The arrival of a new baby in the family brings a huge level of joy and also an inevitable level of disruption! If you already have a child at home, it’s not quite the same as the first time around ….
It’s not easy coping with a newborn at any time, but juggling this with a toddler (or two) or older children as well, is a challenge for parents. Although we may feel a little more confident about how to look after the newborn, we also have to continue our role caring for, supporting and encouraging our older children. The older siblings may well be excited about the new arrival, but they also sense the change in dynamics and mood at home. This often leads to changes in behaviour and emotional outbursts, just when parents have the least capacity to give anything more!
So, first things first. Just as parents need to adapt physically and emotionally to the new addition to the family, so do the older kids. It is entirely natural and normal for them to experience some level of jealousy. It is highly likely that they will seek extra attention and reassurance and approval, just to make sure they are still important.
And, typically, they do this by acting out or playing up. This could be in many different ways. Many toddlers display regressive behaviours – even demanding nappies and bottles! It doesn’t mean they don’t love their new sibling. And they’re absolutely not doing it to upset or frustrate you, and they don’t mean to make your life harder.
Here are a few ideas to help everyone prepare for, and adapt to, the new family set-up.
Whether children are toddlers or teens, they all feel more secure about their place within the family when they hear plenty of positive messages of appreciation. When things get tricky, or we get particularly tired or distracted, our brains are even more wired to see and worry about negatives. It becomes harder to pick out and polish the positive moments but that’s exactly what we need to do.
The key with Descriptive Praise is to keep it real – there’s no need to exaggerate, just describe the behaviour that you value and say something about what it means and why it matters. And keep it regular – don’t wait until the end of the day to say anything, start straight away and keep going! And keep it general –not just about being kind to the baby or staying quiet so the baby could sleep, spread the positive attention to every area of your older children’s lives!
If possible, make any significant changes at home, such as moving to a new bedroom or out of a cot and into a bed, well ahead of the arrival so children have plenty of time to get used to the new way, and don’t associate the change with the new baby taking their place or using their cot. Once the baby is home, it’s inevitable that there will be some changes to regular family life! At first sight, it may look like the kids are having fun with random bedtimes and irregular meals, but a lack of routine leaves them feeling unsettled. Consistency and knowing what to expect are strong safety signals for a child so keep things the same as much as possible.
Parents have very little time to themselves and even less when caring for a newborn! Despite all the extra work involved, spending 10 minutes alone every day with each of your older children – uninterrupted by the new arrival – makes a huge difference to their need to have your attention for themselves. It also gives you a chance to check in with how they’re feeling ….
There’s no denying that having a new sibling causes disruption to a child’s world and way of life. Their place in the family hierarchy shifts, and despite our best intentions, they get less time and attention from us. They will experience some jealousy and resentment towards their baby brother or sister but this doesn’t mean they don’t love them! Many parents report children asking when their baby sibling is going back to the hospital, and saying they wish the baby hadn’t arrived. Obviously this upsets us and we worry that the siblings will never get along but we need to recognise and accept these feelings, not get angry or tell them they mustn’t say such things.
We don’t agree with their feelings, but we can say “it is very different for you with a new baby sister, you’re used to having me all to yourself and maybe it’s hard for you to share me with her” or “I imagine you feel jealous of Max because he has so many new toys and perhaps you’re feeling left out”. Accepting how our child feels – in that moment – helps them feel understood and connected, which is exactly how they need to feel.
We’re so protective of our newborns that the thought of a toddler or teenager helping to soothe or change or feed them may make us feel extremely nervous!
However, as appropriate, do encourage your older children to be involved with their baby sister or brother. Whatever role or job it is - fetching a nappy or a toy, pushing a pram or singing a song, or tickling a tummy or playing peek-a-boo - it’s about team-building and working together in the new family set-up. You may also talk about how your older children were as babies – or look at photos together. This is not about being competitive, just about seeing if you can identify any similarities or differences, and helping the siblings bond.
Descriptively praise your older children for their help and support, and pick out any positive interactions between older children and the baby such as “I think she likes that song, you’ve made her smile” or “you’ve remembered all the things we need for his bathtime, that’s super helpful” or “it was so kind of you to let her play with your toy, I know it’s your favourite” or “I so appreciated you holding and rocking your brother as it gave me time to have a shower which I really needed!”.
People love to come and meet the new baby even though you may worry the house is a mess, there are no biscuits left and you would prefer to hide away! Visitors tilt the attention towards the newborn, and it is extra noise and disruption in the home. Chat with the children ahead of time about their involvement – could they have a special role to play in answering the door, making tea or unwrapping any presents? If not, agree how they can they entertain themselves while the visitors meet the baby. And remember to descriptively praise your older children in front of your visitors too!
Your older children are still the same age – and in the same developmental stage - as they were before the birth of their new brother or sister. Whether they’re 3 or 13, they suddenly look much bigger and stronger compared to their infant sibling, and we have a more urgent need for them to be responsible, careful, patient, organised and quiet. This doesn’t mean they’re more capable of being responsible, careful, patient, organised or quiet yet. But keep your eyes peeled for the first signs of any of these qualities and descriptively praise them.
And remember to hug or laugh with your older children whenever you get the chance!