. 

Afterward, we asked her what she thought. She told me, “It was amazing. I didn’t think I wanted to have babies. It sounded so scary. But I saw you do it, and it looked like it hurt, but you did it and I could do it, too. And he’s so sweet, and I feel such a connection to him after watching him be born.” 

And so I have become one of those annoying people who walks around oversharing with strangers. It was such a meaningful experience for both me and my daughter, I would find myself telling random people about my most recent birth.

One of those people was Hartley Carter, a staffer at Fox News who told me about her experience of being present for a sibling’s birth when she was 17 years old.

She told me, “It definitely changed my point of view of birth in general. I was standing next to (my mother’s) shoulder the whole time in the hospital after the epidural was in place. I was super nervous, I felt like I was going to throw up.

“But when the birth actually happened; the energy changed in the room. He was delivered, and I just remember thinking ‘I just saw the biggest miracle I’ve ever seen. My energy changed; the energy in the room changed. It was so incredible.’”

She went on, “I’m not in a rush to have kids, but I’m not scared of it. I know it’s a miracle and it’s a beautiful thing. That’s how I differ from other women in my age group who say ‘I’m afraid to have kids, my body will change.’ But my point of view is that I can’t wait, it’s a miracle.’”

Extra hands to hold

Since then, I’ve spoken to other mothers about what happened when they allowed their older children to be present while they gave birth.

Elisha Krauss, a Los Angeles-based political commentator, invited her three daughters to be present at their brother’s birth, and it was a bonding moment for the siblings, but had a greater significance as well.

She admitted to me, “Maybe selfishly, I want them to see what I did for them and how much I care for them.”

Alexi Laffoon’s older children have been present at all of her births, both in the hospital and at home; they were true family affairs, involving not only her daughters but her stepson.

“It was incredible to be between contractions and see so many hands to hold,” she said.

“I have a photo I look back on with such fondness; me holding my oldest son’s hand. I could see the wisdom and experience was transferring into him; it was one of those core memories taking place before him. He was overcome with what he was seeing, that was a very special moment. It felt like my daughters innately understood that this is what we have to do to get a baby out; that’s what they know of birth.” 

Abby Vidikan, a midwife who worked with both Krauss and Laffoon, has been at the birth of more than 200 babies where siblings have been present. She’s supportive enough of the practice that her own children were present for their sibling’s births, as well.

She told me, “Childhood experiences shape our world view and shape our outlook and who we become. Children are robust and capable of dealing with a lot. Creating a foundational childhood memory of not just being a part of the pregnancy, but then also creating a memory about birth changes your perspective on birth itself.” 

That’s especially true for one birth assistant, called a doula, named Sarah Smith from Charlotte, North Carolina. Her experience being present at her two siblings’ births shaped her decision to help other women through childbirth.

She told me, “It’s holy; no matter what your faith is, or lack of faith. It’s holy to witness life begin, and it was a gift to be able to be present. ... It normalized the process for me; it’s not super scary or private. [I realized] this is something that is a normal part of life that doesn’t have to happen behind closed doors.” 

An antidote for fear?

When my daughter shares with strangers that she was present for her brother’s birth, the first question she is always asked is if she was scared, and if the experience was frightening.

Her response is emphatically no.

Vidikan, the midwife, believes the experience is an empowering and formative one for both girls and boys about “what bodies are capable of, especially in a world where (women) are taught that we are weaker.”

Of course, it’s easier to have siblings present at the birth of a child if the mother is giving birth at home or at a birthing center. Some hospitals allow older siblings to be present as long as there is another adult present who will be responsible for taking care of them; others don’t.

But in a culture where girls and women increasingly believe that childbirth is scary and an experience to avoid — and perhaps birth rates reflect some of that avoidance — perhaps an antidote is some exposure therapy.