BRINGING HOME A SIBLING
Daniel was a strong willed child.
His parents were worried about how he’d react to the birth
of a new sibling. So, Daniel’s parents prepared him carefully.
He had learnt all about the coming event. When the baby was
born, he knew that he had a beautiful baby brother, and that
his mom and brother were coming home in two more sleeps.
When his mom, dad and night nurse
came home from the clinic, everyone was ready for trouble. But
Daniel surprised them all. He was cooperative, and even showed
slight interest in the new baby. He was quite happy and even
accepting of the fuss around the new arrival.
Daniel’s parents were delighted.
They congratulated each other on having prepared him so well.
At the end of the week, the night nurse was preparing to leave.
With her bag packed, she said goodbye to Daniel and headed for
the door. Little Daniel raced after her. “Hey Lady”,
he called, “you forgot your baby”.
Bringing home a sibling is anxiety
provoking for parents and children alike. Regardless of whether
this is your second or your fifth child, there is a shift in
family dynamics for everybody. Parents have to cope with meeting
more demands, but without more time, more financial resources
or more emotional support. This can be stressful. Children have
to learn to be on the periphery of relationships at times, rather
than at the center. So if you are feeding the baby and Johnny
wants juice, then Johnny has to learn to wait for his needs
to be met and mothers often feels very stressed about balancing
the demands of both their children. So you might be wondering,
why do we do this to ourselves and to our children? What’s
the benefit of having more? Well, there are many benefits or
gains. But there are many losses too. Balancing the gains and
the losses is the key to dealing with the transition –
for parents and children alike.
Giving children the opportunity
to be on the periphery of relationships, and survive is giving
them a healthy lesson in life. This is an important gain. When
children are able to see that two friends are playing in the
sandpit and that they can join in by offering a bucket of sand,
then they learn that they can join a group happily and be included
as the third party. When they are unable to do this, they exclude
one child in order to play with the other and often cause social
difficulties both for themselves and for others. In other words,
children cannot always be at the center of your and their world.
They learn this also when mom and dad go out and leave them
at home – in capable hands of course. They learn that
they can survive on the periphery of their parents’ relationship.
When they see that mom and dad have a relationship of their
own and they are excluded. This builds emotional maturity. Children
often try to split mom and dad and protest as they head for
the door on an evening out. But it is an emotional struggle
that children have to loose. If they split their parents so
that they always have one parent all to themselves, then they
never learn how to survive on the periphery of relationships
and this can interfere with social relationships later on. Of
course this is a process of learning that happens through repeated
experience. It is also age related, in that babies in the first
year do need to be at the center of their parent’s world.
And of course, it is important to allow children an experience
of being at the center throughout their childhood – but
as children grow up it is not only appropriate, but desirable
for them to learn that they can’t have all their needs
met as and when they want them. So this is one gain or benefit
to bringing home a sibling.
There are many other gains parents
have mentioned. One parent said that bringing home a sibling
“means giving my daughter a companion for life”.
Another parent said that “my son got pushed up the ladder
in the family system and this improved his self esteem”.
But of course there are also losses.
One parent said: “I feels sad at the loss of closeness
with my older son even though I know its only temporary”.
Another parent said that she feels so guilty about “de-throning”
her child. Another mother worried about how she was going to
love another child as much as her first. For both parents and
children there are losses and gains. This is the process of
life, and the process of change. In fact in every gain there
is a loss and in every loss there is a gain. When you became
a parent there were tremendous losses – of predictability,
spontaneity, control, intellectual stimulation, punctuality
and sleep (we all know that one!). But the gains are immeasurable
– that first smile, that first step …
Our role as parents is to make
space for these ambivalent feelings, which arise as a result
of both the gains and the losses. We need to allow our children
to feel both happy and sad at the birth of a sibling –
because there is a loss and a gain attached to the experience.
I remember when my third baby was born, my four-year-old daughter
loved to hug her until she cried. Her feelings of love and hate
were all tied up in one single response and in one little body.
In preschool children sad and angry
feelings are often expressed through action rather than words.
You might notice temper tantrums, aggression, bed-wetting, baby
talk, acting like a baby, clingy behaviour, and a general irritable
mood. One parent said “my son is moody: one minute he’s
happy and the next he’s moaning”. Another parent
said, “ My daughter wants a bottle. She finished with
bottles over a year ago”. Basically, what you notice is
regression. This is appropriate in this context. Your child
regresses and becomes more needy and more dependent. He is communicating
an important message: do I have to be a baby in order to get
the same level of care and attention? Many parents, knowingly
or unknowingly, have expectations on older children to be older.
This causes distress for you child because he might feel ambivalent
about the losses and gains of growing up. How you deal with
his regression is important in helping him adjust to the change
in family dynamics. Here are some suggestions:
Allow him to regress. My experience shows that those
parents who play along with their child and “baby”
him for a little while have a greater chance of encouraging
autonomy and independence than those parents who impose it.
Don’t say “You’re not a baby, you’re
a big boy now”. Remember he might want to be a baby for
a while and that’s O.K. If you baby him for a while his
emotional need will be met and he will be able to move forward
– towards more age appropriate behaviour.
2. Acknowledge your child’s feelings by giving
them a name, “I can see you are very sad”.
Then reflect his unfulfilled desire “ … because
you really wanted to sit on mommy’s lap”. Respect
his feelings and wishes “…I do understand”.
And then set the limits and give a choice “but mommy’s
tummy is sore right now. You can sit next to me on this side
or on this side, which would you prefer?” When you give
children a choice, you empower them, which assists with their
helpless feelings when they can’t get what they want.
3. Set limits when necessary. Don’t be
afraid to discipline during this time, provided you do so in
a firm but kind way. Children feel safe within well-defined
boundaries. The change in family dynamics might cause feelings
of insecurity and asserting the same limits and boundaries helps
children to feel more secure and to settle in to the new family
4. Begin the process of bonding in uterus.
Let your child see your tummy grow. As the baby makes space
in your body, allow the baby to make space in your lives. It
always amazes me to see the pressure placed on mothers to be
small and neat during pregnancy and to be in their jeans a week
after birth. Babies take up space in our bodies because they
take up space in our lives. Another way to do this is to involve
your older child if he would lie to be involved. One parent
said that her son wasn’t interested in the baby at all.
This is also OK. Allow your child to lead in this regard.
5. Avoid negative attention. Here’s a
typical example: Jesse loves pulling out the baby’s dummy.
She knows that as soon as she does this the baby cries and all
the adults come running. She is getting negative attention.
The more you shout at her, the more powerful she feels and the
more she continues her inappropriate behaviour. So what can
you do? Ignore her. But not the baby, or course. Pick up the
baby and say to him “its hard to be with Jesse when she
takes your dummy out so she cant be with you at all but we can
try again another day” and then remove him from the situation.
6. Give up the expectation to be fully available for
all your children all the time. Your aim is to be a
“good enough” parent (Dr Winnicott) not a perfect
one. Just like there are no perfect children, so there are no
perfect parents. It is appropriate for your children to learn
that there are limits to your resources, your patience, your
time and your attention.
7. Show your children that you love them very much.
Children don’t always trust a verbal message. It might
not be enough to tell your son you love him very much. You might
have to hug him, read to him, and spend some special time with
him or whatever you do to show him how much he means to you.
There are no definitive ways to bring home a sibling and cope
with the change. What I have learnt is that the only predictable
thing about children is that they are unpredictable. What you
expect might not happen and what might happen might not be what
FOR THE SIDE BAR ON AGE GAPS
The best time to have a baby is
when you feel ready to have one. You might say: “but am
I ever ready?” and then I would answer, “well is
there a best time to have a baby?” Developmental psychologists
say that the best age gap is around three years. Why? Because
children of three have a better sense of self and are beginning
to explore relationships outside the one with mother. This means
that they are ready to relinquish their attachment to their
primary care giver a bit. This might free you up a little to
attend to another baby. My experience shows that a close age
gap is hard on parents and they are often left feeling frazzled.
A frazzle, exhausted, and stressed parent is less patient and
less emotionally available. Whatever the gap, it is important
to look after your own emotional needs as an adult, a couple
and a wife.
Extra Information: Practical Tips for bringing home a sibling
Limit the amount of change your older child is exposed to.
Starting a new school, moving to a new room and bringing home
a new baby are too much for a toddler to manage.
2. Involve your older child in the day-to-day activities
of the new baby. Let him choose which nappy to use
even if all the nappies are the same.
3. Allow your older child to touch the baby at their
first meeting. Childrne are tactile human beings and
this helps to create a positive first experience. Babies have
an automatic grasping reflex. Ask your older child to put his
finger in the babies’ hand and the baby will grasp it.
This creates a special moment for children, parents and babies.
What other parents have suggested:
I had a whole bag of small toys and games in the cupboard for
those moments when I didn’t know what to do with my older
child. This gave him something to do and it gave me
5 minutes to attend to my baby.
2. I fed my baby while my three year old listened to
story tapes. This way, he did not feel pushed out of
the room, but he was occupied enough to let me feed the baby
3. I gave my daughter a baby doll so she could feed
her own baby at the same time at I fed the baby. She
enjoyed this very much.
4. I asked for help! I needed an extra pair of hands
during “happy hour” at 5pm. My sister,
husband and mother took turns to help me through these difficult
days – which passed after 6 weeks.
5. My daughter needed to know that she was important.
I made time to play with her alone, at home, with no TV, no
interruptions or telephone calls for 45 minutes a day. I saw
a changed child in 4 days!