By Michelle DeRamus, Ph.D.
There’s a lot to think about when preparing for a new baby. For families who already have at least one child, that prep work should include making sure older siblings are ready for the new baby. A little preparation before the baby arrives and following a few guidelines after the baby is born can minimize new sibling jealousy and maximize helpful behavior from older children.
When considering how to prepare siblings for a new baby, it is important to consider the developmental stage of the siblings. Toddlers and preschoolers are very sensitive to changes in their routines, so it can be helpful to make any big adjustments to daily routines (e.g., moving to a new bed/room, starting preschool, potty training) either several weeks before baby arrives or after baby is a few months old. Adjusting to baby will be a big change, and keeping all other routines as familiar as possible will help toddlers and preschoolers feel safe and comforted.
Older children may be less sensitive to minor changes in routine because they can better understand how and why the family is changing. However, older children are often faced with greater responsibilities and an expectation to act more “grown up” when a new baby is born. Be sure to keep expectations reasonable and age-appropriate. There are many websites available that provide suggestions for chores and responsibilities that are appropriate for different age groups. And, just like with younger children, adding responsibilities for older children gradually in the weeks before and after baby arrives can help the transition go smoothly.
Newborns require a great deal of time and attention. It can be a big adjustment for older siblings to have less of their parents’ attention. Many siblings go through a phase of new sibling jealousy. To minimize siblings’ jealousy, help big brother or sister get ready for baby by allowing them to be a part of some of the decisions and preparations before baby arrives, such as choosing a special toy for baby, decorations for baby’s room, or where to put some of baby’s belongings.
Siblings might want to “hand down” a special stuffed animal or toy from their own collection to share with baby, although it is OK for siblings to keep some toys as their own and away from baby’s reach. When baby arrives, be sure to praise siblings for all the helpful things they do, from little things like handing you a diaper to bigger responsibilities such as cleaning up their toys. Giving lots of praise is a good way to help siblings feel like they are still getting attention from you even though your hands may be occupied with caring for baby. Finally, even though babies need lots of time from you, it is important to carve out some one-on-one time with siblings on a regular basis. Even 10 minutes a day of special play time where you can give your undivided attention to siblings will go a long way for helping them feel valued and loved, which will cut down on new sibling jealousy of baby.
Additionally, it is important to acknowledge and validate the older child’s feelings. I would advise parents to problem solve with the child by saying things like, “I understand that you feel sad that you will have to share Mommy’s attention now; what can we do to help you feel that you are still just as important?” or “I understand that it upsets you when the baby cries and it’s really loud; how can we help you to feel better about this?” On the other hand, I would tell parents not to tell a child “Don’t feel that way.” It is OK for the older child to feel mad, sad or confused, which are all perfectly normal emotions, as long as those feelings are expressed in an appropriate way. For example, it would not be OK for the older child to act aggressively by hitting the baby, breaking baby’s toys, or hitting mommy’s stomach. If those things are occurring, discipline may need to be used, just as it would be used in similar situations when children are not following the rules.
Positive redirection can also be useful; for example, if a child was to say, “I hate the baby and wish he was never born,” parents could interpret why the child is feeling that way in this particular moment and respond by saying, “I understand that you really don’t like how the baby sleeps all the time, and we have to be quiet. What if we went to play outside later, just you and I, and let Daddy watch the baby? Then, you can yell and scream and get all of your energy out.” You are replacing strong words like “hate” and the idea that the baby is the problem and replacing it with the idea that the older child simply does not like a particular behavior and the effect that the particular behavior has in his/her own life. By offering a solution, such as a louder playtime outdoors later that day, the child will hopefully see that his/her life can continue even with baby in the house, and new sibling jealousy will gradually decrease.
After the birth of the baby, life will never be the same for your older kids, so advance preparation and a few steps taken by the parent can go a long way in easing a family through this major time of transition. Positive redirection and scheduling reserved one on one time for the older child to spend with a parent can go a long way in helping older siblings love and accept the baby. It takes kids different amounts of time to adjust; some love baby from Day 1, and other kids continue to be jealous of their younger sibling throughout their life.
If your child continues to express extreme negative emotions including aggression, extreme sadness, or excessive worrying about the family or even the baby itself, and you as the parent begin to feel that this issue is affecting the child’s quality of life or the overall family dynamic, you may seek assistance from a counselor or therapist.
Dr. DeRamus is a child psychologist with Preferred Medical Group and works at the Phenix City Children’s clinic. She specializes in Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and provides diagnostic testing and therapy services for developmental delays, learning problems, ADHD, and behavior problems. She also helps children from infancy through 18 work through anger, anxiety, depression, family problems and peer relationship issues.