The birth of a new baby can elicit various feelings for everyone in the family, including any newly minted older siblings. Every individual child will react uniquely. While some may find their new role as “Big brother” or “Big Sister” brings pride, status, and new privileges and freedoms, others may wonder – “Why’d you go and get another one?”
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About 6-8 weeks after the birth of my daughter, whom my two ½-year-old son initially reacted to with love and adoration, he posed the question: “When do we take her back?”. His question helped me recognize the magnitude of this change for him and the lack of understanding he had about the growth of our family and the permanence of his baby sister.
The newness and excitement of a baby can be entertaining for siblings—the extra gifts are fun, the attention from others is thrilling. But after the baby is home and the regular routines have shifted for a while, siblings, especially between the ages of 2-6, may start to wonder how long this will last. They may begin to question this change in their household and how it affects the availability and focus of mom and dad.
As a result, you may observe some regression to their behavior, such as wanting to be picked up more often, acting like a baby, or struggling with toilet training when they previously had it mastered. They may react with anger or obstinance – refusing to listen, help or spend time with the new baby. Rest assured that these reactions are normal and typically short-lived, especially when parents recognize these behaviors as their way of communicating their confusion and attempting to understand the change. Stay calm and help your child manage these behaviors without punishment. Assure that all is okay, and providing extra attention and flexibility can help with this major adjustment in their lives.
Here are some tips for helping older siblings transition before, during, and after the baby’s arrival.
Before Baby Arrives:
Help them form a tangible connection to the baby
- Talk about the baby coming and the changes that are occurring for your body.
- Let the older sibling “to be” feel the baby move, instructing them to be gentle and start teaching them that is how we need to treat babies.
- Allow them to give the baby a nickname – “Baby G,” “Peanut,” “Sweet Pea.”
- Let them see ultrasound pictures and videos to add to their building connection to the baby coming.
- Read to them and the baby together.
Find real-life examples to help them understand
- Watch videos and read books of their favorite characters about becoming a big brother or sister.
- Explain to them and show them their friends, family members, neighbors that are also big brothers or sisters; maybe even you are one. “You know Aunt Cathy? She’s my little sister.”
Show the positives of being an older sibling
- When something is bought or received for the baby, talk about how they are “baby” things and they are different from their “big kid things”- this will start to introduce the new role that is coming for them.
As the pregnancy continues and the baby’s arrival gets closer, ask them if they have any questions and offer answers on their level that they can understand – short, simple answers are best.
When The Baby Arrives & Is At The Hospital:
- Have a special gift that the older sibling has helped pick out to give to their new baby brother or sister and make it a big deal about how wonderful it is and how much the baby will love it.
- Have a special gift for the older sibling from the new baby as a way to say, “Your baby brother or sister loves you and is excited to be in the family.”
Emphasize their role as “big” sibling
- Repeat the idea of baby things vs. big boy or big girl things and activities – “You get to have that snack because you’re a big brother” or “You get to go to the park to play with grandma because you’re a big girl – babies can’t do those things yet.”
Provide reassurance and physical/emotional connection
- Reassure them when the baby cries or when mom can’t hold or pick them up right now. Allow them to sit next to you, explain babies cry to let us know they need something, they sleep a lot so they can grow to get big “like you,” and that we will all be home together soon.
- Recognize and validate their spectrum of emotions; Ask how they are feeling or if they have any questions, and be sure to listen to their response.
- Offer lots of Hugs, High fives, or create a special handshake with them so that they get the physical connection with you in some way.
When The Baby Is Home:
Praise/prioritize the older child’s role as “helper”
- Laugh together about the things the baby does, talk about what they want to teach the baby to do, let them “show” the baby the things they can do: feed themselves, kick a ball, color…
- Let the older sibling “help” – they may be able to be the “diaper boss” and get the new diaper whenever you change the baby, they may hold the baby’s hand when feeding the baby, they may be the “blanket or binki captain” in charge of making sure we have it when we need it.
Encourage imaginative play to help process
- Consider giving the older sibling their own baby doll or stuffed animal to take care of.
- When feeding the baby, have the older sibling “feed” their baby doll or stuffed animal and talk about their favorite foods – what do you think baby brother’s favorite food will be?
- Take a family picture or draw one together and put it in a frame or somewhere that everyone can see it.
Utilize the available time to provide quality, individual connection
- When baby’s sleeping – have older sibling sit on your lap or next to you, give them quiet activities to do with you for a portion of the time, all nap together.
- Continue to find their special time with you that emphasizes quality over quantity-make sure each day you look them in the eyes and tell them you love them.
Provide stability, space, and calm responses
- Normalize the changes – reassure them things are ok-show them & tell them about things that haven’t changed in their world.
- Address aggressive behavior with a calm response – explain that can hurt the baby remind them to be gentle. Give them a different outlet to express their anger, frustration, excitement, etc. – squeeze/pinch their pillow, pull/stretch a sock, help them use their words, or draw.
- Create a “baby-free space in the home where nothing is off-limits for the older sibling. A “yes space,” as termed by Janet Lansbury, renowned parenting expert and author of Elevating Child Care. This space may be their room, a section of the family room, a special box, or tub of just their things.
We’re all recuperating, adjusting, creating the new norm when a baby arrives. Our “big kids” don’t have the knowledge or coping skills to manage this change smoothly. Approach them with understanding, patience, and love, and before you know it, the growing “pains” of the family will lead to a strong family unit where everyone has a place, a role, and stays long term.
At Birthright St. Charles, we are here to support maternal mental health and the well-being of women and their families. Through support groups, professional counseling at no cost, and connection to resources, we can help you make a plan that fits best for your life and support you in the transition of adding a little one to your family.