Several months before the birth of their first son, Jeb and Kristi Walters began preparing their 4-year-old daughter for the new baby.
Kristi Walters’ 4-year-old, Mattie, was thrilled. She was finally going to be a big sister. She had been begging her parents for a new baby and at last it was coming true. But as her mother’s pregnancy progressed, she actually began having mixed feelings.
“One morning before the baby was born, Mattie said she was looking forward to holding Jake (the name we picked out for the baby) until he turned blue,” said Mattie’s dad, Jeb Walters, a bank executive in Nashville. “That told me that we needed to hone in on what she was experiencing a bit.”
Parents are sometimes surprised by how their older children react to the anticipation and birth of a new baby. Psychologists and psychiatrists who study child development and sibling relationships have found that some of the things that worry parents, like moodiness or withdrawal, may actually be signs that a child is adapting normally to the news. Such normal but confusing behavior also provides new clues to how parents can help children who become depressed or jealous when there is a new baby in the family.
“Moodiness and withdrawal are absolutely normal responses for a firstborn to have after the arrival of a new sibling,” says Heather Kreth, assistant professor of clinical psychiatry at Vanderbilt Behavioral Health.
“Remember, your firstborn is used to being the center of attention, and no matter how well you prep him for the impending arrival of a sibling, there are going to be mixed emotions. Children who already have siblings tend to be affected less by the introduction of another child,” she adds.
So if your recently toilet-trained toddler starts wetting his pants again or sticking that thumb back in his mouth after the baby arrives?
“Try to remain patient and validate your child’s feelings — good or bad,” says Kreth. “Gentle reassurance about how hard it can be to suddenly be sharing Mommy and Daddy with another person can go a long way.”
The age difference between the two children can affect how much the older child’s behavior will change. Most siblings are separated by two to four years. This means that toddlers and preschoolers are gaining new siblings at a time in which they are still struggling to feel comfortable when separated from their parents. And their regression may be more dramatic.
After a few weeks, expect your preschooler to ask when you’re going to send the baby back, says author Violet Findlay in the book, What Will Baby Be Like? Preparing a Sibling for the Arrival of a New Baby (Create Space Publishing Platform, 2013). “They don’t always realize that a new baby means a lasting change,” writes Findlay.
Worry About Being Usurped
Much of the concern about having a new sibling has little to do with the baby. Children are angry and afraid of having to give up or share their parents’ love and attention. Simply talking about how much fun they will have, or how they will have new status as an older sibling, does not address those issues.
The Walters recall how Mattie never let her mother out of her sight a few weeks after her brother was born. “She actually said, in the best way she could, that she felt left out,” says Kristi Walters, a paralegal.
To help Mattie feel special, Kristi would occasionally say things to newborn Jake within earshot of her daughter. “If he was settled, I would say, ‘Now I’m going to spend some special time with Mattie, so it’s your turn to wait,’” she says.
“While there are many fun things parents can point out about being a big brother or sister, the reality is that there is some loss involved for your firstborn when a new baby enters the picture,” she says. “Talk to your firstborn in a developmentally appropriate way about the excitement of being a big sibling, but also recognize and allow your child to have some sad feelings, too,” she says.
Scrapbooks, Baby Books & Time Together
There are several things that parents can do to help children prepare for and adjust to having a new baby in the family:
- During the pregnancy, put together a scrapbook about the older child. The scrapbook should have pictures of family members, the child’s friends and souvenirs of special family activities, like vacations and holiday celebrations. It will let the older sibling know that he’s still special and won’t be replaced by the new baby. It also gives him something to hold onto, both literally and figuratively, while his mother’s in the hospital.
- Go over the older child’s baby book. Look at the pictures and talk about what the child was like when he was a newborn. Retell the stories about being born and coming home from the hospital. Talk about how much he cried and when he slept and ate.
- Fathers should look into taking some time off from work after the birth so siblings can get a full dose of a parent if possible. Young children may feel particularly abandoned if their mother is focusing her energies on the new baby and their father isn’t around during the day. They will show this by placing more demands on their mother, who is probably exhausted and already feeling overwhelmed.
- After the birth, encourage visitors who bring presents for the new baby to bring a small gift for the older child as well. This can help prevent unnecessary jealousy by giving the older child a tangible reminder that he is special, too.
Be sensitive to making a big deal out of all the presents the new baby is receiving, since still young older children may interpret that as a sign that they are no longer important family members.
“Be aware that the new baby is going to get lots of attention and that your firstborn is, naturally, going to feel left out,” Kreth says. “Make efforts to acknowledge the new dynamic in the family and spend time with your firstborn without the new baby, if possible. Have special outings together to the park or favorite play spot or ‘Mommy and Daddy dinner dates’ without the baby to help your firstborn continue to feel that special connection to you. Some people have the new baby ‘give’ his older sibling a present when he arrives.”