Tuesday, May 31, 2005

How to Help an Older Sibling Adjust to a New Baby

Being the older sibling when a brand new baby enters the household can be a tough role to fill. Rare are the cases when the older sibling is 8-10 years older than the baby and can reasonably and logically understand the needs of the newborn and the diminished amount of time the parents can give. Although older children dislike sharing their parents, they understand why. However, older siblings who are 6-years-old or younger often have a very difficult time with the seemingly divided loyalties of the parents.

Before the baby arrived, the older child often had the sole attention of his parents. He was the center of his own little universe, and theirs as well, or so he thought. A child age 6 or under has difficulty understanding the concept of sharing, let alone sharing his role as the universe's center. Parents often find that when the new baby is brought home, they are suddenly thrust into a situation with two centers of the universe and the result can feel like intergalactic war. But take heart; intergalactic war can be avoided and peace can reign supreme. Following are a few things parents can do to ensure their older child adjusts as easily as possible, and to avoid much of the potential conflict.

1. Tell the sibling early. As soon as the joyous parents decide to let the rest of the world know the happy news that they are going to have another baby, they should tell the older sibling first. If possible, allow the sibling to share the news so he will feel as though it is his news as well as his parents'. Explain to him in words he will understand that he will have a new baby brother or sister and how wonderful it will be. Talk about how the baby will grow in Mommy's tummy and answer any of his questions. Of course, keep it to his age level. A 4-year-old doesn't need a lesson in sex education.

2. Visit other babies. Find anyone you know who has a new baby so your child can see what the baby is like and begin to get a glimpse about what his brother or sister will be like. If possible, take your child to a hospital to see the newborns in the nursery. Explain to him about how helpless and fragile babies are. Expose your child to babies of varying ages: newborns, babies who can sit up, crawlers, toddlers and so on. Let him know that in the early days, the baby won't be a playmate, but rather, someone to look after and care for, much like a doll.

3. Read about babies. There are many wonderful books on the market that are written for just such occasions. Some books will explain all about the baby while others directly address the feelings of the new older sibling. Read them all and talk about it often. Ask someone at your local bookstore or public library and they should be able to help you find something suitable.

4. Prepare the nursery together. Depending on the older sibling's age and ability, he may only be able to help you in small ways, such as setting up stuffed animals on a low shelf or putting pillows into the crib. Regardless of how small the task, invite your child to take part in decorating and preparing the nursery. Let him choose colors or toys or clothing for the baby. If possible, bring the older sibling to any baby showers or special celebrations. Remind him often that this is his baby as well as yours.

5. Spend special moments. Use the months of pregnancy to spend special moments with your child that you won't otherwise be able to share once the baby comes. Go for walks, visit the playground, go out for ice cream, and have special cuddle moments. Remind the older sibling that there will be times when you can not hold him once the baby arrives, but that you will continue to hold him as often as possible. Explain that there will be times of frustration and anger on his part, but that we all have to learn to share. Assure him often that you love him and will love him just as much after the baby arrives. If he asks who you will love more, don't squirm, just assure him that he will always be your first child and therefore, you love him in ways you will never love the new baby.

6. Carefully plan the delivery time. If there are no grandparents or extended family nearby, make sure you find someone suitable for the older sibling to stay with when it is time to deliver the baby. Some parents choose to allow the sibling to be in the delivery room and watch the birth, but if not, arrange for him to be with a good friend or school mate with whom he feels comfortable, especially if the visit must last over night. Since delivery dates are rarely planned, make your arrangements well in advance and have alternate plans in the event that the baby arrives at a time when the original arrangements can't be carried out as planned.

7. Bring the sibling to the hospital. As soon as the new baby is born and the mother and baby are allowed to have visitors, have someone bring the older sibling to the hospital. If possible, let him be the first visitor and let him visit without family and friends looking on. This is an intimate and sometimes frightening time for a small child and even with all the planning and preparation in the world, he may feel threatened and upset when he sees his mother cuddling the new wrinkled baby. Invite him to sit on the hospital bed with mom and let him touch the baby. If he is old enough, let him sit in a chair and hold and cuddle the baby himself. Tell him how big and strong he is and how the baby will look up to him.

8. Give the sibling a job to do. Once you return home from the hospital and begin the next couple months of sleep deprivation, diapers and nursing, give your older sibling special tasks to make him feel needed and important. This isn't the time to use him as a tiny slave who brings you everything you need, but rather, to ask him for help a couple of times each day and thank him profusely. Let him know when you are tired and assure him that you need and appreciate him. If there is anything the older sibling can do for the baby, by all means, let him do it. Some 5 and 6-year-olds are very proficient at changing diapers. If your child can do this, encourage it. If your older sibling is merely a 2-year-old, perhaps his job can be to make sure the baby has its favorite blanket, just like he has a favorite blanket. Make sure the tasks are age-appropriate.

9. Schedule alone times. You may not have the luxury or energy to spend the amount of time with your older child that you had before the baby came, but do what you can. In the first few weeks, especially, try to carve out even a mere 15 minutes while the baby is napping, and invite your older sibling to crawl into your lap and cuddle or talk. Remember that it is completely normal for an older child to regress a bit and he might want to suck on a bottle or revert to baby talk. Don't deride him for this, just indulge him in those first weeks and it should pass. Many times this is a way for the older sibling to test the parents and see if they really love him as much as the baby.

10. State your love often. You will, no doubt, be enamored with your newborn, and rightly so. While it is so easy and natural to cuddle and whisper sweet words to a tiny baby, your older child needs it now more than the baby does. Remind yourself, when you are nursing or cuddling the baby, to talk to your older child instead of the baby. Tell him how special he is and how much you love him. The baby will be satisfied by your voice and won't have a clue to whom you are talking. But your older child will know and that's what matters.

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