Bonding with a new sibling can begin well before the baby is born and may well avert some rivalry issues. How soon you explain to your older child that you are having a baby is your own choice but do remember that hearing from people outside the family can make your child feel excluded and this is not a good basis for sibling harmony.
For younger children with little sense of time, it is best to link the birth to an event they do understand such as “after Christmas” or “before your next birthday” or “around the time we have our Easter eggs.” Meanwhile, sharing your pregnancy with your older child(ren) can help their understanding of this miraculous process and will encourage bonding.
Talking To Children About Birth
Whether your child is present at a sibling’s birth, is closeby to greet the newborn, or visits several hours later, is a deeply personal choice that depends on your own and your child’s needs, but how you talk to your daughter about birth can leave lasting impressions – you can convey the power and creativity of the female body, or you can conjure up fears of powerlessness, pain and exclusion.
When I had our own youngest child, my daughters, then aged eight and ten were fascinated and shared numerous discussions about birth. I explained how my vagina would stretch like a skivvy for the baby to come out; how I would have to work very hard to help push the baby out so I would make lots of noise; and that sometimes I would breathe loudly or deeply to help me concentrate. I discussed how moving around helps get the baby out more easily, so I might get down on all fours or squat to help the birth canal to open up.
As well as discussing the role of the placenta and umbilical cord (and belly buttons!), I also explained the appearance of a newborn to my daughters – that at first a baby may look squashy and purple. It could have a bit of blood on or a white, sticky substance rather like toothpaste – this is called vernix. However, in spite of my best efforts to reassure the girls that the blood on the baby would be good ‘food’ blood, and not ‘hurting’ blood, my younger daughter (then aged eight) declared that she wasn’t having anything to do with a baby that hadn’t been washed and dressed in pretty clothes (actually, she helped with his first bath). On the other hand, my ten year old was determined to be present at the birth – and she was! She watched over the midwife’s shoulder and it felt completely natural for her to announce, “look he’s got brown hair!’ as her baby brother’s head emerged.
Children are all different when it comes to what is appropriate involvement in the birth of a sibling – by observing your children at play, talking openly and honestly at the child’s level of understanding and validating the child’s feelings, you can confidently prepare your child for the arrival of a new baby in the family.
8 Tips To Prepare Your Child Before The Birth
- #1: Encourage your child to ‘cuddle’ the baby, talk and sing to it, and feel it moving, perhaps guessing which body part is moving (do you think that is a foot or a hand – or is it his bottom wriggling?).
- #2: Little children may enjoy joining in prenatal exercises or yoga.
- #3: Role play with dolls – especially a pregnant doll or a baby doll can stimulate discussion about birth and the needs of a newborn e.g. “when you were a baby…” or “the baby will be too little to eat food like you so he will drink milk from Mummy’s breasts just like you used to when you were a baby.” (see the pregnant Midge – Barbie’s friend, or for a dolly who actually gives birth – complete with placenta and umbilical cord.
- #4: Take your child to visit a friend with a newborn for a close up look at the reality of life with a baby.
- #5: Looking at picture books that show the various stages of in utero development can be fun as you point out things like ‘our baby is this big now’ or ‘look, now our baby will be growing fingernails.’
- #6: Take your child with you for antenatal checkups and let her listen to the baby’s heartbeat and (in the later stages) ‘help’ the midwife or obstetrician feel the baby’s position.
- #7 As your baby’s birth day approaches, appropriate jobs can be delegated to older children: choosing and preparing clothes for the baby; helping to write a list of names and phone numbers to call and announce the baby’s birth; giving mum backrubs or ice cubes to suck during labour; even taking photos or a birth video.
- #8 – Read books about birth and babies together – BellyBelly has a list of fantastic books that are designed to help young children understand the changes that occur when mamma is pregnant and when there is a new baby in the house. See the list HERE.
Imagine: Your partner has just brought home a new lover and announced that you are all going to live together. It will be fun! You will be best friends! After hearing that you and the new lover will be loved equally by your partner, you are asked to share your things (all of them) with the new lover. It also turns out that you won’t be getting as much attention as you used to because the new lover is a bit upset about something and anyway you are such a clever person, you can do lots of things by yourself, now. Oh, and by the way, you must be gentle with the new lover! Is it any wonder your older child feels displaced?
Some Suggestions After The Birth
- Give your older child a small album of photos taken when he was a baby, and chat about them with him. This can be a great time to mention, “when you used to cry, we gave you lots of cuddles (you used to like walking / mummy singing / riding in the car, or whatever).
- Let your older children help while you feed, change, wash, hold or massage the baby – it might be more ‘helpful’ to give your older child a doll so that she can feed and dress ‘her’ baby while you attend to the real one.
- Set up a corner for feeding and crying times, with special things to occupy your older child: snacks and drinks (make up a lunch box in quiet times and keep it in the fridge for when baby feeds or crying times intrude on toddler meal times – life is easier if your older child’s blood sugar levels are stable), story books, playing cards, paper dolls, scrap book and crayons, a tape recorder with story tapes or blank tapes for your child to record and play back his own stories, funny voices, songs, or pop a few interesting little things like cards or matchbox toys (and perhaps a small snack pack or juice box) into brown paper lunch bags and bring out a surprise bag as a diversion for desperate moments.
- Make an effort to notice and encourage your older child’s positive behaviour.
- When the baby is contented, or perhaps as he (finally) dozes off to sleep, tell the baby (within earshot of the older sibling) that you and your older child are going to do something special together – paint a picture, play with play-dough, have a swing, but babies are MUCH too little for such a fun activity.
- Don’t give the baby treasured items – favourite blankets, or toys that belong to the older child, without asking first.
- Introduce changes (such as moving from a cot to a bed, or starting preschool) either well before the baby arrives or several months later. A new baby and the ensuing family upheaval is enough adjustment at one time-even for parents!
- Regression and resentment are normal reactions to the shift in your attention from your older child to the ‘disruptive’ newcomer. If your older child voices negative feelings about the baby, show understanding by saying something like, “it sounds like you’re mad at the baby, maybe because he has been crying a lot and needing so much of my time.” Let the child talk honestly about her feelings and remember, the less lovable your “big” child is behaving, the more she will need cuddles and support, but make it clear that it is not acceptable to hurt the baby.