Helping an older child adapt to a new sibling

(That post is dedicated to J.G., who inspired me to sit down and write it.)

We have been parents of two for 15 weeks and let me tell you, it hasn’t been so easy. You might think that the newborn would be the challenging member of the family, but that’s actually not the case at all. Sure, Vera Jo spits up a lot, couldn’t hold her own head up till fairly recently, can accidentally scratch our eyeballs with her jerky movements, spits up in my bra a million times a day and most of the times needs to be held. In other words, she is a typical newborn. Our second one. That’s the key here. We ‘ve had that model before. We know more or less how it works. And it might be because we are more chilled this time around or it might be her personality trait, but we think she is a pretty laid back gal (for a newborn) too.

The big challenge is helping Loulou Maya adapt to the arrival of the new sister. There are some children that accept a new sibling into their lives as if they have been there forever (hi, P.!). Let’s just say that our eldest is not one of those children. Though we have prepared her about the arrival of her sister from the start of my pregnancy, read tons of books, visited other babies, explained what babies will and won’t do etc, once her sister latched on my breast minutes after she was born, Loulou Maya freaked out big time. I wish you from the bottom of my heart to not need the advice I am about to share with you and I wish that your child will accept the new sibling like the missing piece of the puzzle. In case you do need some advice though, here it goes…

Loulou Maya’s depiction of our visit to the tulip fields (Keukenhof). The tall figure with the curly hair is Nikos, holding Vera Jo in his arm. The pink-eyed tiny person is me and the yellow-haired tiny person is Loulou Maya

Do not blame the baby: Using negative language about the baby -eg “Oh, look! the baby cries again. That’s so annoying. Thank god you don’t do that any more!”- is not a good idea. It only creates negative associations and makes the child believe that you and them are on the same side while the baby is an unwanted intruder that you are forced to take care of.
What to do instead: Explain why the baby acts the way they do. Explain that crying is their only way of communicating their needs and the more you tend to them, the sooner they will grow and be able to actually be a fun playmate. Make sure that your child(ren) know that the baby is very much wanted and not a burden, just like they are.

Don’t keep the older child(ren) away from the baby: Yes, babies are quite fragile and you are worried that your older child(ren) might accidentally (or on purpose) injure the baby. Or pass a school/daycare virus to them. Or get them dirty. But the more you try to keep them away, the more interesting the baby becomes to them and they might think that you care about the baby more than you care about them.
What to do instead: Involve the older siblings in the baby care routines. Even children that are just one year old can help by bringing you a diaper. Older children can help dress and undress the baby, chose clothes, help bathe the baby, help you check that you have all the baby essentials with you when you go out, help clean when the baby spits up etc. That way they will also start feeling responsible for the baby and their confidence will grow, as they feel that you trust them enough to let them help you. Just saying “you are a big sister/brother now” without attaching any new roles to it doesn’t make much sense.

Don’t spend all your time with the baby: It is a natural instinct to want to be with your new baby all the time. After all, you are their only source of comfort, food, warmth. At least, that’s how you feel. This behavior, though natural, will make your older child(ren) feel abandoned.
What to do instead: Spend one on one time with your older child(ren), even if it is just 15-20 minutes per day. Ideally, both parents should do that. This will allow you both (if you are part of a couple) to bond with the new baby as well as reassure your older child(ren) that you are still there for them. How you are going to achieve this takes a bit of planning and it will need to be adapted as your newborn’s rhythms change.
Example of how we do it: Nikos comes home from work around 18:00 or 18:30 every evening. He sacrifices his morning sleep in order to be able to be home that early, commuting from Amsterdam and all. I have already cooked so dinner is ready and we eat all together. Then he plays with Loulou Maya while I nurse Vera Jo, to make sure she is not hungry. Then I take Loulou Maya to bed, around 19:00 or 19:30, while Nikos spends time cuddling with Vera Jo. Once Loulou Maya is asleep, I take Vera Jo upstairs and nurse her to sleep. Some nights she is also super tired (depending on her last nap of the day), so I nurse them both to sleep at the same time. During the weekend we often take turns of 2-hour stretches to spend time with Loulou Maya one on one, unless we are out, doing something altogether as a family.

This drawing, done two months after Vera Jo was born, still doesn’t feature her. That was the case for all her drawings till a couple of weeks ago. When asked, she said that Vera Jo was still in my belly or that it was “before the baby”.

Don’t ask the older child(ren) to leave you in peace when you feed the baby: I get it, you are tired, sleep-deprived and the baby might have issues taking the breast or the bottle and you just want to focus and help them. Having a toddler jumping around you or trying to climb on your neck doesn’t help. The issue here is that the more you tell them to leave you alone, the more rejected they will feel and the more they will try to get your attention.
What to do instead: A popular tip that makes the rounds on the internet is having a small toy suitcase or box filled with activities that the older sibling(s) can do, while you feed the baby. Coloring pages, small puzzles, finger puppets, little figures for role-playing, play-doh or mini lego sets can all work wonders depending on your child’s age and interests. Personally, I prefer doing something with Loulou Maya when breastfeeding Vera Jo. Usually babies are pretty calm when nursing (after they figure out how it’s done), so the older child will barely notice their presence. I can imagine that for older kids, allowing them to watch an educational program could also work, though we are trying to keep screen time to a minimum over here, so we don’t use that.
Example of how we do it: Loulou Maya loves reading, so this is her number one activity of choice when I breastfeed Vera Jo and can’t move. No, actually that’s her number two favorite activity, ’cause her number one is tandem nursing. It has been a life saver for me. However, at this point and after more than three years of experience in breastfeeding I know and -most importantly- she knows that I can do pretty much everything with one hand, so I just nurse sitting by the table and play with lego with her with my free hand. Whenever I try to use nursing as an excuse to not do something, she just tells me “but you can come with the baby over here and do that with your free hand!”. So I guess my advice here is, do not show competence in multitasking or there will be no peace for you.

Do not react negatively when your older child(ren) seek your attention: This can happen in many different ways. Loulou Maya figured out that she gets a reaction when she pees on the couch (obviously). Even though I didn’t shout at her the first time it happened, I dropped what I was doing (aka taking care of the newborn) to remove the covers from the couch, before the pee would soak the filling. So it worked. And she did it again and again and again. And even though I am proud of never shouting at her or scolding her, I did make a few mistakes. I suggested putting on a diaper, I rolled my eyes so hard they almost got stuck at the back of my scull, I tried to reason with her and make her admit that she did it on purpose. While the only thing the poor thing wanted was attention. From me, specifically. Because even though my mom was here to help and was 24/7 focused on Loulou Maya’s needs, grandma just wouldn’t do. It had to be me. Other children might try to hurt the newborn, others might start shouting, screaming and kicking while they have always been calm before. By scolding them, shouting, making a scene you are doing three things: 1) showing them that they achieved their goal, which was getting your attention, so they will repeat that behavior, 2) giving them the bad example of airing their frustration in destructive/violent ways 3) making them feel bad/guilty, even if they don’t realize it at the moment (as the joy that they have captured your attention prevails).
What to do instead: That’s a tough one. There are two different approaches here. I won’t even bother with the one that talks about punishment. I am against it. Period. I will talk about the other one, the one that suggests showering your older child(ren) with even more love and hugs and reminders that you love them and they are so special to you. After the 10th time of washing the couch covers, it was really hard to keep my faith that this would work. However, it was the only thing that actually did work. That along with allowing Loulou Maya (and even encouraging) to express her feelings freely. We never forced her to say that she loves her sister, we never forced her to hug or caress her. We just kept reminding her the safety rules. And we explained that the baby is totally depended on us so we had to tend to the baby’s needs and we recognize that this can be annoying for her. I also ask her every now and then how she feels that she has a little sister. Amazingly, after a couple of months she said she loved her, even though she made it clear she struggles with the division of attention and having to share the milk. The last couple of weeks she is becoming more and more affectionate as well, trying to play with Vera Jo, reading her books and hugging her.

Loulou Maya colored this page last week at the kindergarten. She had described it to me saying she drew herself holding Vera Jo, but didn’t know where the teacher had put it. I asked for it and she was so happy and proud about it. I am really happy too, seeing Vera Jo appearing in her sister’s artwork.

Here are a few more ideas of things that you can do, that will hopefully help your older child(ren) adapt more smoothly:
Keep reading books featuring older/younger sibling relationships. Talk about those books with your children. This will help them identify and unlock their feelings and hopefully share them with you, so that you can help them process them and move through the grief of losing their role as an only-child (if they don’t have any other siblings).
Engage in role playing with your child. You can listen to them playing on their own but playing with them is even better, because you can navigate the story line in order to help your child reveal more of their feelings/fears.
-Start a new activity with your older child(ren). Taking up a new hobby, exploring new things they can do, will help build up their confidence. They might also meet new friends and make new connections that will help them slowly become less dependent on your attention. Additionally, a new activity, when done with one parent, will give the other parent time to bond with the baby, without having the constant worry that the older sibling might get jealous.

Try to remember that a regression is absolutely normal for young children, when a major change is happening in their lives. This can manifest in many different ways. Observing the regression is one thing. Commenting on it is another, and it should be avoided. This will only make the child feel self-conscious and vulnerable. If you see behaviors that really worry you, do talk about them with your family doctor or a family therapist, if needed, but not in the presence of your child (unless, of course, your healthcare professional suggests otherwise).

Fell free to share your experiences and tips on how to help older children adapt to that huge change in their lives in the comments or on our facebook page.

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