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Ask Dr. Sears: Preparing Sibs for a Special-Needs Baby

A. Children usually have a better attitude about special-needs babies than do many adults. To a child, they see a baby as just a baby -- whether he's missing a foot, has unusual facial features, or has a medical problem that needs lots of attention. Over my years as a pediatrician, it has been heartwarming to see how caring siblings can be. However, depending on their age, older siblings often do also have similar concerns to adults, such as, "Will the baby be all right?" and "How will this affect his life?" Here are a few ways to help prepare your children for both the joys and the challenges of a special-needs baby.

Model a positive attitude. Your children are probably very excited about their new sibling, so it's important for you to maintain peace and a positive outlook about the newest member of the family. Any feelings of upset and disappointment you felt when you received the news about your baby's birth defect are certainly normal. However, if your other children constantly hear you fretting over what will happen once the baby arrives, it will overshadow the joy of having a new baby to help care for and play with. On the other hand, if your children see that Mom and Dad are handling this news reasonably well, they'll also take it in stride. I remember when our seventh child, Stephen, was born with Down syndrome. We received a bunch of condolences from friends, all along the lines of, "I'm sorry." However, the note we remember most was from an experienced grandmother who wrote, "My wish for you is that you become excited about your special baby."

Be open and honest. Tell your kids about the birth defect in terms that are appropriate to their level of understanding, and don't overwhelm them with too many details at once. Explain what the birth defect is and how it's going to be treated. Be sure to add an uplifting statement, such as, "But everything else seems to be just fine." This can become a teachable moment in which you focus on what your baby will have, rather than dwelling on what he won't. Talk honestly with your children -- not in a frightening way, but to prepare them for the inevitable changes to your family. As my own family observed, parenting a special-needs child will stretch your limits, and sometimes you'll be close to snapping. Explain to your children that "special-needs" means that the baby is going to require more time, attention, and care from everyone in the family, especially Mom and Dad. Keep in mind that siblings are often not only worried about what the term "special" means for a baby, but they're also worried about how the change in family life will affect them. Listen to their feelings, value them, and help them feel comfortable expressing their concerns.

Prepare, but don't scare. Take your children to a few prenatal appointments with you and let them see ultrasound pictures of the baby. While looking at the pictures, be sure to emphasize all the things that are right with the baby, in addition to the birth defect, if it is easy to see on the ultrasound. Again, explain only the depth to which they seem interested. Otherwise, try to talk about your baby with the same excitement you would if your baby did not have a birth defect.

Involve your children in the baby's care. Once the baby comes home, the more special care the older siblings can give, the more they will feel involved. One of the greatest gifts you can instill into your children is the quality of empathy. While I don't want to downplay the stress of raising a special-needs child, the good news is that it raises the level of caring in the whole family. Your new baby will bring some uniqueness into the family and increase the likelihood that you will achieve what I believe is one of the most important goals in parenting: raising kids who care.

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