Newborns come in all shapes and sizes and no two babies are exactly alike. Similarly, no two sibling relationships are exactly alike. Some siblings feel a bond immediately while others take time to develop one. How we, as parents, facilitate these introductions and those first few years can make all the difference in our children’s relationship with one another. It’s an emotional journey from start to finish and only by studying and learning from real-world examples can we better understand what is within our power as parents. Let’s take a look at Maria and Alfredo and the story of their children, Jasmine and her baby sibling, Stacy.
Preparing for a New Baby Sibling
Maria and Alfredo were as happy as new parents could be. Their daughter, Jasmine, was a testament to the strength of their marriage. Jasmine had been such a great child that, 2 years later, they decided the time was right her to have a baby sibling. They bought some books and surfed the web and all the advice seemed clear; if they wanted to make the transition easier for Jasmine, they needed to be honest and open about the baby. Okay, they thought, that should be easy enough, and before long, Maria had a baby bump. That was when Jasmine began to ask questions.
“Mommy,” Jasmine asked, staring at Maria’s belly, “What is the baby going to look like?” Maria smiled, “It will look small and pink, but besides that, we don’t know.” But then the next day, Jasmine asked her mommy a different question. “Mommy, where will the baby sleep?” This is a common question that reveals a few things about Jasmine. At first, she showed curiosity about the new baby, but this curiosity was mixed with something else: anxiety. She was anxious about sharing the life she was used to with a new person. She was worried things would change in a way she wouldn’t like. Though she didn’t have the vocabulary to express it, she was anxious that mommy and daddy would love the new baby more than they loved her.
In order to put Jasmine’s mind at ease, Maria and Alfredo explained, in terms appropriate for a 4-year-old, what she could expect. They wanted to make sure Jasmine didn’t feel ignored throughout the pregnancy and during the baby’s first few years so they sat with Jasmine and explained to her why young babies require so much care. They discussed Jasmine’s infancy, showed her photos of when she was a baby and mentioned that they gave her the same level of care when she was born. This opened up a conversation about Jasmine’s birth and made her feel like getting a baby sibling was a normal part of life and not something to fear or worry about.
What to Do
Jasmine showed impressive maturity by opening her heart to a new sister and welcoming her into her life, but not every child is as mature or reasonable as Jasmine. Depending on their age, some children will not understand what it means to welcome a new baby into their life. They may respond with jealousy, confusion, and even anger. Toddlers often are too young to understand the changes that are taking place, yet they perceive and feel the changes. That’s why it’s so important to have open, thoughtful conversations like the one Maria and Alfredo initiated.
Mayo Clinic has some expert advice on this subject. They recommend you talk about what to expect ahead of time, before the baby is born and brought home. If the sibling is old enough, ask them for help setting up the nursery as a way to engage them with the baby and show that they won’t be ignored. They will begin to realize that their help will be truly necessary to make the parent’s lives easier.
It’s also important to explain that the baby won’t be a playmate right away. It will take some time before that is possible. Babies are delicate and if the sibling doesn’t understand this, they could not only be disappointed but also end up inadvertently hurting the newborn. And developing a bond as early as possible is paramount towards making sure they start off on the right foot. “It’s always best to be honest to avoid making kids anxious about what’s happening,” says Dr. Mandi Silverman, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute. “So don’t wait too long to tell your child.” A child needs to hear that Mommy is having a baby from a parent before hearing about it for the first time from a family member, friend, or anyone else.
Maria and Alfredo were enthused by Jasmine’s reaction and celebrated her good attitude. They thought this meant their job was done and she was ready to be a big sister. But what happened next threw them off and made them question everything they’d done.
Meltdowns and Make-Ups
Two weeks in, Maria and Alfredo couldn’t have been happier with the results of their parenting techniques. They’d brought Jasmine into the hospital to meet little Stacy, they’d spent time recognizing Jasmine’s great attitude, and she hadn’t been surprised or frustrated when the baby woke them all in the middle of the night. Besides all the normal trials and tribulations of raising a newborn baby, things were going smoothly, just like all their books had promised.
But then Jasmine had an accident in the night. At first, Maria didn’t think anything of this. Sure, this was unusual behavior for Jasmine, who’d already been potty-trained, but kids have accidents all the time. But when it happened again a week later, she knew something else was going on. Jasmine became frustrated and began acting out in ways she had never done before Stacy was born. It seemed that on some level, that jealousy they had feared was emerging and rearing its ugly head.
During a regressive episode like what Jasmine experienced, it’s recommended that you give your older child love and assurance rather than discipline them for taking a step backward in their developmental progression. These are often isolated incidents that are a typical part of development and rarely within your child’s control. If there is some animosity on the part of the older sibling, have the younger sibling “give” the older one a gift. It should be something the older one likes as it shows the older sibling that they’re still a major priority in your life.
Keep a routine of one on one time with the older child, engage the older sibling in the care of the baby sibling by letting them do things they enjoy doing to be helpful, such as bring Mommy or Daddy a diaper or a towel during the baby’s bathtime. If the older child enjoys cuddle time, have them cuddle next to you when you nurse the baby and talk to them about how when they were a baby, you also fed them by nursing or bottle feeding them. You can also celebrate the new birth with a family gathering to introduce them and make sure everyone in the family spends some time with the older sibling as well.
One thing that can help prevent animosity coming from an older sibling is scheduling a specific time and activity where they are the focus. Child expert Dr. Kristin Carothers has this advice, “Something like a constant, where the kid knows, yes, this is something that I had before my sibling and I get to have it after my sibling. Mom and dad have protected this time for me.” This can make the baby’s arrival feel more like a positive addition to the family and less like an intrusion.
Child Mind had this to say on the subject. “Give your older child extra attention and include him or her in activities that involve the baby, such as singing, bathing or changing diapers. Praise your older child when he or she acts lovingly toward the new baby. Even if your children seem to get along, supervision is essential.”
For parents in Maria and Alfredo’s shoes, there’s only so much that’s within our control. Children’s moods and emotions fluctuate daily, even from hour to hour, which can be tricky for parents to accept. But that doesn’t mean we’re completely powerless to influence our children in a positive, beneficial way. What is within our control is how we react to these episodes and the example we set for our children. When we react with anger or disappointment, we are telling our children that their emotional reactions are wrong or something to be corrected. When we react with empathy and understand that regression is normal and equally frustrating for the child, they see that their parents are on their side and are just trying to do what is best for them.
At the end of the day, the responsibility is on us, as parents, to navigate these transitions and sometimes tricky situations. One thing I’ve found helpful in my own life is reading. There are a ton of books out there to help introduce these subjects to young children. We can often struggle speaking about these subjects so books can help fill that need for words. Here’s a list of books from HGTV that will help introduce your child to siblinghood. Let me know in the comments if you have any fun or difficult stories about introducing siblings and how you got along, I’d love to hear what you have to say.