Finally, the months of anticipation are over, and you welcome your precious new bundle into the family … sounds like a dream scenario, and for most families it is. However, for families that have an older sibling at home, the dream may begin to fade, as s/he quickly grasps that their position in the family has been usurped by this little bundle of joy that seems to require a lot of attention from the adults; attention that normally would have been directed towards him/her. Throughout the pregnancy, it was exciting to watch mum’s tummy grow bigger, to feel the movement, and consider names … in reality, a little baby appears and seemingly ‘rules’ the house, and has the adults of the house at his/her ‘beck and call!’ The first born’s growing awareness of the time and/or attention given to the baby may result in him/her feeling ‘left out’ or imagining that the baby is more important, which brings forth a conflict of emotions. This change to what was once a predictable routine for the older child can then manifest into undesirable behaviours, particularly during times of baby rituals, such as feeding, bathing, or putting to sleep.
Emotions may fluctuate through feelings of grief, sadness, resentment, and anger, all of which the older child will find difficult to manage, understand and/or articulate and often this is when challenging behaviours may occur. Whining, crying, screaming, hitting, spitting, aversion to once eaten food types, reverting to baby like behaviour (regression in toilet training, wanting help to eat), tantrums, anger towards baby are quite common. Whilst challenging behaviours are guaranteed to push your buttons, they are merely the child’s way of seeking attention, to garner his/her parents emotional support as s/he adjust to life as an older sibling.
So how, amid your own tiredness and emotional journey, do you support your older child during this transitional phase? Throughout the pregnancy, involving the child as much as practical is a good way to introduce them to the idea – talk about the baby growing in your tummy, gather their thoughts, avoid talking about being an ‘amazing big sister/brother’ as s/he may not be feeling that way, read books about babies. Once baby arrives organise family and friends to spend quality time with the older child or to be with baby so you can have one on one time with him/her, suggest family and friends, rather than just buying a gift for the baby and/or parents, provide a small gift for older child. Have a personalised gift for the baby to give to the older child, perhaps a book about their family. A ‘baby’ doll for the older child can help them mirror your actions with the baby too.
Strategies during this transitional phase:
Encourage the older child to express his/her feelings – regularly discussing both positive and negative feelings is important in acknowledging the changes and helps pave the way for laying the foundations for building a strong relationship between the older child and baby. It is completely normal for the older child to feel a sense of loss of how things were and to feel powerless – provide lots of reassurance to maintain their sense of security and validate his/her feelings
Nurture the child’s growing need for trust and autonomy – encourage him/her to assist in chores such as fetching nappies, folding washing, helping bathe baby to instill a sense of empowerment, helping prepare dinner for the family
One on one quality time – set aside time throughout the day (even if you only have 5minutes), without any interruptions where you can be fully present. Encourage other family members to do this as well
The child’s need for routines, rituals and boundaries– maintaining family expectations and rituals, whilst a daunting thought during this period, is essential in providing a predictable environment. Children thrive on consistency and routines and rituals help them feel safe and secure. See the attached link for articles on the value of routines and rituals: https://raisingchildren.net.au/search?query=routines
Remember that challenging behaviour is simply the child’s way of making sense of his/her new world, be mindful not to label the child and/or behaviour. Instead, consider how to rephrase expectations in a matter of fact manner, e.g. “It’s not safe when you throw toys because …”
Whilst engaging in daily rituals with the new baby, such as feeding, bathing, preparing for sleep time use this as a wonderful opportunity to create relaxing rituals for the older child. Set the scene by having a dedicated space for the child to use during this time, perhaps a small teepee style tent, adorned with fairy lights set the mood and create special rituals that are looked forward to. Prepare stories online, playlists of favourite songs, meditation songs/stories, create ‘boxes of wonder’ (small boxes filled with different interesting collections such as shells, knick knacks from the Reject Shop, drawing media, playdough, sound shakers) and have the older child select one box each time a baby ritual is to occur. Not knowing what is in the box each time adds an element of surprise and intrigue and ought to see him/her engage happily engage for the duration.
Remember, it is completely normal for older children to feel excited, but also display signs of trepidation with the arrival of a new sibling, but with lots of love, reassurance and attention, you are helping their sense of self grow stronger, fostering their growing resilience and supporting them to form positive connections with the baby.