“Under the best of circumstances, the arrival of a new baby in a family that already has a child is like an assault or an invasion on the incumbent child’s life and territory.”
– Joy Carol (2006, p. 42)
No occasion is more joyous than the arrival of a new baby. But if your family already includes a big brother or sister, that little bundle of joy may not be received so warmly by siblings, who suddenly find themselves coping with a demanding newborn who seems intent on stealing all of mom and dad’s attention. The good news is that there are things you can do ahead of time to limit sibling jealousy of a new baby, and to help prepare kids for their new role.
Preparing siblings for the arrival of a new baby
- Prep them about what to expect ahead of time so that the potential lifestyle changes aren’t such a shock when the baby arrives. Talk with them about some of the things you’ll be doing to take care of baby, such as making bottles and changing diapers, or having to get up in the middle of the night to tend to baby.
- If you get the opportunity, engage in some role play with them. Get a realistic-looking baby doll and play pretend to take care of it just as you would a new baby. Show children how you would change a diaper, have them help you make a bottle, show them some of the things you might do to calm a baby.
- If you know the sex of the new baby you should tell the other children and not keep it a secret. If your daughter really wants a new sister and it happens to be a boy, using talk like, “We’ll have to wait and see what the stork brings by” will only serve to annoy a child and set them up for disappointment. If you try and do a lot of conditioning to help the child grow accustomed to the idea of the other without explaining why, the child may perceive this as you intentionally aggravating them or thwarting their desires by bringing home a brother when they really wanted a sister. Especially since most parents tell their kids very little about sex and reproduction, kids have no idea that the gender of the baby is out of a parent’s control. If you never explain the reason for their disappointment, they may start with another reason to hate the new baby. If you know a child is wishing for one sex and it happens to be the other, be open and honest in explaining why you have no choice in the matter and how a baby’s sex is determined at conception. Then spend the remainder of your pregnancy helping them get used to the idea of a brother versus a sister, particularly by combating sex stereotypes to help them understand that they can do all the same things with one gender as they could with the other.
Getting kids excited about the arrival of a new baby
- When you plan your baby shower, also make arrangements to throw a separate “big brother” or “big sister” party for your older kid(s). Make it a celebration of their soon-to-be big brother or sister role. Get a cake or cupcakes, invite over some of their friends for a piñata, and maybe even buy your child a gift or two. (Just don’t overdo it…you don’t want to go so far as making it like a birthday.) During the party, do some of the fun baby-themed games or activities that are often a staple during adult baby showers. Kids will love having diaper changing races or tasting contests to rate the taste of baby food. Have big brother or sister give a speech about what kind of big brother or sister they’ll be. Not only does this get them excited about the new baby, but it reassures them they aren’t being forgotten, and will help them relish their new role as a big brother or sister.
- Have them help you pick out baby things and involve them in other minor decisions about the new baby. It utilizes a classic principle of psychology: the more vested interest you place in something, the closer you will identify with it. This is why religions often require proselytizing; it’s not about converting non-believers (it rarely does), but solidifying the stake practitioners have in the religion. The more they preach to others, the bigger their vested interest becomes in those beliefs. You can use the same psychology trick with kids. By letting them pick out baby things or help prepare for the arrival of a new baby, such efforts are giving them a vested interest in the new baby, and the more mental energy they devote to the cause, the larger their devotion to the baby will grow. So find ways to involve them in the planning process. It will also help keep them from feeling left out or alientated from what is going on.
- Regularly talk about all the fun and exciting things they can do as an older brother or sister: Watching the funny things baby does, teaching him/her to do different things, or simply showing baby all the wonderful things there are in the world and watching her discover them for the first time.
Just don’t overdo it and give them too rosy of a picture, as this can backfire when the baby arrives and the grand illusions crumble. As Covington and Beckett (1988, p. 276) write, “One of the most common naive fantasies of young children is that the new baby will be a playmate. If Joey has entertained this fantasy he will inevitably resent the new infant who, instead of being a new companion, reduces some of Joey’s freedom.” Explain that the baby won’t do much of anything at first, other than eat, sleep, cry and poop, and that there will be trials mixed with the triumphs.
A note from the baby
Parents can also try this fun activity: write a note as if it were coming from the baby to read to your other child. Here is an abbreviated sample:
I hear that you’re my older sister. I can’t wait to meet you! Mom tells me such wonderful things about you; about how kind and beautiful you are, and about how much she loves you. I’m so excited about all the things you’ll teach me. I’m really lucky to have a big sister like you.
Love, the baby
You’ll want to elaborate and customize this to your child, but you get the basic idea. Don’t lie to kids about where the note came from if they ask; just tell them that this is what you suspect the baby is thinking, and so you wrote it down for them.
Then as a follow up to this exercise, have your soon-to-be big brother or sister sit down and write a response to the new baby. It’s a fun activity that will help start their relationship off on the right track and gives you some perspective into what your child is feeling. Don’t forget to archive these notes; they’ll make an endearing memento to revisit with the kids later, once the little one is old enough to understand what they mean.