Preparing Siblings for a New Baby
“I hope she cares when the baby is here because I keep telling her about it, and she doesn’t seem to react or connect with the fact that a baby in on the way.”
“My son is super excited about the birth of his baby sister. He gently pats my growing tummy every day.”
“My daughter shows me all of the ways she is going to be a good sister by swaddling her baby doll and carrying her around, talking to her.”
In those nine months of preparation, while you are physically and emotionally preparing for another person to join your intimate household, your child is also anticipating, in his or her own individual way, the baby to come. He may be thinking as you may be, “What will life be like? And how will my life change?”
With your first child, perhaps you had work pressures finalizing projects in order to allow for time off. And then, you probably focused on each step of your pregnancy reading about your body’s changes and the baby’s rapid development. But now, with one, two or more children already living in your bustling household, you are likely not relishing in your body’s and the baby’s changes but multi-tasking in preparing the items you need and the space the baby will occupy all the while keeping up with work and a full family’s set of needs. It can feel like a hectic time. But it’s worth considering how you will prepare yourself and your children for the arrival of the baby and their new role as a sibling.
Adding a new family member represents a significant life change. And as such, there are ways you can support yourself, your partner and your children to a.) understand how adults and children tend to react in times of transition, and b.) consider what temporary supports you can create in order to pave your way. Here are some considerations in adjusting your own expectations and perspectives related to your children’s feelings and resulting behavior during and especially after the baby is born.
Emotions will be more intense. Though having a baby is a joyful experience – and for some individuals, they may expect you to only feel joyful about the experience – in truth, the anticipation, and experience of having a baby is highly stressful and will produce a multitude of complex feelings. Adults and children alike can feel sadness over the loss of the life they had as just three, for example. They may worry about the time they will not have to spend solely with the others as the baby divides attention. They may actively fear the change. They may feel guilt for those aforementioned feelings. And they can become frustrated as the encroaching preparations for the baby replaces some of the focus on their goals, needs, and desires. Seemingly small, insignificant occurrences – like temporarily losing a small toy – can trigger great upset because of the bubbling emotions just under the surface about the bigger family changes.
Children typically show regressive behaviors. If you have a preschooler that has recently mastered potty training, she may fall back into old habits and have accidents. If you have a fourth grader, her desire to focus on friends and her newly found independence may quickly revert to needing more focused attention from Mom. Her actions may resemble what you remember from her earlier years when she needed you in order to feel safe.
Children will feel more vulnerable. Their survival instinct – fight or flight – will kick in more frequently. We are hard-wired to need our parents’ attention for our very survival. Children feel that sense of need to a greater or lesser degree throughout childhood even into adolescence with the deep realization that they have not yet learned how to survive without your support. When you recognize that your child is in survival mode, in other words, feeling threatened and upset, know that you will be able to communicate little if anything until they have calmed down and been reassured.
The way you prepare your children can differ relative to their age, stage, and understanding of your growing family. The following are ideas of simple ways you can help your child at multiple ages and stages adjust to the idea, deal with this big life change and embrace his or her new roles as an older sibling.
Reflect together on what babies are like by remembering your child’s baby days. Get out the photo albums or gather around the computer to review baby pictures of your daughter or son. Reminisce about the wonderful aspects of having a baby. As you flip through pictures, discuss a typical day for a baby. What’s it like? Does your son remember taking naps four times a day? Does he remember waking up every three hours at night to be fed? Talk about and raise your own questions about why babies act the way they do. If you don’t know the answers, look them up together. Begin to acclimate your child to a baby’s needs and day-to-day experiences.
Read children’s books together about being a sibling and having a baby too. I’ve listed of few favorites as recommendations below.
Help your child define her new identity with roles and responsibilities. As you scurry to prepare, your child is watching. In addition to becoming a big sister or brother, how can you help your son or daughter understand what specific roles he or she can play. How can she contribute? Having specific helping roles to play will allow your child to take some ownership as a family member. And instead of directing your child away when you need to focus on the baby, you’ll have already considered a number of roles she can play to help out as a big sister.
No matter the age or stage, role playing can assist your child in understanding how she can substantively make a contribution. Use a baby doll or stuffed friend and practice swaddling. Practice different ways of holding the baby and involve all family members. If you have older children, try changing diapers as a game. Who can do the best job with diaper changing – gentlest, cleanest? And what if the baby is crying? If it’s upsetting for sleep deprived parents, you can bet that a crying baby will be upsetting for your child too. So what can she do when she’s crying? Can she gently pat her. Practice. Can she gently shush? Or can she sing a lullaby? Practice together.
Brainstorm a list of big brother helper actions. Get out a plain poster board and markers or your child’s favorite drawing materials. Label it “Big Brother Helper.” Now consider together, what can a big brother do when the baby is here to help? Think small. Can he go get a plush toy from the basket? Offer ideas and let him come up with his own. Be sure he has the opportunity to draw and write on the poster to represent his roles and ideas. And use this conversation to talk about safety issues. If he proposes something unsafe or unrealistic, this is a chance to reframe it before the baby arrives. “Your baby sister will be too little to play on the floor on her own when she’s born but we could lay her in her crib and see what she does.” Post it somewhere in which you can refer to it when the baby is present. Use the list to remind your child of his helping behaviors. And be sure and reinforce when he does them such as, “I notice you brought over the baby’s blanket. That’s being a helpful big brother!”
Create a plan for calming down. You can expect they’ll be a time when your baby and your child are crying at the same time both needing your attention. So why not plan for some supports to help you in that challenging situation? Before the baby is born, create a calming down plan. Is there a soft, comforting place your child can go to calm down preferably in a family room or common area so that he feels the safety of you nearby? Read more about Creating a Safe Base. But sending a child out of the room when she is feeling threatened by the new baby and needing your attention can escalate the problem. So if you anticipate being in that situation, when she needs you and you need to be with the baby, what alternatives can you plan for? Can she snuggle at your side? Can you share a blanket between your child, you and the baby? Practice getting upset, deep breathing together and calming down so that your child knows what you are reminding her to do when the situation arises. Also, consider getting a calm down tool for both your child and the baby that your child could take charge of to give him a sense of ownership. For example, could your child bring over a music box with calming music or offer a toy fish tank where you can watch the fish swim or play nature noises on a sound machine?
Plan for one-on-one attention with your child each day (even if brief). Designate with your child (and if more than one, each child in your family) a special only-for-them time each day that you can snuggle or share focused attention with one another. Perhaps it is a time to read a book at bedtime. Create a secret code and or call that time a special name, “Mom and Tom’s Awesome 20” for your twenty minutes together. Make certain that whatever you commit to, you are able to stick with over time. Gain your partners’ support in doing this. You can use this time as prevention! When you run into problems with an upset child needing your focus, you can always point to looking forward to that sacred time that you have together. And your child can know for certain that he will have your full attention at that time each day.
Enlist a team to support with attention for your older children. Do you have friends in the neighborhood that might spend some time with your child after school? Do you have a grandparent who could lavish attention on the new older brother? As you think about planning for the weeks after you bring baby home, schedule “focused attention dates” for your child in which other significant, caring adults offer him support and focus.
Keep consistent routines. Before the baby is born, go over your daily routines and any changes that will be necessary once the baby is present. Then, work together as a family team to keep morning, homework time, dinner and bedtime – or whatever your daily routines are – consistent. The rhythm that routines offer will help your child feel safe and secure in a time of great change.
Use feeling words and talk more about feelings. Generally, we tend not to be in the habit of expressing our feelings. That’s because it makes us feel vulnerable particularly when our emotions are anything other than happy. But because this transition time for your family is going to be highly emotional, it helps to normalize communicating feelings. Your child will get valuable practice expressing herself. And she’ll feel better understood as she is able to more quickly communicate her feelings with practice. Over time, experience with expressing feelings can de-escalate upset because your children feel like they are heard and valued when their emotions are understood by others. Discuss with all family members the fact that it will be a more emotional time. Perhaps work on a project with your children to draw faces with a variety of emotions to hang on a door or wall as a reminder and guide to point to when expressing themselves.
Use a timer. When the baby is born and you are settling into your daily routines, use a timer to avoid power struggles. Set the timer for the amount of time you need with the baby until you can attend to your child. Or set the timer when you need to limit screen time. Children five and up can take charge of the timer, set it for him or herself and own the responsibility of sticking to the timer. This takes the chore away from a parent of managing time.
Explore places, people, and plans together. Though you may be in a rush to check items off of your list, remember to include your children in planning. If you tour the hospital where you are delivering, take your children along with you and allow them to learn and experience the new environment with you. If you are interviewing sitters or day care providers, spend time with the new person and your child. Your efforts to get to know the new caregiver will help build trust with your child through the process.
Acknowledge that this will be a period of trial and error. Children and adults for that matter are trying on a new identity as a Mom or Dad of more children and a sibling of a baby. Kids can be particularly sensitive to any feedback you give during this time period. If you do give feedback, positive or negative, focus on the behavior. Help your child understand that there is always a chance to make a next positive decision.
Emphasize and recognize kind behaviors when you see it. “I notice you gently patted the baby. That’s a wonderful way to show love as a big sister.” You’ll help set the stage for kindness between siblings from the start. And offer lots of hugs, assurances and “I love yous” as your children work toward the realization that you will always be there for them along with the rest of your growing family.
Children’s Book Recommendations
A Pocket Full of Kisses by Audrey Penn
For Ages 3-7
After the baby Raccoon arrives, the older brother, Chester, feels sad that his Mom is giving the new baby love and worries there won’t be enough for him. Ultimately, Mom shows Chester there that he is loved deeply along with the new baby.
There’s A House Inside My Mummy by Giles Andreae
For Ages 1-7
A delightful explanation of what a Mom’s body provides for the baby while it’s developing in-utero.
I’m A Big Sister and I’m A Big Brother by Joanna Cole and Rosalinda Knightly
For Ages 1-7
These books give a helpful look at being a big sister or being a big brother and the fact that she or he is still loved just as much with the new baby but also, has a special new role.
Sisters by Raina Telgemeier
For Ages 8-12
This is a humorous look at becoming a sister twice to a girl and then, a boy and the relationships they develop as siblings.
I struggled to find a book for tween/teen boys about brothers. Please recommend if you know of a good one! This one looks excellent and is the closest one I could find. 🙂
Half Brother by Kenneth Oppel
For Ages 13 and up
This is the wonderful story of a thirteen-year-old only child whose parent, a scientist, brings home a chimpanzee and treats him as a son and expects the main character to treat him as a brother.
Originally published by January 26, 2017.