By Elizabeth Pantley, author of The No-Cry Sleep Solution for Newborns
Adding a second child to the family changes everything. The postpartum time produces a whirl of emotions that envelops everyone in those first tender months after bringing your second-born into your family. In our instinctive drive to keep newborns from harm, we often become overzealous. Thus , without being aware, we protect the baby, but not her sibling’s feelings, driving a wedge between them from the very beginning. The words and actions we use to shield our infants inadvertently seem defensive, accusatory, and negative to our older children, who often do not, or cannot, communicate the hurt. Siblings may perceive that they should be happy at such a time but may be perplexed as to why they also feel sad.
All the confusion an older sibling is feeling, coupled with the unintended negativity from parents, in turn, can discourage siblings from getting to know the newcomer and may plant the seeds for dreaded “sibling rivalry.” It may also drive our older children to act out in ways that we see as “naughty” but are merely desperate pleas for attention and equal billing.
The good news is that once you are aware of the emotional challenges there are many things you can do to overcome them and plant the seeds for your children to be the best of friends–right from the very beginning.
As with many situations in parenting, a simple awareness can eliminate much of the problem. In addition to becoming more aware of what’s happening, some very simple steps can encourage a positive experience for your older child (or children) when a new baby enters the family.
First, and foremost, acknowledge that this is a time of adjustment for everyone—time to reduce your outside activities, relax your housekeeping standards, and focus on your current priorities: adjusting to your new family size and paving the way for healthy sibling relationships. I know that this is hard to do. But babies are babies for such a short period of time that it’s worth it to allow yourself this time.
It’s important to understand and validate your older child’s feelings. Things have changed, and not just for you. Like you, your older child may be more tired than usual, a little more stressed, a little touchier. It’s a natural reaction. The baby does require much time and attention, and will indeed dominate and disrupt family life for a while. Be sure to let your older child know you’re aware that he is struggling with this concept—and that that is okay. Simple statements like, “I know it’s hard to wait for Emma to wake up until we go to the park” will help your child hear that you care about her feelings.
Avoid blaming everything on the baby—a common error. How do we do that? —“We can’t go now, Mommy has to feed the baby.” “Be quiet so you don’t wake the baby.” “I can’t play right now, I have to bathe the baby.” And so on. Very soon, your older child will be ready to send the baby from whence it came! Of course, the baby really is the reason, but instead of calling that out, use a few multipurpose statements such as, “My hands are busy right now,” “We’ll go later, after lunch/nap,” “Yes, we can play, in twenty minutes.”
Accept your child’s curiosity about the new baby, whom she will want to touch and hold. Allow your child to explore, hold, and feel the baby when the baby is sound asleep. Once your child is a bit more experienced (and the baby a bit sturdier), let your child hold and caress the awake, alert baby. And encourage having your child touch and talk to the baby when the little one is safe in your arms. Touch and communication are important to both of them and their budding relationship. You and your child will soon be rewarded and delighted by smiles of recognition from the little one.
Use positive terms to patiently teach your older child how to touch and play with the baby. Avoid using “no” and replace it with positive instructions. As an example, instead of saying, “No! Don’t touch the baby’s eyes!” you can say, “Emma’s eyes are delicate; touch her instead on her cheeks and her chin.”
Avoid overusing “no” and “stop” by using an approach I call “hover and rescue.” Hover over your children and intervene only if you see things moving away from your comfort zone. Then simply pick the baby up, distract the older child, and move on to something else.
Give your older child realistic information about babies—that they sleep a lot, nurse a lot, have a noisy and loud cry, will have lots of messy diapers, and that it will be a while before they will turn into a fun playmate.
Teach the older sibling how to be helpful with the baby, without expecting your firstborn to become a built-in babysitter. Encourage and praise whenever things are going right.
It’s a great time to pull out photos and movies of your older child as a baby. As you go through them, help your child see that at one time she was the baby who was getting special attention.
The new baby will require extensive care and commitment from you. But make sure that your older child is also getting some one-on-one Mommy/Daddy/Grandma/etc. time. Allowing time for a shared game, book or cuddle can go a long way towards helping your older child feel secure in your love for her.
With a little heart, increased awareness, and a few new tactics, you can all enjoy this remarkable family transformation together.
Elizabeth Pantley is a mother, grandmother, and author of the bestselling book, The No-Cry Sleep Solution and 8 books in the No-Cry Solution series, which helps moms and dads through all key stages of parenting.