Just 28 days before my daughter turned 5-years-old, her little brother was born. My husband and I already knew our daughter was resistant to change and bringing home a new baby was going to require a huge adjustment for all of us. She had stayed overnight with our friends and would not come to the phone when we called to share the happy news. She came only reluctantly to the hospital, clinging to my friend’s back and peering around her only far enough so that I could see one suspicious eye and a flash of red curls. She was both curious and unsure about what was happening. Sure, we had read some wonderful children’s books about babies during the pregnancy, but just as for parents, books can only go so far in preparing children for a new baby. Here are some tips to help you peacefully introduce your wonderful, but unquestionably disruptive, new baby to your older child.
1. Talk to your child about what’s ahead
During the last few weeks of your pregnancy, tell your child stories about what will happen when the baby comes home, connecting future events and activities with the objects around him. For example, show your child where the baby will sleep, be bathed, fed, and changed. Children feel safer when they can predict what will happen. Books for big brothers and sisters can help, and there are literally hundreds available for children of all ages.
2. Be ready with hugs and reassurance
Reassure your older child that you are still there for her and that you are ready for lots of big hugs and to hold her hand. If possible, have someone else get the baby in the car as you leave the hospital so that you can pay closer attention to your older child. After you get home, do your best each day to spend some one-on-one time with her.
3. Share the baby gifts
Consider giving your child a small gift from the baby and/or letting your child open baby gifts from visitors. Keep in mind gifts might be helpful but they are not necessary. Your love and attention will mean much more to your child than toys.
4. Stick to familiar routines
Just like my daughter, many children are challenged by change but reassured and calmed by predictable routines. Get some help with the baby, especially in those early weeks, so that you can maintain some of your old routines such as at bedtime and meals as much as possible.
5. Let your older child help with baby care
Children respond well to age-appropriate chores and responsibility. Even a very young child can bring a clean diaper to dad when needed. Help your child feel part of the growing family by contributing in some small way to the care of the newest addition.
6. Teach your child about baby behavior
If your child is old enough, teach her about the cues that your newborn uses to communicate (See: http://www.secretsofbabybehavior.com/2009/06/baby-behavior-basics-part-3-learning.html). Be sure to celebrate a little every time your older child uses cues to discover what the baby needs. Children, like adults, love to feel smart. By helping your older child see and respond appropriately to cues (like stopping play when baby looks away), you’ll cut down on crying and help your older child feel more in control. As a happy side effect, your newborn will get better at giving cues!
7. Set boundaries on your child’s actions but not emotions
Recognize that your child may have strong feelings about sharing your attention. Don’t let anyone tell your child how to feel (e.g., don't say “Never be angry at the baby!”), but make sure your child knows that acting out on anger or other strong emotions is not ok. Help your child come up with solutions to the inevitable problems. For example, if your child is upset about the baby’s crying, help her find positive ways to feel better such as putting her hands over her ears or leaving the room. Children learn how to deal with emotions from their parents, so be sure to stay calm and take the time to talk to your child about her feelings before they get out of control.
When Baby Makes 5 or 6 or 7….
In larger families, siblings often play a larger role in helping with younger children. Helping everyone, especially school-aged and older siblings, understand baby behavior may go a long way in keeping the peace. It is important though, that your older children never feel that they have to act like they are the parents. That's always your job.
My daughter did get over her first concerns about her brother and while my children had the typical ups and downs of siblings, they managed to get along (at least by the time they were in their 20s). Many parents worry about how a new baby will affect their relationships with their older children. By sharing your loving attention and giving your older children baby care tasks they can handle, you can make this challenging transition much easier.
Next Time: For Babies, A Little Playtime is a Great Workout
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