It is not just your little one who is adjusting when a new member joins the family! Everyone is adjusting and settling into a new rhythm. This is true no matter how much effort has gone into preparing your older child(ren) or yourself, as reality is always a little bit different.
Give everyone time. Allow your older child(ren) to grow into their new role as an older sibling. By six months, they should have had enough opportunities to bond with the new baby, be familiar and comfortable with the new family dynamics and routine, and have confidence in their ever-growing place in your heart. It also doesn't hurt that by this point in time everyone should be getting better rest and that baby is a lot more engaging -- smiling with recognition, laughing, babbling, and sitting-up.
Whatever your child’s initial response, whether ideal or otherwise, know it will change. There seems to be an ebb and flow between sibling bonding and sibling rivalry, often marked by the developmental stages they are each passing through and ultimately mastering. You are also learning how to tweak your parenting style for these different ages, stages and temperaments. At times, the dynamic between your children can feel like another child to nurture all together.
In the early days of mothering two, I found my greatest challenge was balancing the emotional needs of a toddler with the physical demands of a newborn. Despite months of effort and preparation, in the three weeks following the arrival of my second son, my first son would sob inconsolably every time he saw me. It weighed so heavily on my heart that he was so upset. It was not what I was expecting or hoping for. Whatever time I made for him was never enough to satisfy how much he felt he needed me in that transition to life with a sibling. Two years later, they are great friends; even when there are typical sibling rivalries. Their brotherhood has evolved and strengthened over time. Through that process, I learned to be patient, nurture their friendship and let it take its own form (rather than the one I imagined for them).
Below are tips for the transition that I and other parents have found helpful.
Tips for once the new baby has arrived:
- Give it time. Give everyone time to settle into their new roles in the family and new routines.
- Set times/activities to bond with the older child(ren). Set aside specific opportunities for continued bonding exclusively between you and your older child(ren) to give them confidence in your affections, even if your attention is temporarily refocused with a newborn.
- Invite and involve at their pace. Provide opportunities for your older child(ren) to grow into the role of being an older sibling at their own pace and comfort levels and offer a new activity that all children (no matter the age) can be a part of in some way. Try to make it feel natural that the new baby is along for the ride.
- Help nurture a new relationship. Expect the sibling bond to evolve over time and to need its own nurturing, which will constantly be changing based on the developmental stages your children are passing through.
- Regressive behaviors are typical. Don’t be surprised if your older child(ren) act-out a little or appear to regress on some behaviors. This is one way they explore new feelings and move through emotions. Try to purposefully overlook these behaviors and instead acknowledge and give attention when they are acting their own age.
- Minimize disruptions for older child(ren) close to the birth. This will help them to cope with only one major transition (a new sibling) and to allow you the ability to be consistent when helping them through a new stage or change. For example, if your children are close in age (~ 1-2.5 years), don't try to rush them through important transitions in preparation for the new baby. If you want to move them from a crib into a bed, or from diapers into underwear, do it well before baby has arrived without undue pressure or connection to the coming sibling. Otherwise, consider delaying a few months until after baby has officially joined the family.
Tips for before the baby arrives:
- Gift exchange. Have baby and your older child(ren) exchange gifts for one another (soon after the birth). Prepare for this in advance.
- Read books. Every once and awhile, read books with a practical focus on becoming a sibling and being an older kid rather than a focus on babies. This will help to normalize and prepare for the experience.
- Let them help you prepare. Prepare for baby’s arrival with your child, allowing them to help make choices for where to put things or arrange things for the baby.
- Update something to celebrate your older child. Consider updating something they might be excited about (like a new art or play corner) in honor of being older and a sibling. This helps them feel you are preparing for baby, but also caring for them.
- Be open, honest and reassuring. Tell them what will change and what won't. For example, "Mommy will be more tired and baby will sleep near mommy just like you did until you were big enough for a crib.” Show them a photo of when they were a baby, if you like. “We will still get plenty of snuggles and I'll read you a book before bedtime like I always have”. “I love you more everyday and that will never change”. “Your heart will feel a lot of things, but it will grow to have a special place for your brother/sister soon.”
- Talk about night-time disruptions. Depending on your older child(ren)’s sleeping habits and the location of rooms, there may be sleep disruptions for your other children with the night cry of the newborn. Again, be open, honest and reassuring. For example, before baby arrives, explain to your child(ren) how it is normal for newborns to cry (even at night), how the baby is not in trouble, pain or sad, but just trying to communicate that they are needing to be changed or hungry. Assure them that an adult is helping the baby and they can remember that and go back to sleep.
- Sensitize excited visitors. Word-up visitors so they can be mindful of both children and sensitive to the needs of your older child(ren) too. If gifts are being shared, it’s nice if they have a gift that can be shared with all the children or have one for each in some way.
- Take the pressure off and let their relationship feel natural. Don’t force the relationship issue too much and make it the center of every interaction. Make it a natural topic and a fact of life to make it more comfortable for them to digest within their own appetite.
Tips for parents:
- Have compassion for yourself. Try not to judge yourself too harshly for when you fall short of perfection. This is new for you too. Be kind, gentle and understanding with yourself as you would with your children in transition.
- Don’t compare. Whatever start your child(ren) has to welcoming a new member to the family, try to consider it as typical and not compare it with what you hoped for or have seen of others.
- Have a support system in place. If possible, try to have prearranged help close to the birth and after. If the support person or team already has an established in-person relationship and is familiar with routines, then that is all the better for your older child(ren) and you, as they’ll be poised to help.
- Take it one step at a time. Even in your most sleep deprived state, try to accept things with understanding and evenness with your older child(ren), as this will help everyone settle-in better. For example, try not to show how desperate you are for the siblings to be loving and accepting of one another immediately or in every circumstance. Accept where they are as natural and help them mature through it a little bit at a time.
- Enjoy having a newborn! As a veteran parent, you have experience, confidence and proof that you can have a thriving child, so enjoy these precious moments differently.
- Rejoice in your amazing human beings. With a sibling around, your older child(ren) will get a chance to show you a whole new delightful side of their character and, yes, at times a more trying side too.
- You may meet a Mama Bear. Be assured that seeing acts of kindness and love between your children is just the best. Don’t be surprised if seeing them in conflict makes you feel like you have to hold down something primal.
- Ask for and accept help. Juggling will be the new norm, and down-time even scarcer yet. Take time when you can and unabashedly accept help or ask for it wherever you can get it.
- Be proactive so your toddler doesn’t need to fill-in the blanks. Help your toddler find appropriate ways to interact with you and the new baby so that they don’t have to fill-in the blanks themselves. For example, when breastfeeding, you can invite your toddler to sit near you, to touch their sibling gently by rubbing their back or toes (if not too disruptive) and then offer something (to play with) that is only available for those times you need to feed the little one.
- Think ahead about routines. Have a think about whether current routines (e.g. meal times, bedtimes, etc) are sustainable for your family and how they would look or need to change with two.
- Cross your fingers. There is always the possibility your older child(ren) is a natural nurturer, even-tempered and flexible and will prove to be a great sibling from the start. Know this is not often the case, but let’s celebrate and be grateful when it is.
I invite you to share your tips with the rest of us!