Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey
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Welcoming a new baby into the home is one of the most exciting events in a family's life, or is it? The feelings of expectant parents about the new addition to the family are quite different than those of their children.
Some children anticipate the arrival of the new baby with excitement and adjust well to their new brother or sister. For others, the adjustment to a new sibling can be a traumatic event. As a parent, what can be done to help young children share in the excitement of their new brother or sister?
According to T. Berry Brazelton, MD. in his book Touchpoints— The Essential Reference, "Learning to live with others in a family is one of the most important learning opportunities that anyone can have." Therefore, parents can use the situation of a new sibling to teach their children valuable lessons that can affect their current family, as well as the child's future family. Teaching them to enjoy, accept, and be responsible for others is possibly one of the most valuable lessons children can learn.
Simple preparation, including teaching and giving support, can make the difference between positive memories and traumatic nightmares. Charles, a father of four boys, states, "We allowed the boys to participate in the preparation and care of their new brothers. Now, when they look at pictures or we talk about the birth of the boys, they have many fun stories to share. We hope we have taught them through these experiences to genuinely care for others."
It is important to remember that each child is unique; therefore, one must always consider the child's age, temperament, and other developmental factors when determining the best approach.
Begin by preparing children for the changes that will occur when the new sibling arrives. Good communication is key. The child should hear the good news directly from his parents. Ana Maria, a 27-year-old mother, began preparing her four-year-old daughter Alicia by commenting on the neighborhood children who had positive relationships with younger brothers and sisters. "Alicia was used to being an only child, so she was suspicious about what it would be like to have a new brother or sister. But when we began talking about her friend Maria next door who had brothers and sisters, Alicia changed her mind and decided that a new baby might actually be fun to have around."
However, remember that the power of suggestion should be used carefully, as it can quickly become reality in the minds of children: do not mention to the child that she might not like her new brother or sister. Instead, discuss the fun opportunities she will have as a big brother or big sister.
Another important part of a child's adjustment is to be secure in her own relationships before the baby arrives. These relationships may be with other family members or caregivers. Leaving your child alone with trusted family members or babysitters will help him see that others can care for him in addition to mom and dad.
Although psychological and emotional preparation are vital, it is also important to allow children to participate in activities that concretely remind them of the baby's imminent arrival. Here are some suggestions:
Allow the child to assist in preparing the baby's room. Children tend to be very territorial, and often view the baby as an invasion of their space. Allowing them to participate in creating the space for their new brother or sister gives them a sense of control and pride.
Go on a pre-birth hospital tour. Ask the hospital staff if they allow children to take tours so they can visualize where this big event will take place. Hospitals can be very intimidating to a child. It is best if they are introduced to this unique facility prior to the baby's arrival.
Read books that relate to new siblings. Children's books can be a wonderful tool to stimulate communication about the prenatal development, birth, and care of a new baby. The following are books that deal specifically with adjusting to new siblings:
Include your child in decision-making. Including your child in the decision-making and preparation process will help to communicate his important role in the family. Ask your child to make suggestions for naming the new baby. As you are shopping for baby supplies and furnishings for the nursery, allow your child to make some of the selections.
Soon your child will be assuming a new role as a big brother or sister— so it is a good idea to use language to remind him of this new status. When discussing the new baby, refer to it as "your new brother" or "your new sister", instead of "my new baby".
You can also give your child responsibilities that he views as a privilege, such as caring for and protecting the baby. Assuming this role early on will help to make the transition go smoothly. "When our new baby Alex was born, our six-year-old son Paul shared in the attention by getting on the phone and announcing the birth to his grandparents," remembers his mother, Kay. "He was happy to answer their questions— it made him feel a part of the whole process."
Being a new big brother or big sister can also bring with it many new adventures. Select a hospital that includes siblings in at least one of the birthing classes. Allow the children to play with some of the gadgets the hospital sends home, such as plastic water pitchers, cups, etc. Encouraging your child to make cards, pictures, and presents for his new brother or sister, and allowing him to open some of the presents people bring for the new baby can also be viewed as an added treat.
Young children are naturally hungry for information, and very eager to learn. Depending on your child's age and emotional development, you may want to use this opportunity to introduce her to some basic facts about conception, prenatal development, birth, and delivery. Books (such as Happy Birth Day by Robie H. Harris) can be especially useful.
This is also an ideal opportunity to teach children how to care for an infant. Give your child (boy or girl) a new doll and use it to demonstrate the proper way to touch, hold, and care for the new baby. Be sure to use appropriate terms when talking to your child. Explain the many needs babies have so that your child is prepared for the time commitment they require.
Important character qualities can also be developed at this time. Praise your child when she helps with the baby so she can learn the satisfaction in giving to others. Allowing her to "baby-sit" for her brother or sister while you are on the phone, paying bills, cleaning, etc. will give your child a sense of responsibility. However, it is important that your children are always in full view.
When a child is accustomed to the parent's full attention, it is difficult for him to accept anything that interferes. Be prepared to give him extra support during this time. Assure your child that there is enough love for all the children. Answer your child's questions honestly and listen to him intently. Let him know that you understand that he may feel he is being neglected. ("It is hard getting used to a new baby, isn't it?"), but assure him that your love for him has not changed.
Sometimes it is necessary to make special arrangements. Plan special one-on-one outings with your child while someone else takes care of the baby. Allow time each day to continue at least some of the routines you participated in with your child before the baby arrived, such as reading books before bed, holding her on your lap during a favorite TV show, etc.
With some preparation and guidance, the birth of a new baby can be an exciting experience for the entire family.