Bringing home a new baby is a big moment in any family life. But if that baby has an older sibling or siblings, it is a huge moment in the lives of the other kids. Babies demand a lot of immediate attention from caregivers, which can be hard for older siblings to understand and cope with.
One of the three characteristics of an excellent parent is being kind and loving. Part of being kind and loving means taking the time to help a new-baby transition be successful. Here are a few easy strategies you can adopt before and after your baby is born to help make the introduction of a new family member a positive family experience.
Strategies before the new baby arrives.
- Talk about the new baby. Books are one of the best ways to introduce the impending family change to children younger than 6. Classic books like the Bernstein Bears A New Baby or Bernstein Bears Baby Makes Five still are great reads that can help you start a conversation with the soon-to-be older siblings. With siblings older than 6, honest, short (3 minutes max) conversations about their thoughts and feelings are important to prepare for the new arrival. Start having these conversations 4-6 months before the expected arrival of a baby.
- Have the baby send presents to the older siblings. This suggestion always gets a laugh, but I promise you – it is effective. A special random present from the baby in utero? Older siblings are going to think that the baby is pretty cool. Even if the child is old enough to understand that a parent really bought the present, they will appreciate the sentiment (and the present!). A family I worked with gave their 4-year old a new toy from the new baby. The 4-year-old yelled, “Thank you baby! How did you know I didn’t have this one?” Needless to say, the older brother thought the new baby was a pretty cool dude. Don’t overdo this one - a present or two spread out over the few months waiting for baby and on the day of the arrival of the new baby can go a long way to building goodwill between the siblings.
- Make a plan for how you will spend time with the older sibling(s). It’s important to develop a plan for when you will spend one-on-one time with an older child. Can you carve out a few minutes for a special “big kid” book? Can you be in charge of taking your child to a certain sports event? It won’t always work out. And I promise you will have to make adjustments to whatever plan you make, but seriously consider how you will spend quality, one-on-one time with each of your kids when you have an infant in the home.
Strategies after the new baby arrives.
- Talk to the baby like you talk to your older children. We often tell an older sibling, “You need to wait a minute while I do X, Y, or Z for the baby.” But do you ever tell your baby to wait? “I am sorry baby; you have to wait a minute because I am giving your big brother a hug.” Vocalizing it out loud will help your older child remember that the baby also must take turns. Certainly, a crying baby is an urgent need, and older child will have to wait in that moment. But there are plenty of other moments in the day when you can remind your older child they are going first and that life is not completely unfair.
- Reward kindness to the new sibling. If older children are between 2 and 10, a reward jar can be exceptionally powerful for creating a positive sibling environment. Anytime an older child is helpful or kind to the baby, place a marble or cotton ball in the jar. Kids love how they can see how full the jar is getting. When the jar is filled, the sibling or siblings get a reward. The key to this approach with young children is making sure that they can accomplish filing the jar very quickly – in a day or two. With older kids, it’s okay if it takes a week. This jar serves two purposes. First, it rewards a child’s behavior that you want to continue. Second, it helps you pay attention to the good behavior. If you didn’t put any marbles in the jar, it means you probably missed opportunities to comment on sibling kindness. If you have a child that is not being kind towards a sibling, set the bar very low for what qualifies as kindness – it can be smiling at the baby, handing you something, not throwing something around the baby). Reward the little things, and, over time, you can raise the bar to only reward more direct kindness acts. Paying attention and rewarding kindness between the older and younger siblings will help set the stage for a lifelong friendship.
- Spend quality time with each child. Set a goal of 15-20 minutes one-on-one with each child, each day. In large or busy families, this simply might not be possible; 5 minutes may have to do, or you may have to rotate days. That’s okay. The point is to make effort to spend time with each child where that child is the sole recipient of your attention. Let your child drive what they do during these activities. It may not be what you want to do at that moment (most likely, you want to nap), but you and your child will feel better after. Plus, getting in this habit early means that you will continue to set aside time for each child as your children grow.
Adding a member to your family is an incredible experience. With careful planning and encouragement, you can create a special bond with each of your children and a special bond between your children.
Note: While these strategies were written from the perspective of bringing home a baby, they can easily be adjusted to apply for bringing home an older child into the home, through adoption or family blending.