When we learned that Martha was expecting our second child, we were thrilled. But we were also a little anxious. During the previous year and a half, our son Jimmy had been the center of our family and, in his growing mind, the center of the universe. How would he handle the arrival of a baby at home?
The first two years are what I call the attachment phase of a child's life. Your child learns that the world is a warm and secure place. He learns that if he communicates his needs to his parents, they will take care of him -- feed him when he's hungry, change his diaper when it's wet, hug him when he needs to be held. But there comes a time in early toddlerhood when a child needs to learn the magic word, "wait." Waiting involves delaying gratification and realizing that there are other family members that are as important as he is.
Few experiences initiate this rite of passage in the same way as the birth of a new sibling. The arrival of a baby brother or sister can help your older child understand what it means to wait and to share, and give him a sense of becoming an independent person. It will also reinforce that no matter what happens, you are still there to support, nurture, and love him.
Many parents are lucky enough to face the challenge of raising more than one child: According to the U.S. Census Bureau, almost 80 percent of children grow up with at least one sibling. How your child learns to get along with a brother or sister at home will set the pattern for how he'll get along with others. Your family is a boot camp for developing healthy social relationships. And guiding your child through this transition will prepare him for other hurdles that he'll face outside the home.
Jimmy learned to love his younger brother -- and the six siblings who followed. But that doesn't mean it wasn't a struggle sometimes: Every child will lash out at some point. What we've learned is that if you prepare your child and help him understand his place in the family, the happy times will far outweigh the stressful ones. And you might even have a doting older brother or sister on your hands before you know it. Here's how to help that happen:
At some point during your pregnancy, your child will realize that something is different. Change is upsetting to a child, but you can alleviate this anxiety by explaining what is going to happen.
Breaking the news. Most parents find that it's best to keep it simple. You can tell your child, "When moms and dads love each other, they sometimes decide to have a baby." For a child under 2 1/2, it's best to wait until the last trimester when you are really showing before giving notice. Telling him too early will be confusing since he has no sense of time passing; connecting the due date with a holiday can also help ("Your new brother or sister will be here in time for Thanksgiving!")
Show and tell games. Remember, children under 3 are normally egocentric. Replay his own infancy by paging through his baby album. During this preparatory dialogue, you can plant scenes to help your toddler have a sense of what to expect, such as: "Tiny babies nurse a lot," or "Mommy will carry the baby a lot, just like I did with you."
Include your child. Take your child along to prenatal checkups with you so he can hear baby's heartbeat and watch the ultrasound pictures. When the baby kicks, have him touch your belly and introduce himself to the baby. Some hospitals now have classes for expectant siblings, so they can learn with other children what a new baby is like.
Prepare the sib for your sub. While you're in the hospital, your toddler is probably more interested in what's going to happen to him than what's going to happen to you. Here's where you begin using the marketing term that has become a Sears family favorite: "something special." Tell your toddler, for example, that while mama is in the hospital, "Grandma is coming to our house and you'll bake cookies together." And while you're in the hospital, encourage several sibling visits so you don't have to bring home a stranger.
A Happy Homecoming
Siblings' early days together are the building blocks for a long-term bonding process. Every child will react differently, but we've found the following tricks help promote positive sibling interactions.
Talk for your baby. Parents can take advantage of the toddler's natural fascination with babies by explaining what you imagine the baby is thinking, such as "When Baby grabs you and holds on tight, she is telling you how much she loves you." These can make your toddler laugh and help him see his sibling as a real person.
Double the gifts. Savvy visitors who have survived sibling rivalry themselves know to bring along a gift for the older child when visiting a new baby. But don't count on all of your friends to have this foresight. Before birth, wrap a few small gifts and reserve them for your toddler when friends lavish gifts on the new baby. You can also let him be the one to unwrap the baby gifts before he "gives" the toy to his baby sister. Keep in mind that you are now encouraging your toddler to have a change in mindset -- from being a taker to becoming a giver -- a valuable lesson in life that even a 2-year-old can and should begin to learn.
Spread the praise. With all the attention heaped on your new baby, your toddler may feel neglected. We've always tried to extend any compliments to include our other children. When an admirer would say, "What a beautiful baby," we would add, "Now we have two beautiful children" or "And she has a beautiful big brother!"
Highlight a talent. When you have a large family, you realize how important it is to recognize and celebrate each child's individuality. We believe that all children at all ages have a special talent. We have always tried to recognize it, frame it, and announce it. I can remember saying, "Jimmy, you are a terrific ball player. When Bobby is bigger, you'll be able to teach him how to hit a ball."
Time-share. It's admirable to say that you'll give each child equal amounts of your time, but it's unrealistic. New babies require a lot of maintenance, and you don't have two hundred percent of yourself to give. There are, however, easy ways to share with your toddler the time you spend caring for your baby. When feeding the baby, read a book to your toddler. Or place Baby in an infant seat on the floor to watch while you play with her big brother or sister. As your infant gets a bit older, encourage your toddler to entertain her: Making funny faces and noises is something both will love. Big toothless grins can be an incredible ego boost as your toddler thinks, "Hey, she likes me."
Daddy, daddy, daddy! You can do double duty, but in the end, you'll still need to spend more time with the new baby. So it's important that while the older child feels she has lost some of mom, she gets more of dad. This is also the stage when a toddler may feel that mommy is no fun anymore, since she is tired all the time. (Sibling rivalry comes at a bad time for parents: Just as you are exhausted from adjusting to a new baby, you have to deal with an older child undergoing a personality change.) Enter Dad and outings to the park, the ice cream parlor, even the toy store. Reserve these one-on-one outings just for the older child. Remember that in children's perception of love, actions often speak louder than words.
Even if you do everything I've just suggested, your child will still act out at times. These problems are a normal part of becoming an older sibling. Here's how to tackle them:
Get ready for regression. Almost all of our children went through the regressive "I want to be a baby, too!" stage. This is a normal reaction to the image of you holding and cuddling your newborn. When your older child regresses into baby talk and thumbsucking, allow her the luxury of being babied a bit, while at the same time focusing on the benefits of being an older child in the family. Try to talk about all the fun things big kids can do but babies can't, such as "Big boys can eat ice cream, but babies can't" and "Big girls can climb monkey bars, but babies can't." Your child will gradually realize that he doesn't want to be a baby again.
Allow some frustration. Toddlers take it to heart when they don't get equal time. Many children ago we learned that our job is not to keep our children free of frustrations, but to help them learn how to manage them. If your toddler becomes impatient, for example, set a time when you can give him your attention. ("Jimmy, you'll have to wait until I finish nursing Bobby, but then we can go to the park.")
Be sympathetic. It's natural that your child will have some negative feelings toward the baby. Encourage your child to express her negative, as well as positive, feelings. Give him an empathetic opener, such as: "Sometimes I imagine you like your baby sister and sometimes you don't." Don't push, just be available. Your child may be more comfortable drawing what he or she feels.
Have "just being" time. With eight children, we gave up trying to be "fair" or "equal" to all of our children. The best we could do is help them feel equally important and equally valued. What helped was a custom we called "just being" time. Take time to let your toddler just be with you -- on your lap, cuddling and talking -- while the new baby naps. Even 15 minutes a day of holding can make a difference.
Play favorites -- equally. You can avoid the "who's best" trap ("Who do you love more, me or the baby?"), by giving the emotionally correct answer, "I love you both in special ways." We've often used the comparison that love is like sunshine: Sharing the sun doesn't mean you get less, and our love shines on you all. Help your older child perceive that he is loved in an individual way, such as "You are my first child, and no one else will ever be my first child."
Help the sibling feel important. Assigning a task can be all it takes to help a toddler feel included: "Bring me a diaper, please," or "Let's dress and bathe Baby together." Feeling needed helps many children relish the older sibling role. When our older children were being helpers, we would say, "Thank you for being such a good big sister (or big brother)."
With a little parental guidance, siblings can grow up to be close compadres. Friends come and go, but family is forever. Jimmy and Bobby have become a parent's dream come true: They are now Dr. Jim and Dr. Bob, partners in pediatric practice and friends for life.
Contributing editor William Sears, M.D., is the author with his wife, Martha Sears, R.N., of The Baby Book.