We Have a New Baby...Now What?
Most pregnancies allow for many months of getting used to the idea of a family addition, not just for the parents, but for the sibling. Optimally, parents have shared the news of an impending arrival in a way that gives a young child information in language that he or she understands and has allowed for the young child some time and space to get used to the idea.
Even as adults, we fret about how this new baby will change our family and our lives. A recent conversation with a mother expecting her second child highlighted the mother's anxiety about the impact a new baby would have on her first born, but also what impact a new baby would have on the existing bond between herself and her firstborn. If we as adults worry about the unknowns associated with enlarging our families, imagine what free-floating anxiety might be present for the young child who has limited experience with such significant life-changing events.
Here are some suggestions that can help parents navigate this new territory. Let’s start with communication. Give your young child information about the baby in ways that are easy to understand and most importantly send a message that they can ask questions. Make books about babies and families available. There are wonderful books about animals and their babies as well, that young children love.
Let them know that someday the new baby will learn to walk and talk and play, but that right now the baby needs to eat and sleep... a lot. While some children, often depending on their age, relish the role of helper, some children do not, or at least not all the time. Don't push it. Children are naturally altruistic and typically rise to the occasion when it isn't demanded of them. If your child verbalizes negative thoughts about the baby, acknowledge that sometimes siblings feel that way, but that those feelings will change.
My friend Linda's 3-year-old son Mike seemed non-fazed by the birth of his younger sister Annie but then one day he suggested to Linda that she put Annie in the oven... but not turn it on!
Rather than scold or shame him, she set about to spend more one on one time with him without baby Annie. His talk of stashing the baby somewhere soon subsided. That amusing anecdote aside, yes, making sure that your first born gets your undivided attention at times is important. However, sometimes getting alone time with a sibling is impossible, so parents need to be creative about how they juggle time spent with a young child and the new baby.
Madeline tried to plan activities for her four-year-old daughter Eva to occupy herself with while Madeline nursed the new baby. Every attempt to send off daughter Eva to busy herself with something else backfired and produced whining and resistance. As always, when one tactic isn't working, I suggested that Madeline try something new. Instead of doing what young Eva perceived as being pushed away, I proposed that Madeline let Eva know that she was about to feed the baby and that she would like it if Eva could come sit with her and together they could make up a song or a story. Eva embraced this idea enthusiastically and rather than the feedings be a time of tension between mother and older child; it became a time they both looked forward to. Sometimes Eva even chose to continue her play or choose something else to do during this time, but Madeline welcomed her presence if she decided to stick close by. This new strategy changed the dynamic and gave Eva choices.
The next thing to focus on is consistency. Just as new parents need extra support and self-care during this transition time, young children need to have their needs met in a loving and consistent way during this adjustment period. Always challenging and never more so than when parents of newborns are sleep deprived, maintaining routines and clear boundaries become paramount. Sarah, the mother of three-year-old Ethan, was beside herself. She kept saying "it is as if my happy-go-lucky son has disappeared since the baby arrived! How do I get him back"?
In talking about some of the acting-out that Ethan was doing, Sarah pointed out that his schedule had gone bonkers. He definitely wasn't getting enough sleep, and both parents and the nanny were a bit lax about limit setting. There was a tendency to "not say no, or say no and not mean it." Their thinking was "poor Ethan; he's having such a tough time dealing with the new baby." It turns out that Ethan, more than ever, needed to know that the adults in his world were in charge and that they knew what was best for him. Providing clear expectations in a kind and firm voice are precisely what he needed, not the other way around. With proper rest and loving limits, Ethan's sunny disposition reemerged as the family of three settled into being a family of four.
Like any of life's changes, having a second child brings challenges. But it is important to remember that expanding your family will be a gift that enriches the lives of everyone involved. Feelings of doubt, for you and your first born, may arise, but these feelings are normal and temporary. As I assured the young mother who worried about her connection to her first-born, she need not worry. Having a baby join the family was the perfect way to demonstrate that humans have an infinite amount of love to give and that it was actually another way to strengthen the ties that bind her entire family together.