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"Can We Take Her Back Now?"

My daughter was just past her second birthday when I gave her a belated present: a baby brother. I knew it was important that Matilda feel Anthony was hers, as well as ours, so when we came home from the hospital I snapped lots of photos of her trying to hold her newborn sibling as he slipped from her lap toward the floor.

It didn't take long, however, for the blissful growing-family bubble to burst. Days later I swallowed tears (wayward postpartum hormones, no doubt) when a pack of relatives descended on our home and rushed right past Matilda to see the baby. The crushed look on her face said it all. It wasn't long before she was sticking play dough up her nose and using the furniture as a trampoline every time I attempted to feed or change or otherwise turn my attention to Anthony.

The motivation behind having a second child is honorable enough, of course: to increase the love and laughter in a home; to provide a friend and playmate for a first child; to become a bigger family like the kind many of us remember growing up in. But no matter how much your firstborn claims to want a baby brother or sister, the reality of living with one on a day-to-day basis is to little kids what sleep deprivation is to us: You can't fathom how tough it is until you actually experience it.

Unfortunately, most young children don't have the language skills to express their feelings. And sometimes what's perceived as a response to the baby is really a response to the mom's stress and exhaustion. Here's what your firstborn might be thinking, and the best ways you can respond:

Stephanie Wood, now a mom of three, is coauthor of The Epidemic.

No Hitting!

"What do you mean I can't hit the baby?"

Since many of us are crazy enough to bring a second child into the world when our firstborn is a high-maintenance toddler, we're likely to be stretched so thin that whenever our eldest is being good, we take advantage of this to tend to the new baby's needs, not his. So what does the firstborn do? He gives the baby a good pinch or a whack.

Emily of Williamsport, Pennsylvania, was 3 when her sister, Pamela, was born. In the beginning, she seemed to take the event in stride. "Then for about a month after that, we went through a swatting-the-baby stage," says her mom, Stacy. Sometimes the aggression can seem accidental. "My oldest son, William, was twenty months when we had Andrew. He'd be playing at the opposite end of the room, and somehow Andrew would get hit with a Lego," says Michele of Colorado Springs.

One rule of thumb, say moms: Don't leave your firstborn alone with the baby. Put your infant in her car seat by the shower if you must.

Watch out for more passive aggression too. "One six-year-old I know took all the screws out of his baby sister's swing when no one was in the room. Fortunately, his parents noticed that the swing wasn't sitting right before they put the baby in it," says Ann of Ontario, Canada, a mother of four and author of The Mother of All Toddler Books.

Naturally, most of us are horrified by our eldest's darker side. But remember that negative feelings are normal. "The difference is that little kids tend to lash out physically --they pinch, throw things, or hit to express their anger," says Claire Lerner, a mom of two and codirector of parent education at Zero to Three, a Washington, DC-based nonprofit devoted to early-childhood development.

Of course, you need to set limits on such behavior, but try not to overreact. Keep your cool and take advantage of the opportunity to acknowledge your child's feelings: "I know you want to do the puzzle, but I can't help you now because the baby's crying. It's okay to feel angry, but you can't hit your sister." Then you might suggest that he take out the puzzle and set it up so the two of you can get started once the baby quiets down.

The sooner you let your older child know you understand, the sooner he'll calm down, says Lerner, who had a hard time with her then 2-year-old son when her daughter was born.

You can also try to head off the aggression. "When I'd see my son making his way toward his sister, I'd jump in and say, 'You want to touch Jessica? She really likes to be hugged this way because it doesn't hurt her,'" Lerner says. "Chances are, your child really likes the baby; he's just acting out his confused feelings."


Up, Up, and Awake

"Why does she get to stay up later than I do?"

Second babies also have a bad habit of arriving on the scene just when your firstborn has begun to use the potty regularly or has adjusted to preschool. Then, in a flash, all the routines are out the window and you've got two kids with no schedule.

"My two-year-old started getting out of bed at night to sleep with me," recalls Aledo, Texas, mom Suzi. "And he'd yell at the baby to stop crying, which made the baby cry more. All of a sudden, rules changed  -- he had to be quiet or wait for things." For Michele, staggering bedtimes was a convenient solution to the evening chaos. "We'd put Andrew down at around six p.m., and that would give us an hour or so with William before his bedtime," she says. "When Andrew would wake at nine or ten for a feeding, William was already asleep and had no idea that Andrew was partying the night away with Mom and Dad."

Lerner taped herself reading her son's favorite books. "I'd put the tape on when it was time to leave the room, and Sam would fall asleep listening to my voice," she says, adding that it reduced all those demands for one more story and one more drink.


Share and Share Alike

"I don't want to give up my stuff."

Second-time parents-to-be are often advised not to take away their eldest's crib when the baby comes home. Make the transition well in advance, or get another one if your firstborn isn't ready for a bed.

Michele simply kept Andrew in a portable crib until William felt it was time to make the move. But don't be surprised if your child's reluctant to pass down any of her gear, even if she can't possibly remember it. When I got close to my due date and pulled the infant seat and swing out of the attic, Matilda was delighted with her newfound playthings. Trouble was clearly ahead, but luckily so were the holidays. Santa Claus came through with a deluxe set of doll furniture  -- changing table, baby bassinet, and high chair  -- so Matilda was able to tend to her babies alongside me.

Some moms have let their toddlers climb into the baby tub and car seat and pretend they're newborns again. Other issues, though, aren't quite as black and white. "We don't have any choice but to keep my three-year-old and his one-year-old twin brothers in the same bedroom until we can move," says Marilyn of Beach Haven Park, New Jersey. "Now Jake even refers to the room as 'the babies' room.'"

If the kids have no other choice but to share a room, it's a good idea to let the eldest help set it up. She might pick out the baby's bedding, for example, or something decorative for the baby's wall. Even if space is tight, try to designate an area of the room that's all hers  -- a corner or a bookcase. Candy of Villah, Washington, created a special shelf for her 3-year-old son's toys and books.


Perfect Playmates

"But you promised we could go to the playground!"

Big kids may need their own space, but they also need time to do all the things they used to do with you. Only now there's one of you and two of them, so that's not always feasible.

Suzi's solution to the time bind was to hire a sitter once in a while  -- but just for the new baby. "We spent our time with my eldest, Jacob. After all, newborns don't know the difference like an older child does," she says.

If you have relatives on hand or can afford a babysitter, great. If not, Dad can take the older child under his wing when you're nursing or bathing the baby. But don't forget to give your firstborn some mommy time, such as doing a crafts project or playing a game while the baby naps. I found that a standing date with Matilda once a week bought me a lot more smiles and cooperation. When she was disappointed that Anthony interfered with something, I'd reply sympathetically, "I know, I was looking forward to baking cookies today too. But don't forget that we've got our Saturday trip to the movies coming up soon."

That need for individual attention is the root of sibling rivalry. Simply telling your eldest that there's enough love for everyone is too abstract. He needs something more concrete.

"Once, my two-year-old, Theo, overheard me calling his baby brother 'my little guy,'" says Mary Beth of Larchmont, New York. "Later that day, Theo led me over to the same chair I'd been sitting in, crawled into my lap, and asked, 'Can I be your little guy too?'"

Do whatever you can to work in a hug or kiss, Lerner suggests. "If the baby's napping, you can tell your older child, 'I don't have the energy to play in the yard. But why don't we put on a video and watch it together in bed?' Everyone wins: You get some rest, and he gets some one-on-one affection."

If your older child starts to act out anyway, don't always follow your first instinct, which may be to punish. He's probably just looking for attention, so put the baby down and go over and say, "You look like you need a really big bear hug." Later, you can talk to him about his behavior.

No matter how rough the transition is initially, as time goes on your firstborn will come to love being a big brother or sister. Whenever Matilda's frustration with her little brother turned intense, I'd say something silly like "I've had enough of this guy too. Maybe we should give him to someone else." In typical toddler fashion, she'd burst into giggles at the thought.

Three years later, they squabble more than ever over their favorite toys. But now whenever I mention getting rid of him, Matilda looks at me indignantly and squeals, "Nooo! I loooove him!"