Some sibling strife is inevitable, though the degree depends on the ages of the two children, whether or not their personalities are compatible, and the level of sibling conflict you tolerate. An attachment-parented child will have a much easier time adjusting since she got what she needed when she needed it. She won’t be jealous seeing someone else get needs met. Children over age three or three-and-a-half usually welcome a new baby into the home, either with open arms or as a novelty, and sometimes these children, at least on the surface, don’t seem to be jealous. They may compete more for playtime with “my” baby than for attention from you. Being verbal helps them deal with the changes. But it is not unusual for younger children to be upset for a while. (Face it: Things will never be the same for you or your older child.) Even if you manage to “do everything right” and see very little or no hurt in your older child in the early months, once the new baby reaches eight months and can crawl, your older child will have to deal with intrusions into his space. Here’s how to introduce your new baby to your older child.
1. Make friends before birth. Tell your older child about the new baby before birth, early on, or later in your pregnancy, depending on her level of understanding. Show pictures of a baby in a mommy’s uterus. Out of sight is out of mind to a young child, so the baby who is not born doesn’t threaten her domain, though even a two-year-old may sense that Mommy is preoccupied with what’s beneath the bulge. Let her pat the baby, talk to the baby, and feel the baby kick. Have fun talking about and planning for the baby.
2. Replay the child’s babyhood. Sit down with your child and page through her baby picture album. Show her what she looked like right after birth, coming home from the hospital, nursing, having her diapers changed, and so on. By replaying the child’s baby events, she will be prepared for what is to come.
3. Foreshadow baby’s coming. “When the tiny baby comes out of Mommy’s tummy, Mommy’s going to hold it all the time. Tiny babies sleep and nurse all day long and sit in their Mommy’s arms. Tiny babies really need their Mommies.”
4. Include the child in the birth festivities. Besides being with Mom and the new baby after the birth (if the child was not at the birth), ask for his help in planning a “birthday party.” He gets to pick the cake and decorations and to plan special presents to and from the new arrival.
5. Include a gift for sib. Savvy visitors who themselves have survived sibling rivalry bring along a gift for the older child when visiting the new baby. Keep a few small gifts in reserve for your young child when friends lavish presents and attention on the new baby. Let her be the one to unwrap the baby gifts and test the rattles.
6. Time share. Along with the uncertainty of finding where they fit into the new scheme of things, what bothers children most is sharing you with the baby. Since the concept of sharing is foreign to the child under three, and since Mom is her most important “possession,” it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to sell the child on the concept of “time shares” in Mother. It sounds good to say that you’ll give your older child equal amounts of your time, but in practice that’s unrealistic. New babies require a lot of maintenance and you don’t have 200 percent of you to give (which is why we are big believers in new mothers giving themselves permission to neglect housework and chores in favor of time with baby and toddler).
You can share the time you spend caring for the baby with your child. Wear your infant in a babysling. That gives you two free hands to play a game with your older child. While feeding baby, read a book to the sibling or just have cuddle time. Increase your time on the floor. While baby is still small, he needs to be in your arms or in a sling. You can be on the floor and your toddler will see your availability. As baby gets older, place him in an infant seat, or on a blanket on the floor, to watch while you play one-on-one with his big brother or sister. This entertains two kids with one parent. Try playtime for two: As baby gets a bit older, encourage the child to entertain the baby. Making faces and funny noises is something three or four-year-olds excel at and babies love. Big, toothless grins can be an incredible ego-booster—”Hey, he likes me.” If you love your baby, the feeling will soon be mutual.
Remember, baby’s needs always come first (short of life and death situations), even though your toddler can be more persistent or boisterous making her needs and wants known. Many a mother has made the mistake of not bonding appropriately with her newborn for fear of hurting the older one’s feelings. If the child got what she needed as a baby she can handle frustration without damage. An infant can’t.
7. Make the sibling feel important. Give your child a job in the family organization. To pull the child out of the “I want to be a baby” blues, play up her importance to you, personally and practically. Tell her you need her help. Give her a job title. Make it fun: “You can be mommy’s helper. Get the diaper, please.” “Bring the clothes for Mama.” “Please grab those toys.” Let him change diapers, dress baby, and bathe baby (all under supervision, of course). Praise the help he gives you.
Here’s how one mother handled her four-year-old’s turn-about in personality after the birth of their second child. Soon after Benjamin was born, Amy seemed to go through a mid-childhood crisis. She reverted to bedwetting and throwing temper tantrums. A previously happy child, Amy became sad. She talked back, was defiant, began waking at night, and made herself a general nuisance. Mom gave her a job as “mother’s assistant,” and even paid her for her help. After a few weeks, Amy not only became more pleasant to live with, she even learned some mothering skills.
8. Be open to sibling’s feelings. Just as new parents worry about ambivalent feelings toward the baby, children dislike their angry feelings about their brother or sister and may want to hide them. Encourage your child to express her negative as well as her positive feelings. Give her an empathetic opener such as, “Sometimes I imagine you like your baby brother and sometimes you don’t.” Encourage the child to draw her feelings about the new baby. Children often feel safer drawing what they feel. When she does tell you negative things like, “I hate that baby,” resist the urge to say something like, “Oh, you don’t mean that! You love the baby.” Be glad she feels secure enough to lay her feelings out for you. If she hears you say her feelings are normal and understandable, they’ll lose a lot of the initial intensity, and she’ll open up more. Everyone wants to be understood and accepted.
9. What’s in it for me? That’s the way children think. By adult logic, children should be thrilled to have a live-in friend, but children in this situation are preoccupied with what they’ve lost. They don’t see an “up” side. They’ve lost center stage, and the baby is too little to be fun. Mommy is no fun anymore since she’s tired all the time. (Sibling rivalry comes at a bad time for parents. Just when you are exhausted from adjusting to a new baby, you have to deal with an older child undergoing a personality change.) Revive “special time,” especially with dad: outings to the park, the ice cream store, even the convenience store for bread and milk. These one-on-one outings are reserved just for the older child. The attention the child has lost from mom she gains from dad. “But we tell her we love her, doesn’t that count?” Yes, but remember how children perceive their parents’ love for them is what counts. Actions speak louder than words. Use “just-being time:” Your older child can sit right next to you as you hold baby (no need to put baby down or disturb bonding). Enjoy each other’s presence with body-to-body contact. Even fifteen minutes a day of holding time can make a difference.
10. Protect both children’s needs. “I looked around just in time to see our three-year-old hit our new baby in the head with a toy,” cried a shocked new mother. Hurting the baby calls for immediate correction; safety prevails over psychology. Put on your best never-do-that-again tirade. Pull out all the stops: time-out for the child (and time-out the toy, too). Control any urge to swat the child, but you must deliver firm direction. Explain how fragile babies are and even though you understand he is feeling angry, you will not let him hurt the baby. Help him apologize, “Pat baby’s head gently and tell him you’re sorry you hurt him.”
Now that the child’s feelings are out of the bag, you can address them directly—and he wants you to understand his struggles. So do some verbalizing for him: “It’s hard for you to see mommy spend so much time with the baby.” Then show him how to hit a soft, inanimate object like a pillow when he’s angry, because it won’t be hurt. Show him how she can be “nice” to the baby. Encourage her touches to be soft; model stroking and saying “nice.” Close this memorable session with a triangle hug: parent, child, and baby. Be sure your child gets the message that he is never to do that again.
Ask your older child to tell you when she feels angry. If your older child is very young (under two), expecting her to control angry impulses around the baby is expecting too much. This is another good reason for wearing the baby as much as possible the older one will see you as being more available to her, and you’ll have baby in a safe place. Don’t leave an aggressive toddler alone with a baby. She can’t control herself without your help.
Sometimes older siblings want to try out baby behaviors, such as bottle or breastfeeding. Letting the child try is the easiest way to handle this desire. Peter was weaned from Martha’s breast at seventeen months, and he was nearly three years old when Hayden was born. He watched closely while Martha breastfed the first day and then he asked to nurse. He stood by the rocking chair and leaned in for a suck or two, barely got the hang of it, wondered what the big deal was and promptly asked for two bottles. He carried his two bottles around for a couple of weeks, then lost interest. Martha’s not shoving him away (even nicely) helped with his “I hate that baby” thoughts and feelings.
11. New baby gets wheels. Often siblings seem to be adjusting beautifully to the new baby until the baby is older. A common time for this to happen is when baby learns to crawl. Now the older one finds that nothing is safe—his towers get crashed, his best toys teethed on, his games interrupted, etc. Some anticipatory planning is helpful. Point out that this will begin happening, and explain why baby acts this way (exploring, excitement, too little to understand) so things won’t be taken personally. Teach your older one how to develop patience and the ability to plan ahead. He can set up his games at a table out of baby’s reach, and he can build a tower for baby, knowing how much fun baby has knocking it over. Point out that baby is, after all, getting more interesting.