Bringing home a new baby is one of the most exciting times for a family, but it can also be one of the most challenging, particularly for older siblings. There’s a lot to which they have to adjust: decreased attention from parents, a big shift in routine, and the needs and (sometimes noisy) demands of a growing infant. Fortunately, there are strategies parents can take to make this transition as easy as possible. Preparing children in advance typically lessens the anxiety of the coming change and also provides an opportunity to help them feel included.
*Before the Birth:
Don’t wait too long to make the announcement
Whether your baby is entering your family via pregnancy, surrogacy, or adoption, it’s best to give older siblings as much advance notice as you can. This might be when Mom’s pregnancy is starting to show, or when the family is beginning to purchase nursery supplies like clothes and a crib.
Why is it better to discuss it early on? Because children are MUCH more perceptive than we give them credit for. They sense when things are different, or when their loved ones are preoccupied. They may not know the reason for the shift, and they may not verbalize anything, but the confusion’s often still there. Addressing the change honestly and quickly decreases their anxiety. It also gives them plenty of time to ask all the questions they need to before the big arrival.
There are tons of great picture books about becoming a big brother or sister. Some, such as this one, are more focused on the emotional side of the big change, and emphasize that the older sibling won’t be losing their “specialness.” Others, such as this one, take a more educational approach by providing information about how babies develop at specific stages, and even offer suggestions on how older kids can interact/bond with new babies.
I know, you want your older child to love their baby sibling and be excited for their homecoming! However, it’s not fair to oversell the sweet and fun aspects of a baby without touching on the parts that your child is going to find challenging. The kindest thing you can do is help them prepare. For younger children, that may look like, “You’re going to hear the baby cry a lot. She can’t tell me with words if she’s hungry or needs a diaper change, so she’ll tell me by crying.”
Let them feel their feelings
Similar to the point above, we don’t get anywhere with kids by pressuring them to feel positive; all of us feel nervous when changes are headed our way. If your child expresses sadness, worry, or even anger about a new brother or sister, the best gift you can give them is to listen and support them without trying to change their minds. Statements like, “why would you be sad the baby is coming?? The baby is so excited to meet you!!”…only serve to make them feel alone with their worries.
Instead: validate, validate, validate. “You’re sad because you think it means I won’t play with you anymore. I understand why you’d be worried about that.”
And then, yes, squeeze in some loving reassurance. “I will always make time to play with you. You’re so special to me, and the baby won’t change that.”
Involve them in planning
Having a say in even the most minor of choices can give older siblings a sense of agency. It’s hard to feel jealous about an exciting event that you’re getting to help plan! Here are some ideas for including them:
- Let them pick out nursery items within reason (e.g. star mobile or animal mobile? green blanket or yellow one?)
- Let them decide (between appropriate choices YOU offer) where they think baby’s pacifiers, diapers, et cetera should be stored
- Have them draw a picture or write a note to go up in baby’s room
Warn them about the hospital stay (or any other time away from them)
Obviously, deliveries and adoptions don’t often occur on a specific time schedule, but try to be as clear as you can on what it’ll look like when the baby makes their entrance into the world. Let older siblings know where you’ll be and who will take care of them in your absence. Know that they may need you to repeat the details several times. That may look like…
“When Baby Claire decides she’s ready to be born, Mommy and Mama will go to the hospital, and Grandpa Jack will come stay with you. We’ll be gone for a couple days, and when we get back, we’ll have Baby Claire with us! Do you have any questions?”
“On Saturday, Mom and Dad will be flying to Germany to pick up Baby Ethan! While we’re gone, you’ll go stay at Auntie’s house and play with your cousins. We will FaceTime you every day.”
*After the birth + homecoming
Don’t introduce the new baby with him or her in your arms
Introducing older siblings to the new baby for the first time can be a tender moment. Seeing you snuggle the new family member (especially while they’ve not seen you themselves for a couple of days) can spark jealousy. Instead, make the introductions while the newborn is in a neutral location, such as lying in their bassinet or car seat. Older kiddo can make their greeting, and will have you to lean on or snuggle against as needed.
Try not to use the baby as the reason you can’t do something
Turning down your older child’s request to play in order to tend to baby’s needs can feel so guilt-inducing! But unless you can clone yourself and be in multiple places at once, this scenario is bound to happen. A lot. You can reduce older siblings’ feelings of jealousy by not using the baby’s needs as the reason you have to say no. Instead, acknowledge the request and let them know when it can be met in the future (or, offer an alternative). Examples:
Shifting to a yes: “You’d like me to come push you on the swings! Give me ten minutes, and then I’d love to come do that. Let’s set a timer to remind us.”
Offering an alternative: “You’d like me to come push you on the swings! I can’t come outside right now, but I’d love to play with you in here. Do you want to read a book or play with your cars?”
Set limits as needed
It’s not uncommon for older children to take their frustration out on the new source of stress in their lives: the baby. On the other hand, some kids are so excited for their new sibling that their affection gets a little…intense. Either way, respond by validating the feeling behind the behavior and then setting boundaries. Providing alternative ways to cope with feelings or redirecting their attention to something else can also be helpful. If the behavior continues, state calmly and neutrally that you’re going to keep the baby safe. Examples:
“I know you’re frustrated with the baby, and I can tell you’re thinking about hitting her. Norah is not for hitting. You can draw a picture to show me how mad you are.”
“Aw, you love Norah so much and want to give her big hugs. See how she’s turning away? That means she doesn’t like that. Aw, she LOVES when you stroke her feet!” Or, if the behavior continues: “I can see that it’s hard for you to not squeeze Norah so hard. I’m going to move her to the bassinette now. We can try again later.”
Mild regression with the birth of a new sibling is less the exception and more the rule with older siblings. I don’t say this to freak anyone out, in fact, it’s the contrary; we tend to feel less anxious about things we’re informed of in advance. Therefore, don’t be shocked if your fully-potty-trained preschooler starts having accidents, or if your six-year-old begins acting a bit babyish. Know that it’s simply a sign that they’re missing that wonderful one-on-one attention from you! Rather than criticizing the behavior, meet that need for attention in healthy ways.