Welcoming a new member into the family is an exciting and wonderful experience, but it is also one that will almost certainly upset your home’s current dynamic to a large degree. As the parent of at least one older child, your experience can make some aspects of bringing home a second or subsequent child easier. However, you now also have the additional concern about how your older child will react to this massive change.
Almost anything involving children tends to be unpredictable, and how your child responds to their new sibling is no exception. Fortunately, there are some steps you can take that could help you prepare your child for what to expect, encourage their excitement at being a big brother or sister and reassure them that your love for them will never change.
Here are some suggestions you may want to try to help make the transition as smooth as possible.
Common Reactions to a New Sibling
Every child is an individual who will have their own thoughts and feelings about their new family member. Young children tend to be most susceptible to fears that the new arrival has stolen their place as the baby of the family and the focus of their parents’ attention.
Most children react in one of these three ways:
- They immediately accept the new baby with joy.
- They appear to ignore their little sibling.
- They actively dislike the baby.
Children often display some combination of these responses, and their feelings and actions can fluctuate throughout the day.
Mistakes to Avoid
Assuming You Know How Your Child Feels/Will React.
As a parent, you are intimately familiar with your child’s temperament, likes and dislikes. This familiarity might easily lead you to make assumptions of how your child will act with a new sibling.
You could be in for a surprise, however. An easy-going child could feel very threatened by the new baby, and a rambunctious child could find a new capacity for gentleness with their little sibling.
Be prepared to let your child process the change in their own way. Hold your own expectations loosely, and do your best to provide support and direction in whatever way your child needs.
Expecting Your Child to Immediately Bond With the Baby.
As mentioned before, some children will respond to their new sibling with tenderness and affection. While this is certainly what every parent hopes for, it doesn’t always happen or can be sporadic.
Allow your child to have the time they need to process the changing family dynamic, and make it a point to spend quality time alone with your older child.
Expecting a Child Who is Struggling With the Baby to Instantly Change.
If only it were easy to flip a switch and change your feelings. That is not reality, however, and making that demand of a child is unrealistic and unfair.
Your child is working through a huge shift in their daily routine and family structure. Give your child many reassurances that they are treasured and valuable, and let them know that it’s okay to need some time to process their new situation.
Leaving the Baby Alone With a Young Child.
Even if your toddler or preschooler seems to respond very well to the new baby, young children often have poor impulse control and can sometimes display totally unexpected behavior. Your older child could also unintentionally hurt the baby if they try to play too roughly.
Err on the side of caution and always take either your baby or your older child along if you have to leave the room.
Before Your Baby is Born
Let Your Older Child Choose Some Clothing or Items for the New Baby.
It can be difficult for children to grasp the fact that there is an actual baby growing inside their mother ’s body. Inviting your child to help you select some baby items may help make their new sibling seem like more of a reality.
Consider letting your child choose one or more of these pieces for the baby:
- A toy
- An outfit, pajamas or onesie
- A blanket
- A picture or other decoration for the baby’s room
- Socks or shoes
Prepare Your Older Child for What to Expect From a Newborn.
When children hear the word “baby”, they may automatically think of an older infant that can crawl, play a little and eat baby food. Even school-age children may be surprised at what their newborn sibling actually looks or acts like.
Do your best to give your child an accurate idea of how a newborn behaves and what their needs are. Here are some ideas of things you may want to discuss with your child:
- Babies cry to communicate.
- They can only drink milk or formula.
- They spend a lot of time sleeping.
- They can’t move around on their own.
- They need help doing almost everything.
Make it a point to reassure your child that the baby will also be sweet and lovable. Don’t forget to let your child know that the baby will grow quickly, and in just a few months they will be doing all those great older baby activities.
Look at Pictures of Your Older Child as a Baby.
Children usually love to look at pictures of themselves. Besides simply being a fun and sweet time for the two of you, looking back over your older child’s younger days shows them that they were little once too. Your child can be proud of how much they have grown and changed, and you can point out how much you need their help to care for and teach the new baby. Thinking about themselves in this way could help your child transition into the role of older sibling a little more easily.
Show Your Older Child Ultrasound Pictures and Let Them Feel the Baby Kick.
Take advantage of every opportunity to make the baby seem like more of a reality for your child.
Show them the ultrasound pictures and point out the baby’s head, nose, hands, feet or other identifiable parts. Seeing a picture of their little brother or sister can really help give them a better idea of the baby growing inside.
Call your child over when the baby is active and let them touch your belly. Feeling the baby’s movements can help make the new baby seem more real.
Depending on your older child’s age, they might be interested to learn about the baby’s development week by week.
After Your Baby is Born
Make the Actual Introduction as Private as Possible.
Try to limit the number of people present when your older child meets the baby to just your immediate family unit. Take the opportunity to establish that both your older child and the new baby are both equally valuable to parts of your family.
Having fewer people around may also take some of the pressure off your child and help them feel more comfortable expressing their true feelings about their little brother or sister.
Dedicate Some Alone Time to Your Older Child.
If at all possible, ask a trusted family member or friend to come over and hold the baby while you and your older child get out of the house. Even a short walk around the neighborhood, a trip to the park or stopping for a quick treat can be a great way for just the two of you to talk with and connect.
Let your child guide the conversation during this outing. Try to avoid talking about the new baby, and just focus on your older child’s life.
Ask Visitors to Greet or Talk With Your Older Child First.
In the excitement of meeting a new baby for the first time, it can be easy for visitors to overlook your older child.
When setting up a time for people to come for a visit, politely request that your guests greet your older child first. If visitors drop by unexpectedly, actively guide the conversation to include your older child. The goal is to make sure that the attention is not directed solely at the new baby.
Try to Maintain Routines When Possible.
Many children thrive on daily routines, but the addition of a new baby can throw the normal daily schedule into a tailspin.
Some disruption to a schedule is not all negative, though. It can give your older child a chance to learn that they can be flexible, that other people have needs and that making sacrifices for someone else can be very rewarding.
However, try to continue as many routines and schedules as you can, especially the ones that are most important to your older child. For example, if your child is accustomed to a certain bedtime routine that they find very soothing and comforting, do your best to protect that time. You may not always be successful, but it’s likely that your child will be able to better tolerate a disruption now and then when they know you place great value on that special time with them.
Tell Your Older Child They are Your Special Helper.
Children often seem to respond well to being useful and feeling like they are helping out. Assigning them a job they are capable of can help them feel like they are an important part of taking care of their new sibling. Accomplishing their task well also provides you with a great opportunity to praise them and let them know how valuable their contribution is.
Here are some ideas for jobs that your special little helper could do:
- Bring you a new diaper and wipes when the baby needs to be changed.
- Get you a clean burp cloth or blanket at feeding time.
- Gather the baby’s bathing supplies at bath time.
Let Your Older Child Know How Proud of Them You Are.
Whether it’s just the two of you or in front of a group of people, don’t shy away from talking about the great big brother or sister your older child is in front of them. Be sure to highlight how important your older child is in helping you take care of the baby and how much you rely on them. Don’t forget to mention how lucky your baby is to have such a great older sibling.
Signs Your Child May be Jealous
No one can fault a child for feeling insecure and some degree of jealousy when a new little sibling arrives. Children often lack the maturity to be able to identify what is bothering them, let alone verbally communicate their feelings.
Behavior is often your first and best clue that your child is dealing with some complex emotions. Be alert for these types of behaviors that could suggest that your child is struggling to process the new family dynamic.
You can probably expect some extra tantrums, delayed obedience, arguing or whining while your child makes the transition to a new family structure.
You need to walk the delicate line between being patient and understanding but also requiring acceptable behavior. Try to gently correct as many small things as possible and reserve punishments for more serious behavior.
Hostility Towards the Baby.
Some children may tend to physically act out on their feelings and try to hit or push the baby. While you absolutely need to take steps to prevent your child from hurting the baby, make sure to address the underlying motive.
Reassure your child that while the baby may require a lot of time and attention, they are no threat to your older child’s place in the family or in your heart.
Leaving a newborn and young child alone together is never a good idea, and you will have to be especially vigilant if your older child is displaying any aggressive behavior towards the baby.
Reverting to Baby-like Behavior.
Since the baby is getting so much of your attention, your older child may think that the best way to get some of that attention for themselves is to start acting like a baby again as well.
It can be very frustrating to suddenly feel like you have to deal with two babies instead of one, but do your best to remain patient with your child through this time. Give lots of hugs and snuggles, and set aside any attempts at things like potty training or weaning off a pacifier for the time being.
It can also be helpful to talk with your older child about all the great things they get to do as an older kid that the baby is too young to do. List any places they get to go, the big-kid food they get to eat or the tasks they can do by themselves that the baby cannot do. Emphasize the great things about growing up, and always make sure your tone remains positive.
Acknowledge Your Limitations
Even your best efforts to promote a strong sibling bond may fall flat.
Relationships often have the best chance of being successful when they are allowed to develop at their own pace. The sibling relationship between your children is no different. As long as you do what you can to ensure each child knows they are special and loved equally, the way your children relate to one another is ultimately out of your control.
Don’t blame yourself if your older child has a difficult time accepting their new brother or sister. Remind yourself how a child sees the world, and recognize that the things they need most are your support and direction while they are navigating this challenging time.
Gaining a new brother or sister is a tremendous change for a child to go through. They have many good things to look forward to, but young children may not be able to understand all the benefits of being an older sibling right away.
Giving of your time, attention and patience in preparing and supporting your older child is a tall order for any parent, especially one who is already exhausted from pregnancy or caring for a newborn. However, you are laying the best foundations you can for positive sibling relationships, and the effects of your investment can last a lifetime.