Set the stage for a healthy sibling relationship by helping your first born adjust to the changes that come with a new baby.
Your child’s age plays a significant part in how and when to break the news of your pregnancy. A younger child may not actually grasp the concept that ‘mummy has a baby in her tummy’ until it’s starting to show, whereas an older child will have a better understanding of this.
Child psychologist Kate Scott says: “Although very young toddlers may have little or no understanding of pregnancy, having them around other babies can help. However, for many toddlers the baby will not become ‘real’ to them until it is born.”
READ MORE: Introducing Your Newborn Baby to Your Toddler
Mind the gap
A bigger age gap requires a different approach. Asking the child’s opinion on minor decisions, such as selecting toys for the nursery or choosing a ‘coming home’ outfit for a baby from a few you have pre-selected, will enhance the child’s sense of importance and involvement in the proceedings.
When Penny found out she was expecting again, she and her husband Mike decided to let five-year-old daughter Keara help choose a name for the new baby. “Keara was set on ‘Jessica’ but we found out it was going to be a boy, so Keara wanted us to name him ‘Jesse’ instead. We preferred Rowan, but allowed ‘Jesse’ as a second name and Keara insists on calling him Rowan Jesse!” laughs Penny.
Acknowledge your child’s feelings
It’s a good idea to give your child a realistic idea of what they can expect when the baby arrives. Explain that you will be tired and that the baby will take up lots of your time. Put into plain words that the baby will not be able to do much at first and can’t be a playmate for a while. Make it clear that the new baby will have to be handled very gently – a good way to do this is by demonstrating how to handle it using a doll or teddy.
Experts stress the importance of acknowledging your child’s feelings, letting them ask questions and voice concerns. Reassurance seems to be the key. A great way of doing this is by looking at baby photos and videos of your first child together and sharing with your child how excited you were when they were born and how proud you are of them.
Of course there are also the practical adjustments that need to be made before the new arrival. In some cases, alterations are needed in the home to accommodate a bigger family and many parents also consider upgrading to a bigger, more ‘family-friendly’ car. Treating these events as exciting changes for the whole family to get involved in and not just for the new baby will help the older child adjust better.
Having your child present at the birth of a new baby is an interesting approach adopted by some parents. Understandably this is not permitted in hospitals but is possible during a home delivery.
Robyn Sheldon, a natural birthing specialist, says, “It depends on the child, but it can be a wonderful experience for them. The birth process does not seem to faze them as long as they have been told what will happen.”
Robyn adds, “We often have a dedicated childminder during the birth who will focus purely on how the child is coping. Very often the child gets bored and wanders in and out the room where the birth is taking place. If the mother is relaxed, the child is too.”
If you opt for a hospital birth, the consensus is to ensure your child is comfortable with whoever is looking after them and that the usual routine is maintained.
Dealing with negative behaviour
“It’s only after the baby has been born that the real work begins!” are the sentiments of Jean Welsh, an educational psychologist for the ‘Parent-Infant Intervention Programme’ at the Parent Centre. “During the initial excitement of the new arrival, people must be careful not to forget to pay attention to the older child.” Kate Scott adds, “Going out in public often involves strangers fussing over your newborn. When they tell you how beautiful your new baby is, you could say, ‘Yes, she’s just as beautiful as my firstborn is!’ ”
Another suggestion is to have some special ‘big brother’ or ‘big sister’ gifts to give your child as various friends and relatives start showing up with baby gifts, so your older child won’t feel left out.
Subduing rivalry and regression
Jealousy and sibling rivalry is not unusual and it is essential to acknowledge the feelings of the child. In extreme cases a child can attempt to harm the new baby. Obviously protecting the baby from hurt is paramount and Jean’s views are that “you need to be very specific that it is the behaviour you do not approve of and will not tolerate and not the child himself.”
Another common response to the arrival of a new sibling is regression, where a child reverts to baby-like behaviour such as wanting the breast or bottle, crawling, bed-wetting or becoming very clingy.
Catherine has also experienced regression with toddler Alexis. “She does things such as stealing the baby’s dummy to suck it and climbing into the pram. She also crawls around on her hands and knees saying ‘dada’ and ‘mama’ and announces that she is a tiny baby. I find the more I ignore the behaviour the less she does it,” explains Catherine.
Involve the older child
Managing a young child and a new baby is very challenging, but even 15 minutes devoted to focusing purely on your older child can do a lot to help them adjust better to this change.
It is also a good idea to ensure that your older child has something that they don’t need to share with the new baby such as their own special, private space in the home.
An older child gains a real sense of importance and responsibility by helping to care for and contribute towards raising the new baby – fetching nappies, helping baby bath and singing to her when she cries.
What we tend to forget is that our firstborn children are exactly that – children, who will still need a lot of our time, undivided attention and reassurance.