Sibling Preparation for a New Baby
By Kalanit Ben-Ari, Ph.D.
A new arrival for a family is a very exciting and happy occasion. At the same time, when there is an older child at home this excitement may be combined with concerns regarding how the sibling/s will welcome the new baby, how they may feel, react and behave in many situations to come.
I believe, as in many aspects of family events, that preparation is the key to overcome some of the challenges new baby may raise within the family. Here I gathered some tips for before and after the labour. These tips and advice I have collected from theories, practise, and personal experience as a mother of two, and from many of you my friends and customers. Thus some of the tips are age related, so read through and choose the ones to suite you and your family.
First I suggest reading it with your partner, so that you can discuses expectations and plan together for a smooth and stress-free process.
Before the labour:
Try to postpone the news as much as you can. For a child nine months feels forever, and the concept of time is difficult to understand so he/she may expect the baby in the near future. In addition, the longer the child waits the bigger the anxiety (if any). In any case, if the child asks you or it is obvious (e.g., bump) share the news but keep it simple and short “we are pregnant, mummy has a baby in her tummy but it will take long time until he will be ready to come out”.
Closer to the due day:
Read together books related to new baby. Some of the books on the market are not really positive ones and may raise some anxiety or provide a source for negative thoughts the child will never experience in relation to the baby. It doesn’t means not to buy books that include negative feelings as it is very important to explore a range of emotions. It just means to choose the book that suits the child, the child’s age, and you.
Through pretending games children learn about the world and themselves, learn new skills and understanding and explore different situations. It is now acknowledged that until the age of 6 playing is the main and best source for learning. It is, therefore, a great way to introduce some of the baby behaviour. For example, when playing with dollies you can use questions to encourage curiosity and thinking: “the baby cannot talk so how can we
know if he is hungry/wet/tiered?”, “She doesn’t have teethe so what will she eat?”. It is a good way to prepare the child that the baby communicates, at least at the start, mostly by crying. If the child raises a question, try to ask him/her the question back and ask what he/she thinks about it. Appreciate her way of thinking (which always positively surprises me with kids) and, if necessary, add you opinion as a suggestion.
Avoid saying things like “you will have a new friend”, “you will have someone to play with” because for the child, at least at the start, the new born who will mainly eat, sleep, and cry is far from being the friend the older child is imagining. It probably feels more like a competitor who in a moment takes the parent’s attention. I believe in preparing the child for the reality of how it is going to be from their perspective.
On the same note I prefer to ask questions rather than saying emotional statements. For example “you will love her!”, or a statement you hear a lot from visitors “do you love him?” A child may feel a range of feelings and love might be one of them (we hope!), but I prefer to ask open questions “how do you feel about that” and to give her a place to express a range of emotions. Of course there is always the option to describe the bigger picture as a summery that sometimes you feel love, angry, or upset for the same person.
If there are major changes in the family environment it is recommended to make them well in advance or to wait until a new balance is restored with the newborn. For example, toilet training two weeks before the due date means, in most cases, that the process will not be assimilated and the process may take longer and regression or difficulties after the labour are to be expected. Moving houses, changing nanny, starting a nursery, moving rooms from the parents room are all better to do well in advance or to wait for several months after the labour. The new arrival is a major change so a stable environment is required for a feeling of security, predictability, and stability.
Moreover, some changes like starting a nursery or moving bed, can be interpreted by the child as ‘punishment’ or that his/her special place is taken by the baby. Making the change in advance can prevent such association.
Devote time for the VERY SPECIAL ALBUM: the photo album of the first child from the pregnancy to the first few months. This is a special time as kids love seeing themselves at different ages, it shows them how special they are to the parents, and also in a way describes some of the baby routine (labour, coming home, first bath etc). My older daughter still loves looking at the albums and asking questions. We started it before having her sister and continue doing it for each developmental stage (“see this is when you crawled/walked for the
It is a good idea, especially if you are planning to breastfeed or have a C section, to get the child in a habit that at night if he/she needs something it is the father who comes to help. This way, when it will be a challenge (or even impossible in the case of C section) the night routine will not be different for the child from before. It will be familiar, comforting and without the feeling that mum prefers the baby now.
Something like two weeks before due day I suggest to start, slowly, a habit of the child sitting near you rather than on you during activities (e.g., reading). This way, in case you plan to breastfeed or have a C section, you can hold the baby with one hand and the other hugging the old one. Again, the older one will be familiar with and used to that way of sitting to read stories/playing together. The physical contact is important for the old child’s security, and even if physically you cannot hold him/her he/she can climb to sit near you at the bed.
My daughter and I created a funny sound that means she needs to turn the page and during breastfeeding we sat hugging and read stories that way.
Gifts: You can buy a small and modest gift for your old child and take it with you to the
hospital. When the child comes to visit you for the first time this will be the gift the baby bought him/her. Try to think about something that will occupy him/her. You can also develop/print a small photo of the child and put it in the baby cot so in the first visit you can say you placed the photo near the baby so he can meet him/her. The child will probably feel thought about.
As preparation, and age appropriate, you can involve the older one in all the preparation for the baby: shopping, cleaning, folding and so on. Ask him/her for their opinion, let them choose colours of clothes/bottles/dummies etc. In addition let him/her chose a small toy for the baby from themselves that they can bring with them to the hospital.
My daughter chose a small musical soft toy which we discovered calmed the baby when she cried. From day one it was in her bed and whenever she cried her sister ran in the house to look for that toy. Playing with it to calm the baby made her very proud, involved her and she enjoyed her important role.
After the labour: any regression in the behaviour (baby talking, toilet training, sleeping, eating) is a very normal response in an older child who feels she lost her special place in her parents’ hearts and needs to find her/his new place in the family. It is, among other things, just their way to communicate that he/she still needs you and wants to be cared for like the baby. I hope these tips will help you overcome the change.
During the first visit make sure the first time the child comes to see you, you are not
breastfeeding. I think it is better if the baby is asleep, but even if not, he/she will be in the baby cot so you have two free hands to hug and welcome your older child and also be emotionally available to talk with her and be excited from her. The child will be very curious and probably with mixed feelings about the whole situation so I believe this is a nice way to welcome him and together introduce him/her to the baby.
When you are expecting visitors tell him/her that friends/family are coming to see him/her and to meet the baby so maybe he can take them to the baby and show them/tell them about him. This gives him/her an important role so not all the attention will go to the baby.
Explore emotions: It is good and healthy for the child to express anger, jealousy etc., and I believe we need to give them the platform to do that, and to encourage and support them in that process. As mentioned before I prefer not to put words in the child’s mouth (i.e., you love your sister). But you can ask how does it feel to be a big sister/brother? What do you like about having baby in the house? What don’t you like?
If you had a difficult day with a crying baby it is OK to share something like “I love your brother but sometimes I am tiered from hearing the crying and cannot help”. All these give the message that a range of feelings are OK, normal and welcome to share. If the child raises frustration reflect it and say you understand him/her. In case of aggression toward the baby you can reflect, understand, and sympathise but still say aggressive behaviour is not accepted in our home.
Give plenty of attention and quality time without the baby. Say to your old one again and again that he/she have very special place in your heart that no one can fill. I tried to breastfeed my baby just before the older one came back from nursery so I can have half an hour quality time with her first thing she comes home. Then I experienced it was much easier and natural for her to go to do her own staff, after getting her share of attention and understand that now it is the baby’s turn. And whenever the child is in nursery/school try to rest! Even if you find it difficult to fall asleep just rest in bed.
Involve the old ones in activities around the baby. Let him/her feel an important part in the family by helping changing nappies, bathing, bringing toys etc. If you play with your older kid and the baby cries ask him/her what he/she think the baby wants. Maybe he can try calm the baby, cover with blanket (in your presence), and help with food (later on) and so on. If you are doing something with the baby and your older one seeks attention you can tell him that you are doing something and in a couple of minutes you can come to be with him/her and you are going to do this and that. Ask him/her what he/she wants to play with in the meantime or she/he can help you with what you are doing. Anyway, the message is that there are turns, and soon it will be my turn. It makes it easier to contain the rejection moment.
Kids are curious, and they will be about the baby and like every child will go to touch where we prefer they would not- straight at the face! I suggest that every time you say what not to do (in response to something he/she does) provide an alternative. For example: “the baby doesn’t like to be touched in the face, but he loves to be touched on his feet”, “you cannot change his nappy but you can help mummy and bring the nappy from the bag”, “you cannot hold him when standing but if you sit I can put him on you” “you can wash his feet in the bath” and so on. Not only does this take away the negative emphasis, it gives the child the feeling that she/he is OK and it doesn’t mean she is bad or that you are angry with her. Encouraging interaction between the kids from early age will just add to their bonding and relationship later on.
Nursery: ask the teachers in advance to bring some baby subjects to the children awareness. You can prepare in advance some chocolates or making/buying a cake so the child can bring to nursery/school on the first day to celebrate their becoming big sister/brother. I talk about the cake with my daughter in advance so she was very excited about that, and at the nursery felt like a queen of the day as she was asked in circle time to tell the kids about the experience. The next day I printed (home printer) several small photos of her holding her sister in a sitting position. She glued them on a nice paper, decorated it and took to nursery to show the class. Again she had the opportunity to be centre of attention which gave her a wonderful sense of celebration.
If you experience regression to’ baby games’ go with that, let the child explore the behaviour. Once, for example, my daughter sat in the baby car seat which was in the reception room and asked me to swing her like I do to the baby. She was clearly too big for the car seat but I still did it and played with her like she is the baby (I made noises like I do with the baby). After couple of fun minutes she stood and moved to play with something else. She explored and it was enough for her. It did not happen again in such a way. I believe that when we try to guide kids to ‘age appropriate’ games we loose on the way some of the valuable experiences and learning they can gain.
Try to keep reflecting the child behaviour you appreciate “you are very gentle with your sister”, “you are very patient with your brother and waiting for your turn”.... Whatever we appreciate will expand. And in case someone compliments the baby while ignoring the older child while present say something that includes both (e.g.,“ yes she is cute, I am so luck I have two cute girls!”) and invite the older to tell about the baby.
The older is still young- I remember how one day my older daughter was my little 4 year old baby girl and on the next day looked like a giant near the one day old newborn! I also hear from many parents, with much smaller age gaps, that they find themselves saying "give this to him you are the old one", "don't do that you are the old one", "don't be a baby you are the old one" and so on. But actually they are still babies themselves and from their perspective they were our little ones until the new arrival appeared. So, alongside encouraging and supporting the older one in her new role, I kept reminding myself that she is still a baby herself.
Try to avoid (as much as possible) feeling guilt for the old child. The child sees himself in your eyes. And if he sees guilt he may think there is something he needs to be compensated about. And if you try to compensate with gifts and spending he may feel that actually maybe something awful happened, will demand more compensation and become a more demanding child. A new baby in the family is a positive event, it's a gift, and among other things it shows the other children at home that they have grown.
I hope you find these tips and suggestions helpful, and if so please feel free to pass this on to friends and family. If you have more tips please add them at the comment section below. Good luck & Congratulations!!
This article was written by couples therapist and parental advisor Dr Kalanit Ben-Ari. With a doctorate in Psychology, Dr Ben-Ari has worked in the field for over 20 years and runs a private clinic in Hampstead, London. She is also an author, speaker, therapist supervisor and has been the Chair of Imago UK since 2013.