I can remember vividly having a complete meltdown when I was probably 38 weeks pregnant with my second child. My husband, Ian, and I were enjoying a quiet moment, talking excitedly about our impending new arrival, when I suddenly burst into tears and exclaimed that we were effectively ending our first born's life as she knew it. Ian patted me sweetly and looked at me like I had grown a second head (not in the least because it was a little late to change our minds). After all, we were both oldest children, and had successfully navigated life with a younger sibling. And he was right of course, but I also know that I was neither the first nor the last parent to worry over what might happen to my baby when I brought a new baby home.
We were lucky. Carly, our oldest, was really excited about the idea of new baby. During my pregnancy, Carly sang to the baby, talked to the baby...she actually even NAMED the baby! And once the baby arrived, she was very sweet and gentle and kind to the baby. Me, not so much...she was mad at me about the interloper, but was kind enough to never take it out on the little creature who had shown up and taken over one day. She would occasionally grouch at me, be hilariously defiant, throw her body on the floor (she was also two), but was always kind and gentle to her younger sib. And when number 3 came along, she was an old pro.
So, what can YOU do to help your family have a smooth transition as it grows in number?
- Start early. How early? Probably around the time you're beginning to show, unless there is a reason to begin discussing the baby earlier. There are excellent books about new babies and sibling relationships that can be really helpful. (One of my personal faves is the classic, Darcy and Gran Don't Like Babies, by Jane Cutler) Observe new babies in other families or when you are out an about. Encourage your kids to ask questions when they meet a new baby. If your child is in day care or preschool, enlist the caregiver or teacher's help as well. One October, half of my preschool class of ten become older siblings...we talked a lot about babies that fall and winter! Sibling preparation classes (similar to birth prep classes, but geared toward kids) can also be immensely helpful.
- Let them lead the way. As you start talking about the new baby, it will be important to watch for cues from your older child. Let them open up discussions and ask questions rather than bringing up the topic yourself. The sort of questions they have will give you a lot of cues to where they are and how they are feeling. Are the questions largely about what the new baby will be like, in which case your older kiddo is feeling pretty secure, or are they focused around "what will happen to me?", indicating a need for some more reassurance? Remember, too, that feelings in regard to the baby can change often...several times a day even. And, let your older child make choices about interactions with the baby once they arrive. Don't force your older child to hold the baby, but instead let them decide how much contact they want to have. Older kids are often thrilled to be "helpers", grabbing diapers, burp cloths, etc. Praise goes far! And if your older child isn't into it, don't force it.
- Celebrate the birthday! Families have all sorts of ways of doing this, but one of my favorites is to have the older sibling(s) help make or choose a birthday cake in honor of the new baby. Of course the baby can't eat the cake (more for us!), but there is something joyful about singing "Happy Birthday" to your newborn with your other kids gathered around. Some babies have been known to give gifts to their older siblings (as peace offerings?), and some older siblings take great pride in choosing or creating a special something for their new baby.
- Keep things normal. This is really the key for our older kids. Babies can throw a big wrench in the system for us...and for the babies we're already caring for. Young children are self-centered (which is not a criticism, but a developmental fact) and the less we shake things up, the better. Try and keep your older child's schedule the same. Don't keep them home from school or other activities that they typically do...enlist help to get them places if need be. And, if, for example, the birthing parent is always the swim lesson parent, they should be back in the pool ASAP with someone helping to care for the baby on the sidelines.
- Practical matters. I wore my second and third child a lot more than I wore my first one. The oldest one I could carry in my arms more often, but with the other two, I needed hands for my older kiddos AND to hold a baby, so carriers were the answer. Babies love them and so will you. Also, nursing babies takes a lot of time, so having a special activity for your older child is helpful. Whether its a book you read together, a special show that only gets watched at feeding time or the like, something that is ONLY for nursing time can make it not so tedious. If you're bottle feeding, you may find yourself with a helper!
- Me, too! Suddenly, your "big kid" wants to sit in the high chair, be rocked to sleep, or start nursing again--something they left behind long ago. This is not at all uncommon for older siblings, either before or after a new baby arrives. For most kids, indulging them a time or two while making a game out of it is enough to satisfy their curiosity. In fact, with the preschool class I mentioned above, one of the favorite games to play was "baby", where I would pretend to feed them a each bottle, burp them, and rock them to sleep, with them giggling uproariously all the while. Big kids are craving the attention they see the baby getting, but simply telling them "you're big and you get attention other ways" is often not enough to stem the tide. Often, occasionally indulging our big kids, along with gentle reminders of all the awesome things they get to do that babies don't (eat ice cream, ride bikes, etc), is enough.
Eventually, the new baby won't seem quite so exotic, and your family will establish an equilibrium for the 4, or 5, or more of you. And one day, you'll get the very best gift of all...that new baby giggling as an older sibling plays peek-a-boo, or a big kid laughing as the little one makes a funny face. Then you can pat yourself on the back for the little bit of harmony you had a hand in creating. Today, as the oldest graduates high school, she assures us that her siblings did NOT ruin her life, and occasionally, she even likes them. :)