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Becoming an Older Sibling


“Tommy loves his little sister so much he wants to hug her over and over, only sometimes he hugs her so tight she cries!”

“Susie will not leave her new sister’s side, not even for a moment. She refuses to go outside and play, run errands with Dad or go to preschool!”

A 3-year-old loudly announces, after several noisy nights of newborn crying, the time has come to “take the baby back to the hospital!”

These are a few samples of the conversations we have had with new parents. A first-born’s family life dramatically changes with the birth of a sibling. The child’s family “position” changes. These children are bumped out of the “only child” status and “baby” position and now are expected to share their parents with an adorable, although noisy, newborn who demands a lot of the family’s focus.

A child’s temperament and developmental level certainly affects this adjustment process. A 2-year-old who still needs a lot of parental focus and emotional closeness will likely struggle more than an older child who is more independent and has gained some maturity.

When young children become stressed, they often regress, reverting to an earlier stage of development. The older sibling becomes more “baby like.” They may want to try drinking from the baby’s bottle or need to get back the pacifier you managed to wean them off of months ago. Even less thrilling for parents is the seemingly sudden lost progress with the potty training of the older child! Expect some regressions and, yes, it’s OK to indulge your child’s wants, but don’t forget to point out along the way the benefits of being an older sibling.

This is not an unreasonable struggle for an older sibling, but it can be a struggle. Anticipating some of the changes and challenges can help your older child find a new positive family identity.

Get started early. You have several months to help the adjustment process along. Don’t forget to tell your child early on that a new baby is on the way. It’s best if he or she hears it directly from you.

If there will be changes (bedrooms, beds, etc.), the sooner you get it done, the better. Try to create a little distance between these types of changes and the arrival of the new baby.

When talking about what family life will be like after the baby is born, it’s OK to be realistic about what to expect, including the crying, diapers, night feedings, and how tired you will feel! There will be some wonderful moments as well, but the sentimental idea of a newborn and the reality are often different.

Sign up for a sibling preparation class. Chris Vona at St. Joseph’s Hospital Health Center has been teaching a sibling preparation class for 25 years. A parent attends with the older sibling. There are dolls, a movie on big sisters and brothers, a special coloring book and a tour of the baby unit. The class concludes with making a “gift” for the expected baby. Vona’s class meets the first Saturday of every month.

There are a number of terrific books you can read to your child about baby siblings, birth and pregnancy. As you read aloud, your child’s feelings, reactions and thoughts may “fall out,” allowing a bit of conversation. This is also a good time to prompt her by asking, “Do you ever feel like that?” or “What do you think about what Little Critter is saying in the book?” The emotions that emerge may not always be positive. Try to empathize, label and reflect back her expressed feelings and avoid judging. It takes time to adjust.

Before the baby arrives is a good time to get out the older child’s baby book and videos. Take some time to reminisce. If you have a friend with a new baby, plan a visit so your child can actually “eyeball” an infant. It’s an opportunity to illustrate how much more independent your older child has become. Reinforce mature behavior whenever you get a chance.

Once the new baby arrives, set aside even 10 to 15 minutes of “special time” to be alone together. This can include running some errands with just Mom or Dad. If you are lucky enough to have extended family members living nearby, grandparents can make a point of taking the older child out for special trips and outings.

Preschoolers often have “possession obsession.” It is fine for an older child to have some “private space” and toys or other items he is not expected to share with his new sibling.
Your older child will adjust to the arrival of a new sibling. Preparation, sensitivity to his or her feelings and some extra TLC can help.

As Maya Angelou has said, “I don’t believe an accident of birth makes people sisters or brothers. It makes them siblings, gives them mutuality of parentage. Sisterhood and brotherhood is a condition people have to work at.”       

Cary and Tonja Rector are married and live with their children in Manlius. Cary is a licensed mental health counselor and Tonja is a licensed marriage and family therapist. Consult your own health care provider before making decisions affecting your family’s well-being. To comment on this article, write to editorial@familytimes.biz.

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