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Can't You Take Her Back? The Journey into Siblinghood

Anticipating a new baby is just as thrilling and exciting the second time around. In many ways, there is a comfort level with ‘being down that road before.’ However, there are also new worries, the main one being how to balance having two children. There is no guarantee that you and your family will have a problem-free transition from one to two, but there are a few things you can do with your child to make the journey into ‘siblinghood’ a little smoother.  

Before the new baby arrives:

1. Talk about why babies cry. Whether it is watching TV shows about new babies or getting advice first from friends who have a new addition, talk with your child about what new babies do. They may cry a lot, and it could get loud and hurt their ears. Go as far as making a plan with your child regarding what they can do if the baby’s crying is bothering them. For example, have a designated quiet place set up with books, puzzles, etc. (maybe, the rarely-used dining room that your child knows they can retreat to if they feel overwhelmed by their sibling’s crying). Children may think a crying baby is unhappy. Explain that crying for young babies is normal and that’s how they tell us what they need.

2. Talk with your child about the likelihood of mommy and daddy being tired with a new baby. Discuss how babies wake to feed at night, and may wake the older sibling. Let your older child know the most helpful thing they can do is go back to sleep. Your child may also find some comfort in knowing that as the baby gets bigger, it will sleep longer and longer.

3. Develop a big brother/big sister box. Create an expectation that there will be times the child needs to ‘entertain themselves.’ With a new baby at home, parents are obviously busy. Having an older sibling that is already used to playing for short periods independently can ease the strain of trying to meet the needs of two children at once. Introducing this idea can start early in pregnancy, with parents encouraging the soon-to-be older sibling to do activities without the constant interaction of mom or dad. A big sister/big brother box can be put together with safe activities such as play dough, stories about a favorite character, coloring books – basically, a variety of safe, age-appropriate activities your child can complete on their own. Parents can set boundaries for where the box can and cannot go, (i.e. the box can only be used in the kitchen), reducing the likelihood of items getting lost around the house.

4. Pull out your baby gear several months before the arrival of your newest addition. Set up the bassinette in your room; get the crib ready; and bring out the baby swing, exersaucer and jumperoo. Set them up where they will be when the baby joins the family. This worked great with our two-year-old. She could touch all these items until her heart was content and we didn’t have to rush in saying, “Watch out for the baby! Be gentle!” or, “Don’t touch!” Role play with your child’s favorite doll, stuffed animal or blanket and how to push the swing gently (because we all know, no matter how many times you tell them not to push the swing, they’re going to do it), how to peek into the bassinette without climbing in it, etc. By the time our second child arrived a few months later, our oldest was less than interested in pulling at the bassinette, jerking the baby swing or playing with the exersaucer.

5. Ask your child what they think about becoming a big sister/brother and listen to what they have to say. If they do voice a concern, don’t minimize or ignore it. Make a mental note of it and watch to see if your child’s concern becomes reality when the baby arrives (i.e. your child says they worry the baby will cry all the time and you end up having a colicky baby).

6. Ask your older child to go through all the baby toys with you. It’s important not to forget that all those baby toys used to be your first child’s – and to assume they will happily give them up to the ‘newby’ may not be your reality. Several months before your new baby arrives, pull out all those rattles, blocks, and other toys for babies 12 months and under. If your child is like mine, seeing those toys will be like a reunion. Have your child help you pick what toys will go into a container in the baby’s room. If your child is adamant they don’t want to pass a certain toy along, respect this. Let them know if they change their mind and want to give it to the baby, that’s okay. If your child refuses to pass on any toys, set clear boundaries: “These are baby toys.” The older child can help pick what toys go to the new baby or you will pick. Put these toys in a container in the baby room in a place where your older child can easily access them. If they want to go ‘visit’ their old toys, let them. This gives parents an opportunity to talk with their child about how they used to play with baby toys, while reinforcing that they have grown bigger and now play with ‘big kid’ toys.

After the new baby arrives:

1. Limit the use of words like “don’t” or “can’t” in the same sentence as “because the baby is….” Comments such as: “Don’t run around the house because your brother’s sleeping!” or, “We can’t go to the park because it’s too cold outside for your sister,” can easily be reworded. Try not to make the baby the excuse why things can’t happen as they did before. When a child repeatedly hears their sibling is the reason they can’t do things, it’s not surprising that resentment develops. Keeping the comments general, “We don’t run inside the house” or, “It’s too cold to go to the park today,” are simple enough explanations – leave the baby out of it.

2. Plan one-on-one time with your older child. This can be easier said than done when a new baby arrives. Even if it’s 20 minutes playing dolls or blocks, let your oldest child have undivided, uninterrupted time with you or your spouse as often as you can. Try to let your child decide how the play will go. Let them tell you what you’ll build with the blocks or which doll you’ll play with. This can give a child the opportunity to feel as though they are in control of something during a time when they may feel they have little control.

3. Plan a celebration of your older child becoming a big brother/big sister. This can be a get together with other children you know who are big brothers/sisters or a small gesture of how exciting this new event is for your family. We took our oldest to a store to pick out a ‘big sister’ bear. We used this as an opportunity to reinforce what a great big sister she had been and how much her little sister adored and appreciated her kindness with things like bringing a new diaper when she needed it; being the first one in the baby’s room when she woke up; and passing on toys for the baby to use. This positive attention also reinforces that our older child plays an important and valued role within our family.

4. Even on a difficult day, find small things to praise your older child about. We’ve all had days when it seems everyone got up on the wrong side of the bed. Trying to find the most minute thing to praise can go a long way: Karly sitting in her chair patiently; Zach remembering to take his muddy boots off, even if it was in the kitchen. Positives can be found, and a little praise can go a long way in turning a not-so-great day around, even just a little.

5. Check in with your child. Find out what your older child thinks about being a big brother/sister. If they have something negative to say about their younger sibling, try not to judge or chastise your child. Find out what is upsetting them; chances are it’s not their sibling per se, but a particular event or situation that could be alleviated with some creativity.There isn’t one quick-fix strategy that will address all the challenges parents face on a daily – sometimes hourly – basis. Working with families, I’ve found what can help many times is finding that ‘jumping off point’ so to speak. This can be ideas or suggestions that parents can take (take to meld and adjust) and apply their perspective and make it their own to fit their values, their family, their child. Parenting is very much a process of finding what fits, and, as families grow, it’s that process that makes us, as parents, such valuable resources to our children, their happiness and overall well-being.

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