Having a baby is life-changing for everyone involved. Like many major life events, it is joyful and exciting, but also stressful. Bringing home a new baby shifts family needs, relationships and responsibilities.
Aside from the expected challenges parents face in figuring out how to manage multiple children while trying to maintain their own relationship, the reaction of the first-born is often top-of-mind for parents. The good news: There is a lot you can do to help your older child adapt to a new baby in ways that maximize the chance that she will ultimately develop a close, loving relationship with her sibling.
- Expect your child to have mixed feelings / reactions and show compassion. An older child is often really excited about the new baby coming when it is just a concept – a bulge in mom’s belly. But once a baby is a reality, many older siblings have very mixed feelings about their new brother or sister. They may love the baby intensely, yet also feel angry and resentful at having to share the attention of caregivers. Children may worry about whether their parents will care for and love them in the same way as before the baby arrived. These feelings can be overwhelming and uncomfortable, resulting in a range of behaviors—including acting clingier, throwing more tantrums and expressing negative feelings towards the baby, such as announcing that they wish he would just go away. This is perfectly normal. The first step in helping your child manage these complex emotions is to let him know his feelings are understood and valid. “It is so hard to wait while I feed your sister. I will help you build your tower when she is done eating.” Then help your child find acceptable ways to express his emotions. Encourage him to talk about his frustrations and help him brainstorm ways to cope in those situations so that he has acceptable tools to use in those moments.
- Avoid putting pressure on your child to be in love with the new baby. First, babies don’t do much, so there is not a lot of immediate reward in interacting with them. Next, the new baby represents someone who is taking attention away from the older child, so expecting her to be madly in love with the baby at this early stage is unrealistic. Finally, when the older child senses pressure to love the baby, it can have the opposite effect and make her less likely to feel warmly toward her new sibling. With time and space, your older child is more likely to make a positive connection with her brother or sister.
- Don’t make everything about the new baby. When you’re taking photos of the baby, snap some pictures of your older child. When family and friends visit the baby, remind them to take time to talk and play with your older child, too. Whenever possible, carve out some special just for you and your older child to be together, without interruptions from the baby.
- Teach your older child how to safely interact with the baby. Using a doll or a stuffed animal, demonstrate actions that are gentle and those that may be too rough for the baby. If your older child is too forceful physically or does something unacceptable, like grabbing one of the baby’s toys from her, avoid reacting with anger. We know this is easier said than done; many of us have blurted out responses like, “What is wrong with you? Don’t hurt your brother!” Instead, calmly take hold of her hands—firmly but not angrily—and show her how she can safely engage with her sibling. If she continues to be aggressive, let her know that you see she’s having a hard time controlling her body and move her to another activity. Make it about the rule (you can’t play with others if you’re grabbing) and not about protecting the baby from his big sister which could only increase the older child’s feelings of rivalry.
- Encourage your older child to help with the new baby, but don’t force it. See if he wants to get the clean diaper ready, pick out clothes or rock the baby in her carrier. Don’t pressure him if he is not interested. Stay matter-of-fact: “It’s okay if you don’t want to help right now. Would you like to bring your cars in here so we can be together?” Shaming a child for natural feelings of confusion or jealousy can lead to increased negative feelings toward the baby and to more anger and challenging behaviors.
- During your pregnancy of after the birth of a sibling, be prepared for your older child to show signs of regression—engaging in behaviors typical of younger children. Your child may insist on a bottle, use baby talk or begin having potty accidents. Taking steps backwards in development is often a sign of stress. It also signals that your older child may be struggling to understand his place in the family; acting like a baby means receiving more attention and care. Encouraging or demanding that older children act “like a big boy or girl” often backfires, as they don’t want to be a big kid in that moment. Though it may feel uncomfortable, when you respond to the need your child is expressing, she is more likely to return to age-appropriate functioning fairly quickly. For example, when you give older children the bottle they are demanding, they usually find it silly and give it up shortly. If they have lots of potty accidents, be sure not to respond with disappointment or punishment. If they talk like a baby, just respond like you understand what they are saying and don’t make a big deal out of it. “I think you are telling me you want me to read that book. I’d love to.” The more matter-of-fact your response to their ‘baby’ behaviors, the more quickly they are likely to abandon them.
- Fight the urge to loosen up on limits and over-indulge your older child. It is very common for parents to feel guilty about all the changes the baby has brought to the older sibling’s life. Sometimes they try to make up for it with extra treats and gifts. Often, parents let up on previously established limits and give in to the older child’s demands. Moms and dads worry that their child is already stressed enough and can’t handle not getting her way. Parents may also be exhausted and feel they can’t survive yet another tantrum. Unfortunately, indulging the older child can lead to some unintended, negative consequences. First, it signals that you don’t think your child can learn to cope with this change—that she needs special exceptions. It also sends the message to the older child gets that she is “special” or entitled, which can lead to even more demanding behavior.
While bringing home a new baby can be chaotic and crazy for a little while, it’s important to remember that adding a sibling to the family is one of the greatest gifts you can give your older child. Having a sibling is a connection that lasts a lifetime. Even through all the crying, tattling and bickering, having a sibling teaches children how to share and cooperate. It also builds empathy—the awareness of and appreciation that others have feelings and needs. So buckle up, it’s going to be a wild, wonderful and very worthwhile ride!