5 ways to prepare your firstborn for a sibling

Dr. Carol Crill Russell shares five ways you can help your eldest transition from only child to big sister or brother.

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Q: How do you prepare a youngster for the arrival of a second sibling during pregnancy? How much detail do you provide about the pregnancy without overwhelming the child?

A: People want to know when they should tell their child that they are going to be having a new baby brother or sister. The answer is: as soon as you’re telling anybody else, even if your child doesn’t understand. Because, even if you tell everybody that it’s a secret, they may forget or you may not see them for a week, and they’ll assume that you told everyone and they will come to your house, walk up to your child and say, “Aren’t you excited about having a new baby brother or sister?” You don’t want that to happen.

You want to be careful not to build up the ability of the new baby to be a playmate and to satisfy the needs of the other child. Kids don’t understand that a newborn can be quiet or how demanding they can be.

There is another thing that parents would benefit from doing. Because mom will be in physical recovery and needs to focus on the new baby a lot when the baby arrives, it’s really helpful if dad can start putting in some extra time with the first child before the baby is born. If dad and the first-born have already carved out extra time and have some special things that they are doing together on a regular basis, it will lessen the shock when baby number two is born.

Q: What are some ways to defuse jealousy and rivalry once the baby has arrived home?

A: First of all, every child is different and jealousy is different amongst children. For some children, the jealousy will be immediate. In fact, sometimes the jealousy is toward the unborn child and the older child will make it very clear that she is not looking forward to the baby at all, she wants it to go away. Sometimes jealousy rears its head when the baby starts to smile and becomes more interactive and the adults are cooing and making nice over the baby. Some children will not exhibit signs of insecurity or jealousy for several months because the new baby is sleeping or being quiet. When the baby is screaming, that’s not really threatening to them because they know that bothers mom and dad.

The best thing is for mom and dad to make special one-on-one time everyday, maybe even twice a day, for the oldest child that is sacrosanct, especially if that child is exhibiting insecurity early on. They need to ensure that those special times continue after the new baby arrives. This is especially true if there are no grandparents in the picture.

Clue in your friends and the grandparents that when they visit that they need to make a fuss over the oldest child too, the purpose of visits just can’t be about the new baby. It’s not always about being a big brother or sister. That can be really overdone and can make jealousy worse if the older child feels the only way he is going to get some attention is by being nice to the baby or playing the big brother or sister — when they don’t really feel that way. They want to be recognized for who they were before the baby arrived. The new baby won’t benefit that much from all the cooing and the older child can become upset from too much fuss made over the baby and not enough attention paid to them.

Another simple thing you can do is if you intend to move the first child out of the crib into a bed, you want to do that a good couple of months ahead of time before the baby arrives. You want the child to understand that the new bed is a great place to be and that they are not being shoved out of their favourite spot to a big, strange bed. They need time to adjust.

Q: How do you deal with a child who act outs with a new baby in the family (regresses, throws tantrums, etc.)?

A: This is the way I look at tantrums: Tantrums are an indication that a child’s world has gone out of their control. They need to be taken to a quiet place and allowed to calm down. There should be no discipline during the tantrum. You may have to pick them up and take them to a quiet place, even if it’s in a corner of a store if it happens in public.

What they need from you is to be calm and offer comfort and understanding. At some point, it may not be for awhile, you can talk to her — if she is old enough — about what she was feeling at the time of the tantrum. What a child needs here is a chance to regroup with an understanding parent, and then to the extent that she can actually talk about it or you can talk about it, help her with her words. “You felt really bad when you saw your brother getting a bath. The next time you start to feel bad come talk to me first.” What you’re trying to do is give her some words for how badly she was feeling and give her an alternative way to act the next time she starts feeling that way.

In terms of regression, you have to accept that this is part of being a parent, that many children do it and it’s typical, it’s normal, it doesn’t last forever. My own son was toilet-trained when my second son was born and he was toilet-trained for the first two or three months after his brother arrived and then he started wetting the bed at night. He had no control over it, it was just something that happened. We would talk about it, I would tell him not to drink too much before bed and eventually he went back to his regular behaviour. But it can take awhile, that’s for sure. You will see them thumb-sucking, you’ll hear increased whining and so on.

What an older sibling really needs more than anything is your understanding that he’s not getting the same amount of love and attention. This is the new world for him and you can understand how sad he is that he is no longer the centre of attention, and eventually he will adjust. The important thing is to be understanding of what he’s going through. It is a big, big change for most first children. You can’t hurry up his adjustment and it can take months because he has no concept of the future. It also depends on the child’s temperament. Some children are going to be very sensitive to the loss of being the centre of attention and some children will really roll with it. You shouldn’t feel like if your child is stressed out by the new brother or sister that you are being a bad parent or your child might be seriously maladjusted. No, this is all normal.

Q: What activities help a child understand the arrival of a second child?

A: Reading storybooks about new siblings, visiting friends who have newborns and including the eldest child in the preparations for the baby are all terrific ideas.

Children love to help but parents shouldn’t go overboard. The child should be helping because this is what you do in your family, you help each other out. But there is always that danger when the first child becomes “mommy’s little helper,” when she feels the only way to get your attention is by acting more mature than she really is.

There are many books available and parents can scan through which ones fit with their particular view of life and how much they feel their child could or should know. Some parents want their kids to know all the graphic details about the birth and other parents just want to give their child hints about what’s happening with the new baby. You can pick and choose among those for yourself.

Q: Is there a way to approach new family routines without too much upheaval?

A: Keep your child’s bedtime routine sacrosanct. If you think you are going to change that routine, do it before the baby arrives. Figure out what you’re going to be able to do during your seventh or eighth months of pregnancy. If there is ever going to be a time for a tantrum or if there is ever going to be misbehaviour, it’s probably going to come at the end of the day. If you know that your child has a really long bedtime routine and you won’t be able to keep that up, then shorten it before the baby arrives so your child gets used to the change ahead of time.

I would give kids three to six months to adjust to a new baby; cut them some slack. I wouldn’t try and rush it and I wouldn’t try and force them to roll with the punches because if you can keep them feeling secure during that six-month period after the baby arrives, they will roll with the punches. If you try to force them before they can handle it, all you do is increase their need to cling to you and be demanding. Give them awhile to adjust and be understanding as much as you can. Of course, we all have our moments when we are short with our children and we wish we weren’t.

Carol Crill Russell, B.A., M.S., M.S.W., Ph.D., is a Senior Research Associate at Invest in Kids.

Read more:
7 things you need to know about your second pregnancy
5 tips to help toddlers cope with new siblings
7 secret tricks and tips from parents of more than one kid

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