Quit Being Such a Baby

A new baby born into a family is a gigantic life transition. All members of the family will be readjusting their expectations, their activities and their sleep schedules to accommodate this delightful and brand new life.

As adults we realize that adding a sibling does not simply mean adding one more person. It means shifting and changing the entire structure of the family in order to make a place for baby. Although it is a welcome and wonderful addition, it can often be tiring, frustrating and difficult as well. As adults, we find the transition to be very involved and emotionally (and physically!) straining.

Imagine the internal work going on in the mind of the older sibling! She had been the sole recipient of all the love her parents had to give, and now there is a tiny, needy, energy-sucking baby around all the time who has essentially de-throned her place of honor. Having to share mom and dad with the new arrival—and then only getting the most tired and often impatient parts of her parents—can be emotionally straining as well. Young children, however, have even fewer capabilities for handling the stress than adults because they are developmentally still programmed to believe they are the center of the universe, the cause for every effect.

One common strategy for young children dealing with the birth of a new sibling is to take on the characteristics of the baby in an attempt to get the attention back that they lost. Older siblings are no simpletons—they see that the attention is doled out mostly to the one in the family who is most needy—needing nursing and feeding and diaper changing and things handed to them and rocking and cuddles and pats on the back. The list goes on and on. The older sibling, then, sees that she simply would need to go back to being a baby, and the nurturing will flow forth once again from her parents.

This is not, of course, a conscious process in the older sibling. It is, however, a response to a deep need to continue to get the nurturing she needs during this transition time when she is feeling most vulnerable.

How can parents handle the older siblings shift backwards in abilities? This is a difficult balance because we don’t want to encourage helplessness, but it is clear that our older child is in need of some reassurance during this time. The early childhood staff at Harley Family Center spent some time discussing strategies for helping your older sibling get back on her own two feet in the role of older sibling.

  • We can’t stop her from acting like the baby—it is a very common response in older siblings. Provide the nurturing she is looking for in the form she is asking for it. Rock her, cuddle her, sing to her. When an older sibling gets the sense of security she is looking for through the nurturing, this “baby” behavior tends to go away
  • Bring out pictures of your older child when he was a baby. Spend time talking about what he was like as a baby
  • Talk about and explore the fun things your older sibling can do. Find ways to celebrate them. She can’t sit in the high chair, but you could work with her to make a place-mat which she can keep at her “big girl” place at the table
  • Give your older child a chance to experience successful and big things as often as you can. Celebrate these successes. For example, allow her to help a bit more with baking or cooking. Encourage her to take up an enjoyable household task like helping to fold the washcloths and towels. (Don’t fix them once they have been “folded”) Build up her skills in dressing herself. Provide her with a job for baby (only if she seems excited about it) like being the diaper holder or the baby wipe captain
  • Whenever you have the opportunity, tell the baby “you have to wait” so that your older child can hear. If you are helping big brother get his clothes on in the morning, even if baby is just lying around minding her own business, take the time to say to baby “you have to wait until I finish with your brother”. This is a reversal of what your older child will hear a thousand times in the first months, and therefore very satisfying to older siblings
  • Don’t attach anything that must be done “because of the baby”. For example, avoid asking your child to be quiet during naptime “because of the baby”. Request that your older child use her inside voice.
  • Ask visitors to the house and family members to ask questions and carry conversations with the older sibling which have to do JUST with the older sibling. Avoid asking or talking about baby with the older sibling. Allow some of the visit to be focused on the things other than baby that are going on in the older child’s life
  • If you have help with care-giving for baby, spend that time with your older sibling doing something special with the two of you. It may be simply sitting in another room and reading a book together or taking a walk around the block—your older child will want the time with you and hold that most dear—the activity doesn’t have to be overly planned or structured
  • Try to keep your routines as stable as possible, so the older sibling will know that familiar things are going to happen during the day
  • Read the blog post “Helping Older Siblings Welcome Baby” for more ideas

These months while the family is transitioning to the new baby in the household are often an upheaval for all. Focus on self care for yourself and the other members of your family. Concentrate on showing kindness to all members of the family–and accepting kindness for them as well–and allow for the shifting of expectations to be acted out and experienced by all. Don’t try to do what you were able to do before baby came along. Expect change and find ways to make it a successful adjustment. Make your life and your family’s life as simple and as stable as possible. Say yes to help when it is offered. If you need help and it isn’t offered, ask for it.

Having another baby gives a family the chance to slow way down and focus on what the specialness of each addition means to every member. It is a significant transition; with simplification, patience and an eye toward showing support for each member, the new shape of your family will be celebrated for years to come.

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