Birth Order's Bottom Line

Oldest, youngest, middle, only...theories abound about how a person's place within the family birth order affects intelligence, ambition, personality and future relationships. 

Sibling Rivalry & The New Baby

How a New Baby Affects the Family

This Guest Blog is by Hindie M. Klein.

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A new child changes your life.

And, if you already have a child, it changes his or her life as well – forever.

Nowadays, many people live wonderful lives without children. They define life through their relationships, their careers, their nieces and nephews, their students, their patients, etc. There are so many ways to touch the next generation.

A New Baby Changes Your Life:

But, for those who end up with children, their first baby redefines everything. It’s their great blessing; whether it’s a year after the wedding, five years, 15 years. It makes no difference.  Most couples revel in the thought of having a child to love, to teach and to raise; it is their legacy in the making

Often new mothers become enthralled with their newborn. For a period of time, usually about four weeks, there is no one else, just Mom and her new baby. D.W. Winnicott, the great pediatrician turned psychoanalyst, referred to it as “primary maternal preoccupation." The new Mom enters a reverie, where she envelops herself and her newborn in a cocoon of love, attention and attachment.  One hopes that the post-partum blues, the night feedings, the new demands and the lack of sleep won’t destroy this little mommy/baby paradise.

Eventually, life develops into a “new normal”—life with a new baby. This is especially unique if this baby is a firstborn. New items and schedules abound, from diapers to formula, to doctor visits, to carriages, to adorable outfits. This is a whole new world and its quite time consuming!

The Only Child & the New Baby:

Once everything settles in, this family of three develops their own rhythm. Life revolves around this only child, as he or she ventures through infancy, toddlerhood, and beyond. 

So, what happens when this precious Only faces the possibility of a new sibling? Well, the answer to that depends on several factors. 

Here are some questions to ponder: 

  • What is the age of the only child when a new baby is born?

There is certainly a difference between a child who has been an Only for two years as compared to a child who has been an Only for 10 years, or beyond. Younger children are more likely to regress more obviously when a new baby arrives. So for example, it is common for children who are newly toilet trained to wet their bed with the arrival of a new baby. Toddlers may exhibit signs of aggression, anger and jealousy, since their need for time and closeness is still great. Eventually they realize, that hope as they might, this new baby is here to stay and they adjust accordingly.

An older child, on the other hand, may understand things in a more sophisticated way, but may have deep feelings of envy and jealousy. Their idyllic world has been disrupted. They are no longer the absolutely only object of their parents love and attention.

I think for a child who is older (such as a pre-adolescent or teen), a new baby is more conflicted.  On one hand, they may be quite excited to have a new baby brother or sister and may take an active part in helping and caring for this new baby. It allows them to become a kind of parent and it can make them feel needed and important. 

However, some older children, much as they intellectually realize that it is OK not to be the center of the Universe, have a hard time processing their feelings, because their jealousy makes them feel silly, or ashamed or guilty. Also, as a child becomes older, their inherent temperament or personality structure is becoming more developed and solidified. If a child is more narcissistic, egocentric, or just plain spoiled, this may affect their reaction to a new baby. In addition, if there is stress in the family, between parents, or between parents and the older child, or other stressors, it may make a difference as well.    

  • How do you prepare your child for the arrival of their new sibling?

Telling your child that a new baby is on the way is the first step in preparation. Some parents will only tell their child about a new baby once Mom begins to show or wear maternity. I feel that parents should speak directly with their child at the same time that parents are telling others. You certainly don’t want a child to find out about a new baby from their playmate’s mommy or from another relative, like a grandparent. 

Naturally, what you say to your child depends on the child’s age and developmental level. Some younger children may ask where the baby comes from. You may answer concretely, especially when they see Mommy’s tummy growing.  With younger children, try to answer as directly as possible, “from Mommy’s tummy; when she comes home from the hospital” but don’t offer too much information unless they ask. Children may get more confused with too much information that is difficult for them to understand.

Sometimes, it is helpful when you show children pictures of when their Mommy was pregnant with them, and pictures of them as newborns and as babies or toddlers. If the child is older, you can share their own birth story and you can read books about having a baby. Some younger children do not have a good sense of time, so telling them that the baby is coming in five months may not be meaningful. Rather, you can say that the new baby is coming in the summer or by a particular holiday.

  • And when the baby arrives……

When a new baby arrives, it may be helpful for the new baby to be referred to as “our baby.” This baby has entered into your special group, and you want the older sibling to embrace them as one of you. You also want the older sibling to feel that he/she is a participant in this new and exciting experience. Let them be involved with taking care of the baby; of course the help that they provide depends on their age and ability.

A younger child can be told that they now have a new playmate and that they are now the big brother or sister, while an older child may serve as more of a helper. You may choose a special gift for the older sibling; this can complement the gifts the new baby will be receiving. Perhaps most important, time must be set-aside for the older sibling. Children can benefit from as little as 10-15 minutes a day of “special time just for them." This sends a message that despite a new baby at home and all the excitement and all the time spent caring for this new baby, the older sibling is still very important and deserves some private time

For example, with a younger child, the parent can engage in a fun activity in the house, with NO CELLPHONE OR EMAIL OR HOUSEPHONE INTERRUPTIONS. With older children, you can go out-- a special lunch, dinner, or fun outdoor activity that is geared just for them. Encourage older children to talk about their feelings and conflicts and assure them that they can have these feelings and still be a wonderful older brother or sister. If they express negative feelings, acknowledge them. Never deny or discount your child’s feelings. 

  • What if a new baby arrives and the first child is from a previous marriage or relationship?

When the Only is from a previous marriage, a new baby on the way poses some additional, even more delicate challenges. In addition to all the issues previously raised, there may be a greater chance of jealousy and feeling “displaced”, especially if the relationship between the Step-parent and the Only is strained.  

Have the Biological parent tell the child about the new baby on the way and assure them of their special place in the family. If they are older you can provide them some special opportunities, such as including their input on names, which will make them feel part of the process. Your child’s other parent (the ex) needs to be informed at some point of the pregnancy as well. The ex should receive this news from the parent (their ex) and not leave this announcement to the Only.

Hopefully, once the baby is born, the Only will relate to their new half-sibling the same way they would relate to any new sibling: with a combination of love and hate, interest and apathy, connection and detachment.

It is interesting to note that Stepparents often become better Stepparents once they are parents. They also tend to make good biological parents because they have already parented, which makes them more experienced in childrearing. 

Healthy Sibling Rivalry:

Having a new baby after an Only can be a cause for much happiness, but it can also be overwhelming, scary, and disruptive, both for you and the Only. Acknowledge the change, validate his or her feelings and help your Only come through the whirlwind

The second child poses a different dynamic than the first. Not only do you have to accept the joy and work of a new baby, there are the feelings of the Only to deal with. It is not as hard as it sounds. Give your Only some precious private time, get him or her involved with the baby and teach the pleasures of family time – and play. Over time your Only No More will join you in welcoming the new baby.

Take Away:

Last but certainly not least, give yourself and your spouse some extra TLC. It’s pretty simple; you can’t take care of anyone else unless you find the time to take care of yourselves.   

Children appreciate happy parents.

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Dr. Hindie M. Klein is the Director of Clinical Projects for OHEL Children's Home and Family Services, a prominent New York based social service agency that provides a gamut of mental health services to those with mental illness as well as everyday people confronted by emotional challenges. Dr. Klein is a psychologist/psychoanalyst with a private practice specializing in the treatment of adolescents, adults and couples.  She can be reached at: hindie_klein@ohelfamily.org