The new baby: Prepare children for siblings

About the Author - Karen Stephens is director of Illinois State University Child Care Centre and instructor in child development for the ISU Family and Consumer Sciences Department.

Each night two-year-old Nina Elizabeth kisses her mama goodnight. Then she kisses her brother, still in mother's very prominent mid-section. Little brother will “come out to play” just in time for trick-or-treating. The family is ready, now it’s time to wait to be the “big sis”; big changes are coming.

A first born has a very different family experience than subsequent siblings. With each new child, the family re-invents itself. It has no choice, birth adds a factor to the family equation that can’t be ignored. Another personality equipped with a multitude of idiosyncrasies demands family members to adjust and bend and blend, or else.

If you walk a mile in an older sibling’s shoes you will understand why new family members, especially cute and cuddly ones, aren’t always greeted with open arms. Sharing parents’ love and time takes some getting used to. An adjustment period occurs as children jockey into family positions. Parents get an unexpected rude awakening when adjustment includes sibling hostility, especially if they never had siblings when growing up.

When baby makes four, firstborns feel displaced, even abandoned. They think the new child will steal their parents’ undivided love and attention. They worry their turf will be invaded, their toys confiscated, their private room intruded. Some children even wonder why they alone weren’t enough for their parents. That’s a heavy load of emotional baggage to carry, especially on pre-school shoulders.

Okay, so it’s hard for children to adjust to a sibling but does that mean families should only have one child? Professionally, I value siblings as they foster character and social skills in brothers and sisters but facing the reality of sibling can be tough, especially for first born children. However brief, they alone had the unique experience of having parents all to themselves. It’s a luxury some children don’t want to give up graciously.

Sensitive, responsive parents can smooth the path to strong sibling bonds. You can’t remove all the bumps, nor should you. Challenge nurtures growth. But parents can minimise predictable and I think logical, sibling envy and through the process, a valuable lesson in love can be learned by all.

Here are suggestions for preparing number one love bug for the arrival of number two:

  • Tell your child about your pregnancy and the new baby yourself. Don’t let it be a surprise from another person. Sibling additions are a family affair, children shouldn’t feel left out.

  • Time is hard for children to comprehend, days can seem excruciatingly like months. Wait until you’re three to five months along before popping the news. Talk about birth date in terms of holidays, special events, or seasons. For instance, rather than saying the birth will be late October, tell a young child, “when you wear a sweater outside and the leaves are red and yellow, the baby will be born.” That response is more understandable to a child’s concept of time and sequence of events.

  • Clue in childcare staff or teachers on the expected arrival date so they can objectively support your child.  They can also watch for behaviour that indicates how well a child understands or is concerned about the impending birth.

  • Answer your child’s questions simply, correctly, and honestly, according to his or her ability to understand. 

“How did the baby get inside you?”
“A part of mum and dad made the baby begin to grow inside Mum’s stomach”
“Can the baby eat, hear and talk in there?”
“The baby can eat and hear but cannot talk, perhaps you will teach him/her?”
“Why is the baby waiting so long to come out?”
“The baby must grow bigger before he is stronger to live outside my body and with his new family.”

  • Be prepared to answer the same questions more than once, it takes time for complex concepts to be grasped.

  • Some children think babies arrive ready to play all day. Prepare children for a new-born’s true abilities. Visit friends who have babies or baby-sit them, so children understand how much new-borns sleep and cry. If you breast-feed, let children see how that takes place, too.

  • During baby visits, coach siblings in baby-speak. Help them read infants’ non-verbal communication or cues to hasten bonds. Point out how infants use different sounds, facial expressions, and varying cries to get what they need. Explain when babies turn away or stiffen their bodies, they want us to stop talking or playing with them.

  • Reassure children you love them forever and that they will never be replaced. Spend lots of time together. Cuddle up and look at their baby pictures to show how you fed, bathed, and cared for them. Tell them you will do the same for the new baby, and they can help, too.

  • Let your child see ultra-sounds or listen to the baby’s heartbeat. Baby kicks and moves should be a frequently shared family experience.

  • While waiting for baby, and during delivery, a predictable routine will provide stability and security. Keep stress and major life changes to a minimum. If possible, birth of the new baby should not be paired with toilet training, change in schools or other transitions.

  • Ask your child to help prepare the home for the sibling. Solicit their suggestions for infant room decoration. Let them pick out a baby blanket or toys. Tell them how much the baby will appreciate them for making their new home pretty and welcoming.

  • The separation from parents during delivery can be scary and confusing, especially if the trip to the hospital involves emergency. Beforehand, explain that mum will be gone for a few days so a doctor can help bring the baby into the world, safe and healthy. Have children cared for by someone with whom they feel comfortable and secure. 

  • Let siblings help pack mum’s hospital bag. Ask them to include one of their photos so mum can see their smile every day. Let them pack a drawing for the hospital room.

  • To ease separation during delivery, leave a note at home written just to the children. 

  • Record Mum reading a familiar good night book or singing a favourite song or poem.

 “Challenge nurtures growth.”

  • Let children know they can visit you at the hospital after the baby is born. Remember, their attachment is to Mum not yet to the new baby. Mum should have free arms and time to give siblings undivided attention. Talk about them, not just the new baby.

  • Prepare for first meetings. Many parents record first encounters of the sibling kind! Some parents give children a hello gift from the new-born to smooth over wariness. Such rituals form traditions and pave the way to attachment.

  • Teach your child to safely hold the baby, including head support. Take a photo of the children together.