“That baby is still here.”
My 2 ¾ year old son announced this fact to his aunt Marcia, who had come to help us after my daughter’s birth.
He could not quite fathom why “that new baby” was still in his house or why the new arrival was taking soooooo much of his mother’s time.
We did all the prep work…
we talked about the new baby arriving,
we read lots of books,
we visited friends with new babies,
he saw my belly getting bigger and bigger (and my lap getting smaller and smaller),
he felt the baby kicking, listened to her heartbeat when he came to prenatal visits…
but still…. as an almost 3 year old, he really couldn’t grasp intellectually or emotionally what it all actually meant for his life.
Toddlers and preschoolers have very little sense of time (or reality for that matter) and this just didn’t make sense to him. And why would it?
To be honest, I’ve met very few parents who were actually prepared for the dramatic change in their lives that the arrival of the first baby brings.
They read lots of books,
attended prenatal classes,
spent hours online reading mom blogs and parenting “experts”…
but still… most of these new parents were in a mild state of shock for the first few months.
They had no idea how tired they would be,
how insecure they would be,
how incredibly in love with this new little being they would be,
and how little time they would have for each other.
And they were grown-ups dealing with their first born. (not at all unlike my befuddled toddler in his lack of experience with a new baby.)
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that with the arrival of a new baby, it requires huge shifts and adjustments for everyone. Be it baby #1, 2, 3 (I hear its easier with #4).
But the biggest adjustment required is with the first born when the second baby arrives.
I’ve had countless parents tell me how unhappy their first child becomes with the arrival of a new sibling.They see their first baby being very distressed. It is hard to see their little person who they love so very much, being so unhappy.
I believe that the unhappiness for the older child is not taken seriously enough so parents aren’t well prepared.
People talk about the “green eyed monster” otherwise know as jealousy. Or they say the older child’s “nose is out of joint” as though a quick chiropractic adjustment is all that’s required.
But it’s not that simple.
The older child may well be experiencing feelings of grief and loss, some shock, confusion, insecurity and fear for their well being.
Seen in this context, it is not surprising that many older children lash out at the new baby, which is definitely not okay. If this is happening you need to be very vigilant and not leave the two of them alone.
Many children will suddenly regress and act way more babyish.
From their perspective, this is a great way to get the love and attention they need… they think to themselves “It’s working for the baby isn’t it?”
They may start wetting the bed again, wanting to wear diapers, wanting to be fed, wanting to nurse again, wanting to be carried more….
Whatever they are doing, they are giving you a message. Their world is shaken.
They need assurance to really really know that you still love them and that they are safe and treasured.
There are many things you can do to make the adjustment to the new baby easier.
- Do as much preparation as you can. Even if the older child doesn’t quite “get it” you’ve supplied them with the ideas and concepts which will fall into place with time. Take them to some of your prenatal visits. Let them hear the baby’s heartbeat and their own.
- Try to build the child’s relationship with the non-pregnant partner over the course of the pregnancy so there isn’t a sudden shift in who is looking after the child when the baby is born.
- Get a doll for your child to care for. Teach them how to hold the baby on their lap. Talk about all the things the baby will do and need.
- Some families choose to have the older child present at the birth. For some families that seems to ease sibling adjustment. This is a very personal decision and although suitable for some children, not all.
- Find lots of “big kid” jobs for the older child to do with the baby, like handing you a wash cloth, choosing clothes, bringing you a diaper, singing to the baby, shaking a toy for them to listen to etc.
- Be honest about how much help the newborn baby needs at first and how much more time it takes to care for them.
- Talk about things they will do together when the baby is older.
- Acknowledge your older child’s feelings. They are big and powerful. Using words like “it’s hard for you when mommy spends so much time with the new baby” or “Are you sad that the new baby is here?” or “It looks like you are angry about my nursing the baby again” or “It’s annoying when the baby cries”
- If your child says things like “I hate the new baby”, don’t tell them that that’s “not true”. You can say things like “The baby’s not much fun right now when he/she is bigger you’ll like her more. I love you and I love the new baby too!”
- Make a very serious effort to give your older child as much positive attention as you can. Have them sit close to you when you are nursing. Read to them, have a special box of toys that only comes out when you are nursing.
- Many children who are weaned ask to nurse again. That is totally normal and not surprising. There’s nothing wrong with them having a few sips. It is rare that the child will want to do that more than a few times.
- Some moms who nurse through pregnancy choose to tandem nurse.
- Give your older child lots and lots and lots of physical affection.
- Even though your older child looks HUGE compared to your baby, they are still very little and very needy of your love and attention.
- Find children’s books that openly discuss real feelings about a new baby. There are many good ones. Ask the children’s librarian for suggestions.
- As soon as the baby starts to smile and giggle, have the older child figure out how to make the baby do that. Show them how powerful they are being able to make the baby laugh.
- Many parents find that keeping the baby in a carrier throughout the day keeps the baby sleeping longer, leaves your hands free and gives you more time to be with your older child.
- When you are out with the two of them, most people will focus on the new baby and ignore your older child. Be sure to bring your older child into the conversation so they are not getting left out by even more people.
- Be patient. Adjustment to a new baby takes time. And if you understand how your older one is feeling it will make the adjustment that much easier.
There are many factors influencing how your particular child reacts to a new baby. Individual temperament makes a big difference.
Children who are more “easy going” have an easier time. More “high need” children have a harder time. Having an “easy to calm” baby makes it easier, whereas a more “high need” baby makes it harder. Two year olds have a harder time than three year olds. Family stress makes it harder, but lots of support for the mom makes it easier.
I have witnessed some older children breeze right through the adjustments to having a new sibling, and unfortunately I’ve also seen some older siblings resent their younger siblings for the rest of their lives.
Yet, as a parent you have a lot of control on the outcome of a sibling relationship. With the ideas I’ve shared with you above, I think that poor sibling relationship is preventable.
And just so you know, it wasn’t always a piece of cake to deal with my toddler and his newborn sister, but time and patience and understanding helped to make the relationship between them sweeter and sweeter.
My long ago newborn baby “who is still here” and her big brother are all grown up and are wonderful friends.