Adding a new baby to the family is both thrilling and challenging, particularly if you already have a child at home. Transitioning from being a single-child household to a household where multiple children are present marks a significant shift in your family dynamic, and it’s crucial to understand how these changes will affect your older child. Preparing your child to welcome his (or her) new sibling ahead of time will minimize potential problems – like jealousy and resentment – while giving your child the skills he needs to interact happily and harmoniously with an infant. Below, we’ll explain how the birth of a new baby may impact an older sibling and share tips to make the adjustment easier.
How Does the Birth of a Sibling Affect a Child Emotionally?
Children who are awaiting the arrival of a new sibling typically experience a range of mixed emotions, including excitement, curiosity, and apprehension. Kids in this situation may cycle between anticipating having a new playmate, wondering what the baby will be like, and worrying about losing their parents’ undivided attention. After the baby arrives, the older child’s feelings of jealousy may intensify, leading to sibling rivalry.
Toddlers are particularly susceptible to experiencing negative emotions after the birth of their first sibling because they still require a significant amount of parental attention. They also have very underdeveloped social skills; in many cases, interacting with a new sibling involves learning how to share and take turns for the first time, which increases the likelihood that conflict will occur. Your toddler will also have to manage the frustration inherent in dealing with someone much younger (and slower) than himself and the daunting sense of responsibility that accompanies no longer being the smallest and weakest member of the household.
In response to these feelings, a young child may act out (e.g., by throwing tantrums or being aggressive toward his sibling) or he may regress. Regression involves returning to earlier behaviours, like using a pacifier or diapers, speaking in “baby talk,” wetting the bed, etc. Though these behavioural changes can be startling to parents, they’re very common and usually nothing to worry about.
Older children are typically less overt in their reactions to the birth of a new baby; however, they can also experience a significant amount of emotional turmoil at the prospect of no longer being an only child. Older kids and preteens may worry excessively about the impact a new baby will have on their life and their relationship with their parents. They are also prone to internalizing their feelings of envy and resentment because having such thoughts makes them feel guilty, silly, or ashamed. If these feelings aren’t properly addressed, they can create distance between the older sibling and the rest of his family.
How Do You Prepare an Older Child for a New Sibling?
In an effort to allay their child’s fears, parents often idealize the prospect of having a brand-new sibling. Unfortunately, this tactic only ever works in the short term because it sets the child up for disappointment when he’s faced with the reality of sharing parental attention with a baby. Likewise, if parents are too eager to frame the situation positively, their child may wind up feeling dismissed and misunderstood when he tries to express his concerns about no longer being an only child.
Instead, parents should be honest in explaining both the advantages of having a younger sibling and the challenges their child is likely to face. Then, they should listen to their child’s fears and worries without judgment (even if those fears manifest as anger) and reassure their child that the birth of a new baby won’t make him any less loved or important. Under no circumstances should parents distance themselves from their older child to prepare him for what it will be like once the new baby arrives. Taking the opposite approach (i.e., including him fully) will help him to feel more like a part of the process, reducing his fears of abandonment.
When you should begin to include your child in the aforementioned manner depends on his or her age. While it’s important to prepare children for the arrival of a new baby regardless of their age, their ability to understand this information will vary depending on how developed their brains are.
If you’re parenting a toddler, you should begin making any necessary changes to the home environment early on in your pregnancy. If you need to change your child’s bedroom, for example, make the switch at least four or five months before the baby is due to prevent your child from feeling displaced or usurped by his (or her) new sibling. Discussing changes in a way that makes your child feel special and important can also help to limit resentful feelings. Rather than telling your child he needs to give up his bedroom for the new baby, for example, tell him that he’s getting a more spacious room because he’s a big boy now.
As to when you should reveal your pregnancy to your toddler, most experts recommend waiting until the third trimester. By then, your pregnancy will be highly visible, making it easier for a young child to understand that you’re carrying an infant. A week before your due date, remind your child about the baby’s arrival and let him know that you’ll be absent from home for a few days.
If you’re not sure how to explain where babies come from (and it’s all but inevitable your child will ask), purchase an age-appropriate book to smooth the discussion. You should also reassure your child that the baby is safe and comfortable while in the womb and will emerge when he or she is big and strong enough to do so. Older children, on the other hand, should be told that a baby is on the way at least 4 months before the actual delivery. If they hear this information from others first (e.g., overhearing a conversation between relatives) they will feel hurt and “left out.” As such, it’s a good idea to talk to an older child before you share news of your pregnancy with friends and relatives.
Once your child knows you’re expecting, include him in preparations for the baby, such as deciding which toys and clothing to buy him or her. (You may also ask your older child if he has any old toys he wants to donate to the new baby, but be mindful to avoid pressuring him.) When you talk about the baby, use collaborative language to emphasize your child’s role as a valued older sibling; i.e., refer to the baby as “our baby” rather than “the baby.”
Managing the Delivery
You should have a plan in place for who will take care of your child (and make sure that your child is aware of this plan) well in advance of your new baby’s birth. You should also make arrangements for your child to visit you and the new baby while you’re both in the hospital. Emphasize to your child that someone will be there at all times to look after him, and prepare him for the fact that his mother is likely to be tired and weak when he visits for the first time. Tell him that this is normal and nothing to worry about, and let him know that if you’re unable to give him as much attention as he wants, it’s not intentional in any way. And of course, never force your child to visit or see the baby if he’s not yet ready to do so.
How Can Parents Encourage Their Older Child to be Gentle with the New Baby?
If your child is enthusiastically anticipating having a new playmate, he may handle his infant sibling roughly without intending to cause harm (particularly if he’s too young to understand his own strength or exercise fine motor control). For example, he might push the baby while attempting to play tag or cover him with a blanket during a game of hide-and-seek. For this reason, it’s essential to educate your child and make sure his initial encounters with the new baby are safe and supervised.
If possible, teach your child how to interact with a baby in the weeks leading up to the delivery. If someone else in your family (or a close friend) has a baby, ask them if they would be willing to show your child the appropriate way to handle a baby. At home, use a stuffed animal to reinforce the lessons your child learned during the visit. Let your child practice touching the toy, hugging the toy, etc., until he masters using a gentle touch.
You should also explain that the new baby won’t be ready to play for many months. The more realistic your child’s expectations are, the more likely it becomes that he won’t try to engage the baby in rough games.
Avoid yelling at your child or scolding him if he accidentally handles the baby more forcefully than you would prefer. Repeatedly punishing (or reprimanding) your child in this manner will make him resent his younger sibling and discourage positive behaviours. Instead, use a cue (like the word “gentle”) to let your child know he needs to use a softer touch. If this approach doesn’t work, demonstrate how to hug or hold the baby. Young children often need multiple reminders of this kind because their motor skills are still developing.
How Can I Help My Child Adjust to a New Baby?
No matter how thoroughly you prepare your child for the arrival of a sibling, living with a new baby represents a major adjustment. Parents must realize that even if a child is thrilled with the new baby in the first days or weeks after he (or she) has come home, problems may still arise later on. As such, it’s important to familiarize yourself with parenting strategies – like the six outlined below – that can mitigate issues like jealousy, rivalry, and resentment.
How to Help Kids Feel Positive About the New Baby and Avoid Jealousy: 6 Essential Tips
1. Give your child time alone with you each day.
The best way to reassure your child that he’s still a priority is to give him your undivided attention for at least 15 minutes each day. Set aside some “special time” each evening to engage in your older child’s favourite activity while someone else watches the baby. Encourage your child’s other parent to do the same.
2. Never minimize your child’s feelings.
Let your child know that it’s perfectly normal (and acceptable) to be jealous, anxious, etc., and actively prompt him to share how he feels about having a younger sibling. If your child starts behaving inappropriately as a result of his negative emotions, affirm that you understand why he is upset before you explain which behaviours are not appropriate and why. Never belittle or deny your child’s experiences, no matter how frustrating his actions become.
3. Encourage mature behaviours, if necessary.
“Babying” your toddler (within reason) can help reassure him if he regresses. At the same time, however, you should encourage and reward more mature behaviours, such as helping with chores, getting dressed alone, and eating age-appropriate foods. The more “older child” behaviours are rewarded, the sooner your child will return to them. You should also point out the unique benefits of being an older child (e.g., being allowed to play on play structures, being able to choose what to eat or wear, having friends, etc.)
4. Ask friends and family members to include your older child when welcoming the new baby.
Have friends and relatives drop off a small gift for your older child when they bring baby gifts. Similarly, you should ask those who visit your home to see the new baby to also spend five or ten minutes talking to your older child. Guide these conversations so they’re focused on your older child’s accomplishments, not just his role as a sibling.
5. Make sure your older child has his own property.
Allow your child to have personal possessions and an area of the home that’s exclusively his, rather than asking him to share everything with his sibling. Respecting your child’s space will both reduce conflicts related to sharing and teach your older child about setting healthy boundaries.
6. Give your child special jobs to do.
Give your child one or two jobs that he can do to help care for the baby or help the household run more smoothly. Having a few special tasks will reaffirm your child’s status as a valuable contributor to the family, provided that the jobs are age-appropriate and only performed by your older child.
What to do if My Child is Jealous of the New Baby?
With patient parental guidance, most children adjust to the presence of a new sibling after three to six months. In some cases, however, kids continue to experience jealousy (and other intense negative emotions) long after the baby is born. Extreme sibling rivalry is more likely to occur when there are other sources of stress in the household (like marital or financial problems) or when the child’s sibling is born following divorce and remarriage. More rarely, it can be an indicator that the older child is experiencing mental health issues, such as anxiety or a conduct disorder.
If your child doesn’t respond to positive parenting techniques, try consulting a family therapist to gain insight into the barriers obstructing the sibling bond. He or she can also help you resolve issues that are complicating your family dynamic and give you specific strategies to improve the way your family communicates and interacts with one another. Having the right help will ensure that you and your older child transition smoothly to living in a loving, cooperative multi-child household.
This is an update for the post published on Feb 10, 2017