Preparing Your Older Child for the New Baby

September 14, 2008

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I remember hearing horror stories about older kids and their jealousy towards the new baby in the house. One friend of mine even said her daughter tried to suffocate her baby with a pillow! Henry 2-months
Creative Commons License photo credit: Phil Scoville

I can’t imagine how that must have felt. It was also totally foreign to me because I didn’t have any trouble at all with my toddlers trying to hurt their new sibling. I never even saw any signs of rivalry or upset at all.

I think it’s because of some of the things I did during the pregnancy and in the first few hours, days and weeks after I gave birth.

Here are some of those things. I hope they help you if you’re about to go through this!

Sell them on “big brother” or “big sister”.

Speak in positive terms to them about what it means to be a big sis or big brother. Really play up the importance of their role and help them to feel special and needed. You will want to discuss how they can be your helper and how much you need them because after the birth you will be sore and tired.

You may want to assign them a specific task, something age appropriate. For a younger child, fetching diapers for you might be a good one. With my babies, I invited the older toddler to come and join us during diaper changes to involve them. We would chat and I would let them help any way they could, and it was a pleasant time. Help your child to appreciate how much you need their help.

Don’t plan any other major changes.

This would not be a good time to introduce any other major changes into their life, such as potty training, different sleeping arrangements or any other similar changes. You don’t want to overwhelm them nor add any added stress to their lives or yours.

If your toddler is still nursing, there is no reason to stop during your pregnancy or even afterwards when the new baby arrives. Many moms have found that tandem nursing (breastfeeding siblings who are not twins) is very rewarding and a wonderful way to ease the transition for the older child.

When they are assured of your place in their lap, they are not as likely to be jealous or resent the new baby. I found this to be absolutely true with mine. My toddlers were all still nursing when their siblings were born, and it was wonderful to help them adjust. I shared my story in the link above.

Talk to them.

Children understand more than we think. So, spend some time talking with them about the big event. You can tell them about what will happen when you go to have the baby, where they will be staying, and what they can expect. If you are having the baby at home or in a birthing center, you might want to consider allowing them to be with you at the birth. Children who are close by the mother during her labor are more likely to view the new baby as “ours” instead of an alien intruder! Some parents have found it helpful to read books that talk about getting a new baby in the house. These often explain how new babies need constant care and feeding.

It’s also helpful to share the story of their own birth with your toddler. Young children seem to love to hear the story of their birth! Talk about how it was such a happy day for you because you finally got to meet them. Tell them details, and let them watch birth videos if you have them, and allow them to go through their baby books and pictures.

Involve them in the pregnancy.

Take your older child to prenatal appointments if you can. This helps them to start bonding with the unborn child. This is a lot easier if you’re getting care from a midwife, who will welcome your other children and allow them to listen to the heartbeat or play with the stethoscope and other equipment! My kids always had fun when we visited the midwife for our appointments.240 - Checking In
Creative Commons License photo credit: eyeliam

My oldest son even cut his two baby sister’s cords when they were born. I have pictures of him all decked out as Obi-Wan Kenobi, complete with light sabre, when his first sister was born. He was so protective of her and called her Padme for the first few months of her life. ;)

Get help.

Going from one to two (or two to three, and on and on!) is a wonderful time to ask friends, family, Grandparents and others for a little help. While you and the baby are resting, could someone play with your toddler, arrange a playdate or take them to the park for a couple of hours?

A little extra one on one time with a beloved adult can make up for the fact that you are going to be giving the toddler a little less attention for awhile. This is a time for Dad to step up too. While he does need time to bond with the newborn, this can be a time of growth in the older child as he embraces Dad as someone who can also meet his needs.

Watch your language.

When the baby arrives, be careful how you phrase things. If your older child asks you for something and you can’t help them because you’re caring for the baby, don’t “blame” it on the baby. Say something like, “My hands are busy now, but I can play with you in a few minutes. Why don’t you come snuggle next to me and I’ll read you a story?”

Another tip that some moms have found helpful is to talk up the older child to the baby. We moms love to go ga-ga and talk goo goo over our babies, but why not brag on the older sibling? “Ooh look at what big brother is doing! He’s building a block tower and it’s sooooo tall!” This can make the older child’s heart swell with pride. I heard this tip from a mom I admired, and when I did it, I could see the older child’s face practically beaming. Of course, the baby can’t understand a word you’re saying, but that doesn’t matter!

If your child does express some negative feelings towards the new baby, do not deflect it or try to change their feelings. It won’t work! It’s insulting and we know how WE feel when someone does that to us. Instead, mirror them by saying something empathic, like “It’s tough having to share mommy with the new baby sometimes.” You don’t have to agree with them, just empathize. When we do that, they feel safe sharing their feelings, and are able to process and work through them better. But if we can all bent out of shape they feel misunderstood and frustrated, which doesn’t help matters.

There’s one thing that some people who come to visit your new family may do that you need to watch for. This always made me cringe every time I observed it! They overreact every time the older children touch the baby.

Another thing to be careful of when it comes to visitors is this: Don’t let them focus 100% of their attention on the new baby. People do this too, and they don’t mean any harm. But imagine how it feels to the older child when everyone around him is completely besotted with “baby this and baby that”. They don’t even ask him questions except to say, “So how do you like the new baby?” LOL!

If your guests or family members do this, tactfully steer the conversation around.

Clueless Aunt: “So, little Johnny, how do you like the new baby so far?”

Little Johnny: “Um, he’s ok. I guess.”

You: “Auntie, did you see the picture Johnny painted? It’s over there on the refrigerator. Johnny, would you like to show Auntie your new picture? Maybe she can get your paints out and you can draw a new one for her to take home to Aunt Joe.”

You might want to even ask family members and friends to bring a small gift for your older child when they come visit the baby. If they’re not cool like that, stash some presents or treats of your own, and whip them out when baby has a gift to unwrap.

Babies just aren’t that fragile!

It’s more important that your older child bond with the baby, and much of that takes place through touch. Train and teach your older kids how to hold and touch the baby. With a toddler, you may have to guide his hands or tell him to touch “Soft, like a butterfly.”

Don’t freak out whenever the older kids come around the baby, or they’ll come to resent him. You don’t want them to feel like useless, clumsy clods around the “precious” baby. It’s very hurtful to them. There were so many times that my older kids jostled the new baby like s/he was a sack of potatoes, and the baby never even woke up most of the time, much less minded.

Babies like stimulation and they find their big sibs extremely exciting! I noticed that my babies would turn their heads and follow a sibling around the room with their eyes. I made a point of saying this out loud to my older kids. I also reminded them that the baby KNEW them already because of hearing them for so many months in the womb.

They were really impressed by that. :)

Another thing alone these lines is, allow your toddler or older child to see and spend time with you as soon as possible after the birth. Don’t let other family members, including your husband if he’s overzealous, prevent them from reconnecting with you. Especially if you’ve been away at a hospital birth is this true. Don’t make a big deal over the new baby. Let them hug and kiss YOU and then notice the baby (who ideally should not be in your arms for this little reunion).

Don’t feel guilty.

It’s very common for moms to feel guilty about displacing their older child. I know I certainly felt this way when I was pregnant with my second child. I grieved for what I felt was a loss, and I was worried about my older son – as if he was losing something instead of gaining!

Remember that children have been dealing with the arrival of siblings since the beginning of time! They will be just fine, and will gain a playmate and perhaps a lifelong friend. Be positive about the transition and your child will likely pick up on your emotions.

Practice babywearing.

A baby sling or carrier can be invaluable for several reasons. For one, you can have your hands free in a sling, meaning you can play with a toddler almost like baby’s not there, where s/he naps peacefully. You’ll always have a free arm to pour a glass of milk, get a snack, offer a hug, a boost onto the swings, or to hold a book to read a story. Kids don’t mind so much the arrival of a new sibling as they mind the demand on your time. If you can still do most of the stuff you did before, it’s all good. walking in Garnethill
Creative Commons License photo credit: PhylB

Be prepared for your own emotions.

Nature has set things up so that your priority is to your newborn infant, and that’s as it should be. A lot of times we are surprised by the ferocity of our own feelings of loyalty to our new babies. It’s not that we don’t love our toddlers, because we do.

But during the early weeks, don’t be surprised at your feelings. You might see your toddler differently and are a little afraid that you’ve fallen out of love with him!

Don’t worry! These feelings will subside, and you’ll soon be seeing your toddler through normal eyes. A little extra sleep helps too!

Some recommended resources:

On Mother’s Lap

This book helps young children to see the “expandable” quality of a mother’s love.

The New Baby

I loved reading this book to kids #2 and #3 before and after baby #4 came along. They loved it too.

Siblings Without Rivalry: How to Help Your Children Live Together So You Can Live Too

A wonderful book to teach you all about empathic listening and dealing with kid’s strong emotions.

Adventures in Tandem Nursing: Breastfeeding During Pregnancy and Beyond

A must read for a mom who is nursing while pregnant and wants to know “what to expect” afterwards.

Maya Wrap Baby Sling

This was my favorite all time sling. The unstitched style of the tail and no padding make it great for getting a truly hands free hold.

What was your experience with helping your older child make the adjustment to a new baby?

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2 Responses to “Preparing Your Older Child for the New Baby”

  1. Patrice London on September 15th, 2008 5:05 pm

    I did most of what you described when preparing my oldest dd for my second and the two of them for my 3rd dd.

    Two things that have kind of became a tradition for us are that the last child cuts the newest baby’s umbilical cord. So, my oldest cut her sisters’ and my second dd cut the next baby’s cord and prayerfully, this baby will cut someone elses cord in the future.

    I also encouraged each child to spend time with the baby in my womb, feeling her move and talking to her. I always referred to the baby as the youngest child’s baby. I’d tell them this was their baby too and that I needed their help to care for their baby.

    Another thing I did to prepare my girls and try to combat jealousy was to include them in the entire pregnancy and especially the birth. My midwives were always pleased to let them help. My girls know a lot more about pregnancy and birth than most adults and certainly more than a great number of children. In fact, my oldest dd wants to become a midwife. She’s become quite the birth fanatic.

    As a result of all this, my girls are very close and take good care of one another. It’s pretty amazing to see.

  2. Carrie on September 15th, 2008 9:47 pm

    “My girls know a lot more about pregnancy and birth than most adults and certainly more than a great number of children.”

    LOL! I feel the same Patrice. I love that because of midwife care and homebirth, my children know what birth is REALLY like. No screaming, hysterical woman who is out of control and frightened. That’s such a blessing for them and their future experience (in the case of my daughters) and their wives (in the case of the boys).

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