By Carolyn Hecken
Congratulations! You are expecting your second, third, fourth or even fifth sweet little one? What a thrilling, new adventure you and your growing family are embarking upon! Along with all of the excitement that comes with welcoming a precious newborn to your family, you have surely spent some amount time imaging how each member will discover and adjust to his/her changing role within the family. Perhaps the member you’ve been wondering about most is your older child or children? You may have even found yourself contemplating, “how can I best support my child(ren) during such a significant, life-altering transition?”
Below are some ideas for the time before and after the birth of a new baby that have been helpful to our family in welcoming our second, third and soon-to-be fourth child.
Ways to prepare older siblings before the baby is born:
- Sign up for a sibling’s class. In these classes, your child will learn about the physical and emotional needs of the baby by practicing with a demonstration doll. Topics discussed include changing diapers, feeding, cuddling, bathing and getting dressed. The goal is help give older children an idea of what to expect and the ways in which they can help care for their new sibling, thus giving them a sense of joy and pride in their new role as big brother or sister. Currently, the only sibling’s courses in the Munich area are offered in German. Find out more by visiting Bauchraum München (2.5yrs & up) or Klinikum Großhadern (4yrs & up).
- Have brief, but regular conversations about baby from early on. Depending on the age and interest of your child, these conversations may be limited to a mere sentence or two. You know your child best and know when to expand upon your conversation or continue onto the next topic of discussion. These short exchanges help to introduce your child to what it means to have a baby in the family. For example, a newborn will not be an immediate playmate; it will take some time before she is able to smile, laugh or “play”. Toddlers and preschoolers periodically come up with occasional questions on their own. Once answered (in age appropriate terms), they’re content to move on. When in doubt, follow your child’s lead.
- Read with your child a variety of books about siblings and babies. This is a wonderful opportunity for you and your child to discuss the complicated and conflicting emotions your older child may be experiencing about becoming a big brother and sister. Naming these feelings enables your child to verbalize and manage these big emotions rather than relying on acting them out physically as a main means of communication. By sharing observations about life with a baby out loud, you convey your empathy and understanding to your older child: “Caring for babies takes a lot of time, doesn’t it?”
- Create/Offer family routines and rituals. Integrate routines involving your soon-to-be born child into your family life. This could be anything from singing an evening song to the baby (“I wonder which song the baby might like?” or “Do you have a favorite song we can sing to baby?”) to giving baby good night/belly kisses, reading a story (your baby can recognize specific stories in the womb as early as 34 to 36 weeks), or organizing a special space in your home for the baby. Again, you know best how your child will react so continue to follow her lead. There is never a need to force or coerce an older child into participating in a routine involving the baby if she wishes to refrain from doing so or would rather take on the role of the observer.
- Reminisce with your older child about his special baby time. When you feel it appropriate, recollect with your child fond stories of his babyhood, look at old photos together, watch videos, etc. Talk about what your child could or could not do and how he gradually learned to smile, laugh, crawl, eat solid foods, walk, talk after a period of time. This will allow him to gain a better understanding of what to expect while taking pride in all of the physical and mental capabilities he has acquired. Recognize and marvel at all that he has achieved and point out how he will be baby’s first teacher (it’s so true… both the good and the not-so-good).
- Decide on the best place for big brother or big sister to meet their new sibling. This will depend on your birthing location and what you feel is most appropriate for your child. There is no one answer – you know and understand how to meet her/his needs best.
- Consciously plan one-on-one time with your older child. Keeping as many of the same routines as possible, spot opportunities (even 15 to 30 minutes is a great start) to spend time doing an activity with your big kid. The laundry and the dishes can absolutely wait and don’t hesitate to say it within earshot.
If you have family and friends asking how they can be of help, allow them to bring meals or assist with household chores so that you can dedicate more of your time and attention to your children and, just as importantly, to yourself. After all, humans are a communal species. New parents – specifically, new mothers – are not meant to do it all on their own.
- Create an activity/snack basket to occupy your big kid during feeds. These assorted items are perhaps best collected before baby’s arrival. Just as you may want to have a basket of snack and water for yourself when you sit down to feed your newborn, you may want to consider putting together an activity or discovery basket for big brother or big sister. It mustn’t contain new toys or items: egg cartons, toilet paper rolls, yarn or shoes laces, a whisk and a plastic bowl, etc. will all suffice. Scope out more ideas by visiting the Imagination Tree
- Allow your big helper to do just that – and remember to say “thank you”! It may take a couple of deep breaths to muster up the courage or patience to allow your big helper to assist with your sweet bundle of joy. Believe me, it will pay off. The chance to be a helper supports them in adapting to their new role as an older sibling. Holding, smelling and kissing little brother or sister actually has the same effect on the bonding of siblings as it does for moms and dads. While helping is highly beneficial in fostering sibling bonding, remember to make sure your newborn is never left unattended with a toddler or preschooler.
- Accentuate the positive. Consequently recognize or observe aloud the patience, determination and thoughtfulness of big sister. Caring for a newborn with little sleep makes it all too easy to slip into the don’t-do-thats or the quiet-down Focus on the positive: “I love the way you help me” or “I love how you always remember to…” or “I love how you make little sister smile”. You can support their sibling bond by pointing out the myriad of ways your newborn or infant will look up to and learn from big brother or sister. “Wow, listen to how loud she laughs when you play with her!” “She is learning so much from you.”
- Allow space for tides of intense emotions. Your older child may not always be able to articulate just how s/he is feeling. Big emotions may manifest themselves in various ways of expression such as “I hate you”, “I wish we didn’t have a baby” or, at times, even physically. This is completely normal. A good question to consider in such a situation is: “What needs does my child have that are not being met at the moment?”
Thinking in these terms makes it remarkably easier to remain calm and empathize during such a challenging situation. In many instances, your child is testing the boundaries of your love while simultaneously seeking connection. Take some time now to think about how you may want to respond gently to such remarks. What works for one child or one family doesn’t always work for another.
In our family, we’ve found that a response that reliably diffuses the “I hate you” comment is: “You don’t always have to love me – I have enough love for the both of us.” In those moments, your child may truly feel the absence of love, and logically assume that when you are angry or upset with him, you may not love him any longer. In response to “I wish we didn’t have a baby” or the like, it can help to empathize with the feeling that may be behind the thought: “We haven’t been able to spend as much time together lately, have we?”
If your child expresses herself physically by hitting or kicking, don’t hesitate to respond by immediately and calming interrupting the action accompanied by, “I can’t let you hurt me” or “I can’t let you hurt your little sister.” Often when older siblings are still on the younger side, redirection is an effective tool: “When you are angry and don’t know what to do with your hands you can hit the pillow, take 5 big breaths, squeeze a ball” etc.
Sometimes it may be hard to distinguish whether your toddler’s or preschooler’s touch is intentionally rough or a result of still developing motor skills. In this situation, intervening with the suggestion of using a gentle touch can be quite effective: “Babies like gentle touches. See how I am gently and slowly moving my hand on her head/arm/leg?” and following up with “Look how calm and happy she is when you use gentle touches! She loves it so much!” Pointing out or asking about how the baby might feel will help your young child to empathize with his younger sibling.
- Come up with a personal mantra to get you through overwhelming moments. Every so often there will be a short period of time when everyone is crying or screaming and possibly even pushing one other away in an attempt to be the only one to cuddle with you. It can be absolutely overwhelming! Think about what might help you remain calm through this whirlwind of emotional chaos. For some parents it may involve asking themselves: “Is this truly an emergency? Is someone’s life in danger?” or simply mentally repeating: “It’s only twenty minutes of my life. We will get through it.” If none of these work for you, there is no harm in making sure your children are in a safe place and stepping into another room to take ten deep breaths yourself or call a friend. Sometimes just spilling out all your frustrations to a good friend can help those strong emotions rapidly dissipate.
Carolyn Hecken holds a BA in Linguistics (University of Washington) and a MA in European Linguistics (University of Freiburg). She is a mother of three energetic, inquisitive children, a certified D.A.M.E. Doula (June 2013), a member of La Leche League (2012), an AFS peer-to-peer volunteer breastfeeding counsellor (January 2016) and a HypnoBirthing Childbirth Educator (June 2016).