Coping with New Babies and Sibling Rivalry

By Dr Lin Day

One of the biggest worries for expectant parents with existing children is how the new arrival will impact its sibling (or siblings).

It’s undeniably a big change for all of the family, but there are steps you can take to prepare everyone for what’s coming and adjustments to make once the baby arrives.

Dr Lin Day, renowned parenting expert and founder of hugely successful national franchise Baby and Toddler Sense, shares her tips and insights for coping with sibling rivalry…

It is inevitable that most parents will spend more time getting to know their first baby than they will their second or third.

Every phase of development is new and exciting with a first baby, who naturally receives a lot of time and attention as a result. With the birth of a second child, parents tend to be less anxious, more relaxed and more flexible – and they need to be, now that they have another child in the mix. This second baby is coming into an experienced family.

Most parents have established collective patterns and individual methods that they feel comfortable with, and will have a good idea of how they are going to manage the new arrival. A second or third baby tends to fit into the family routine without any major changes – at least, for the parents.

Life turned upside down

But for one person in particular, a new baby can be very disorientating. For an older sibling, gaining a new younger brother or sister can be the most impactful thing that has ever happened to them. In short, the child’s life is about to turn upside down.

Picture the scene: here is a child who is used to getting a certain amount of attention, expects certain things to happen at certain times of the day and has already established a view of their own ‘small world order’ from an early age. Suddenly, a new little human being arrives that takes up much of the family time, makes so much noise and demands so much attention. It is unsurprising, and quite forgivable, that some children find it very difficult to adjust to a new baby and react by demanding even more attention. After all, they need their needs to be met as much as the newest arrival does.

Parents will introduce their new baby to its sibling in a number of different ways; one mother recalled how she purposely designed the meeting between the new baby and sibling with great care: She said, “I made sure I wasn’t holding the baby when my first child came to meet her new brother in hospital for the first time. So, I got up and met her at the door on my own and walked her to the cot where he was, so we met him together. She gave him a present, and he gave her a present. I think it made a massive difference.”

Easing anxiety and resentment

It can help tremendously to maintain elements of family life that older children can rely on as constant and familiar. Keeping set times for meals, play, sleep, continuing bed time routines and rituals as well as carving out consistent, dedicated one-on-one time for the parent and child (however short), will help counteract any negative impact of this major change, and reassure them that they are still important – which is of course what they want to hear.

Encourage older siblings to visit the new baby in hospital as soon as possible after the birth, try putting the baby in the cot so parents can spend one-on-one time with them, and having some new toys on hand can help ease any anxiety or resentment about the new baby.

Although the new baby will need frequent feeds and attention, babies can and do fit into another child’s routine. What were previously one-on-one quality activities such as reading a story, having a bath or enjoying action songs together can be carried out when the baby is nursing or sleeping, or even turned into family time by including the baby.

Learning to cooperate and compromise

Even if the toddler or child appears to love the new baby, she still needs to learn how to touch him, where to kiss, how to play and importantly, when to stop. A toddler who pokes or squeezes her baby brother or sister may not realise the consequences of her own strength and however gentle, should never be left alone with a newborn baby. If the parent does need to leave the room, the toddler should go too.

Getting cross or discouraging contact can make the older sibling feel left out and unwanted. Similarly, trying to protect the baby by using a bouncer or car seat for long periods may inhibit floor play and tummy time, which are important for physical and mental development. Better then to supervise floor play, to provide interesting toys for the older child to explore alongside her new sibling and to continue with beneficial tummy time or family playtime rather than avoid it altogether. By including the child in safe and enjoyable play, she will soon learn to cooperate and compromise, and continue to feel an important part of the family.

Toddlers between the ages of two and three will still be dealing with their own turbulent emotions when the new baby comes along.Temper tantrums are common because of stored emotions, fears or frustrations – all of which need to be released. A big emotional wave such as screaming, shouting or crying may seem like ‘acting out’ but it helps to expel negative feelings towards the baby. It’s very likely that parents will become the target of these negative feelings.

Stored emotions can be hard to manage

Biting, hitting, waking in the night, thumb-sucking and generally picky behaviours are all signs that the toddler has stored emotions that are hard to manage. Although it can be disruptive and frightening when the toddler behaves in such a way, it is worth remembering that it is a very natural and normal part of their development.

Try to make as little fuss as possible. If the parent overreacts, the behaviour may be continued. It is far better to look into the toddler’s eyes and ask her if she can describe how she feels. She probably won’t give an answer, but will writhe and squirm, wriggle away, cry, laugh or have a tantrum. These are good signs and major steps in the tension release process. A soothing hug or from the parent will provide reassurance and comfort. Gentle physical contact can lower stress levels (for both) and re-establish the loving parent-child connection.

The more an older sibling gets to know her new brother or sister as an individual person who is capable of interacting with her from birth, the sooner a special, unique and enduring relationship with the baby will develop. This process can also start well before the baby is born.

Why not try the following tips?

*Get your child to help to pack your maternity bag

* Take your child along to antenatal appointments

*Visit the maternity unit together and talk about the new baby being born

*Choosing baby clothes, nappies and equipment together

*Selecting gifts and toys for the new baby

*Decide how the nursery will be decorated

*Visit friends and family who also have new babies

*Looking at pictures of babies in magazines and books

*Share photographs of the older child as a baby Discussing potential baby names with the child

*Have fun bathing, changing and cuddling a baby doll

A major life-changing event

Despite all of the planning and preparation though, the child may still react by ignoring the baby or by demanding more attention. Rest assured that this is perfectly normal behaviour. After all, bringing home a new baby is a major life-changing event. Any change, especially one that involves a different routine, will be very disorienting to the child. Don’t be surprised if your child reverts to baby talk too; it is part of the adjustment process.

Adjustment to a new baby will depend on pre-planning and preparation, the child’s personality, age and stage of development and her relationship with her parent/s. Ultimately, the child needs to know that she is still loved and wanted. Cuddles are important at any major life-changing event, and also throughout life. They can make a real difference to how the child feels and behaves and to relationships in the future.

Dr Lin Day (PhD, M. Phil, PGCE, FETC, BSc, Dip Ed), is one of the UK’s leading parenting experts and a renowned author within the field of childcare and education.  She is also the founder and director of the multi-award winning national and international baby and toddler activities, Baby Sensory and Toddler Sense.

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