A new addition to the family is a very exciting and happy occasion – one to be celebrated and cherished. When there is an older child at home, however, this excitement might be combined with concerns about how they’ll react to the new arrival. Will they welcome and accept their sibling? Will it affect their behaviour? Will they display signs of jealousy?
These are all normal considerations. Dr Kalanit Ben-Ari, parental advisor and author of Great Parenting, an Essential Guide for Busy Parents, believes that preparation is key when it comes to handling this situation. Laying the foundations early will allow for a smooth transition into this new family dynamic and help your child adjust to and embrace the new baby. There are also lots of things that you can do once the baby arrives to minimise too much disruption or feelings of inferiority.
Here, she provides eight tips for parents who are preparing to welcome a new child into the family.
How to prepare your child for a new sibling before birth
Where you can, make changes before the baby arrives.
Inevitably, there’ll be lots of changes once the baby comes home. Where possible, start making these changes one to two months before the birth. This allows plenty of time for your child to adjust to the new circumstances, and prevents them from associating the new baby with disruption.
For example, if the child needs something in the night, allow the father to tend to them. Once the new baby arrives, it might not be possible for the mother to do so (especially if they are breastfeeding or have had a C section). If you are the mother, encourage the child to start sitting near you, rather than on you during activities such as reading. That’s not to say you can’t hold them, but try adding a little bit of balance so that sometimes they are next to you. Physical contact is important for children’s security, but if you’re unable to hold them after the birth then they will know that they can still be near you.
I recommend that any major changes for the older child (such as moving rooms, toilet training, moving house or starting nursery) are avoided within the months before and after the birth. This major change requires a stable environment for a feeling of security, predictability, and stability.
Involve them in the preparation
Where it’s age appropriate, allow the child to be involved in preparing for the new baby’s arrival. Ask their opinion when choosing things like baby clothes or dummies. Allow them to help with things like the shopping, cleaning and folding of clothes ahead of the birth. This will allow them to feel integral to the baby’s introduction to the family rather than being second best.
You could also allow them to choose a small gift for the baby and allow them to give it to the newborn, which will make them feel proud and involved.
It is now acknowledged that until the age of 6, play is the main and best source of learning. Therefore, pretending games are a great way to introduce some of the baby’s behaviour to the child so they know what to expect.
For example, when playing with a doll, you can use questions to encourage curiosity and thinking – such as “the baby cannot talk, so how will we know if he is hungry or tired?” Or “He doesn’t have any teeth so what will he eat?” It’s a good way to prepare the child for understanding that baby will mostly communicate non-verbally and a great way to also support the child’s emotional development.
How to help your child adjust to a new sibling after birth
Allow them to feel involved with caring for the baby.
Similar to involving them in the preparation, involve your child in age-appropriate activities around the baby. Allow them to feel as though they have an important role in the family by bathing or feeding the baby, bringing toys or changing nappies.
If you’re playing with your child and the baby starts crying, ask them what they think the baby needs. This sense of importance allows them to fulfil a role rather than feeling pushed to one side for the baby to take priority.
When you are expecting visitors, it can also help to tell the child that the visitors are coming to see the child and to meet the baby. Perhaps the child could take the visitors to see the baby and tell them about him or her. Again, it gives them an important role and offers them a share of the attention.
Dedicate one on one time with the older child
Give plenty of time and attention to your older child and remind them that they are important to you with a special place in your heart that no one else can fill.
For example, if you can, feed the baby before your child arrives home from nursery or school so that you are able to spend time with them. You might find that they will be happy to go and entertain themselves once they’ve had their share of attention and understand that it’s now the baby’s turn.
Choose your language carefully
Think very carefully about your choice of words and try not to put emphasis on anything negative.
For example, children are curious and naturally will be drawn to touch the baby (often the face!). Instead of saying “don’t touch the baby’s face”, provide an alternative. You might like to say something like “the baby doesn’t like having his face touched, but he loves it when you touch his feet”. Not only does this take away the negativity, but it reminds the child that they aren’t bad and you aren’t angry with them.
It’s healthy for children to express emotions – whether that be happiness, joy, anger or jealousy – so offer them a platform to do so. Avoid putting words in their mouth, such as “you love your little sister, don’t you?” but instead ask them how it feels to be a big brother or sister. It would then help to validate their experience by repeating what they said and adding “that makes sense”.
Try to move away (as much as possible) from feeling guilty for the older child. The child sees themselves in your eyes and if they see guilt they might think there is something they need to be compensated for. A new baby in the family is a positive event, it’s a gift for all involved, and among other things it shows the other children at home that they have grown.