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Family Dynamics

8 Steps for Helping Your Older Child Adjust to the New Baby

Your child senses that your news implies big changes for her.

“When we told our 3-year-old that we were going to have a baby, she packed her teddy bear in a gym bag and headed for the door. We asked her where she was going and she said, 'I have to find new parents.' What should we do?”

Your little girl is actually very astute. She senses that your news implies big changes for her. After all, your daughter is currently the princess, relishing all your attention. Intuitively, she knows that soon she will have to share your love and all the possessions of the kingdom. To help her adjust to the change, your child needs reassurance about your love, an opportunity to talk about her feelings, and an understanding of the challenges ahead. Here are some steps you can take to smooth her transition.

1. Explain to your child the reason you are having another baby. She needs to know that you are not replacing her. You might say, for instance, “We decided to have another baby so you could have a brother or sister and you will never be lonely.” Next, describe the positives of the experience ahead. For example, you might tell her that when she comes home from nursery school she will always have someone to play with in the back yard.

2. Talk about a sibling success story in the environment. For instance, “Daddy is such good friends with his sister, Aunt Beth. They talk on the phone and they go to the theater together. We want you to have a fun relationship with your sister or brother.”

3. Reassure him that a sibling will not take away your love. Tell him, “You will always be our baby and we will always love you. Daddy and Mommy have so much love. We have enough love for both of you.”

4. Show your child her baby pictures. Explain that in the beginning you had to feed her and bathe her because she was too little to take care of herself. You will have to care for the baby in the same way. This will help your older child to comprehend that she received the same kind of attention and was equally loved. Reassure her that over time the baby will be able to do more and need less of your time.

5. Educate your child about babies. If you can, visit a family with a new baby. Show him how fragile and dependent babies are. Tell him that everyone will need to be gentle with the baby. (Practice “gentle touching” at home, with a baby doll, a flower, or your cat.) Point out that babies cry and sleep a lot so he will not get to play his favorite games with the baby until he is older. Talk about the things he will be able to do with the baby, such as sing to him or hold him, with your help.

6. Point out that she will have a special role as a big sister. As the baby grows, she will teach him important things, such as the alphabet and counting to ten. Tell her that the baby will adore her very much because she can do so many amazing things.

7. Talk about emotions. Explain to your child that when a baby is born, older children can feel left out. Babies cannot wait to have their needs met, so frequently he will have to wait for you. Decide upon a phrase that he can use at moments when he is upset. For instance, he can tell you, “I feel left out” or “I need attention." Reassure him that when he tells you this, you will give him extra hugs and help him to feel better.

Point out that it is natural for an older child to feel angry about the new baby. If he does, he can say, “I feel angry,” but he cannot hurt anyone. Giving him the permission to talk about his feelings and the phrases to use, empowers him and reduces his need to protest through negative actions.

8. Plan ahead. Explain to her that the baby will need to eat frequently. (It is often difficult for children to observe this intimacy without feeling left out.) Talk about what she can do when you're feeding the baby. For example, she can help you by handing you a diaper to burp the baby or she can sit next to you and you will read her a story. Elicit her ideas too. She might propose that she make you a surprise drawing while the baby is eating. Assure her that you will be a team and work together.

Children will always have a reaction to the birth of a sibling at any age. If you are aware of the issues involved, prepare your child for the change and develop a partnership with her based on open communication, she will adjust more easily and the whole family will enjoy the family's wondrous newcomer.

More from Meri Wallace LCSW
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