The Birth of a Big Brother or Big Sister: Tips for Compassionately Welcoming a New Baby Into the Family
Newborns and Siblings
I frequently get asked what parents can do to prepare their older children for a new baby coming. Here are some tips that can help the older child look forward to their sibling arriving and help them feel more welcoming and less threatened when the baby comes. Not every older sibling will want the same things, and some of these will only work with siblings of a certain age-- take what works for your family and leave the rest!
Before Baby Comes:
Language is important! Refer to the baby as “our baby” and sometimes as “your baby” to your child. Let them see from your words that baby is already part of the family and that they have an important role as an older sibling.
Talk about how much the baby is going to admire his big sibling. How little babies love watching their big brother do tricks and sing songs and do cool dances.
Wonder together about what the new baby will be like, whether she will have the same curls as her big brother, or whether she will love ice cream one day like him.
Take a lot of time to look at baby picture albums of the older child as a baby. Snuggle up and play baby with the older child. In an exaggerated voice go through the motions of feeding and burping and soothing and putting to sleep. Older kids get a kick out of this.
Children's book recommendations: Baby on the Way and What Baby Needs by Sears. These books do such a great job of gently explaining how the parents will be interacting with the baby and what the time of birth will look like. Babywearing and cosleeping friendly.
Prepare yourself to expect some regressions from the older child. Potty accidents, not sleeping through the night, needing more help at bedtime-- these are all normal reactions to a new baby coming and will work themselves out if given time and patience. Try not to time any major changes in routine or switching rooms/beds right before baby comes. Balance your conversations about being older and being a big kid and all the fun things big kids can do with conversations about still being your baby and still getting all the same snuggles.
When Baby Comes:
The first time your older child meets the new baby (and gets to see you again!) in a hospital or birth center may feel strange and out of place for the older child. Many parents will place the baby in a bassinet when the child arrives so that the reunion with the parents is the first focus and the birthing parent’s arms are open wide to hug and hold the older child. (You can put a pillow on your lap if you had a cesarean and make space right next to your body for your child to sit.)
Allow the older child to ask about the baby first and make first contact. Ask if she would like to hold the baby or look at the baby while someone else holds her. When the baby is close, talk often about how amazing it is that the baby is looking at the older sibling with so much love! “Wow, her eyes are following you all over the room! She is so excited to finally meet you and have you for a big sister!” I like to narrate for the baby to the older child often, constantly saying how she is looking at her with so much love in her eyes and is so eager to see her do things big kids can do.
When you arrive home with the baby, find a way to have a surprise present delivered to the home from the baby. (Note: something really good. Something that will knock his socks off.) “I can’t believe your brother knew what you wanted! He knew you liked Thomas and he must have known you’ve been wanting the roundtable station! He must be so happy you are his big brother!” Added bonus: a toy this child has been wanting for months will keep him occupied while you are tending to the baby!
Allow the older sibling to do a tour of the home for the baby, pointing out where baby will sleep and showing the baby where to find toys and diapers and where his older brother likes to hang out. Let him be in control and lead the way. If he was home with a family member during the hospital stay he could make signs as an arts and craft project to “show” baby where things are.
Plan time each day, even if it’s just a few minutes, to completely reconnect with the older child and let them lead the way. Play dolls, build a train track. If you are in bed or the couch, focus on reading together and imagine games you can do from one spot. Make sure there is a family member or caregiver who can take the older child out on exciting adventures at least a few times a week, if not something to look forward to every day. Baby the older sibling. Play baby again and make a silly game out of pretending he’s a baby.
If the new baby is sleeping in your room, make a nest in your room for the older child to come to in the night quietly if he wakes up, or assign a non-breastfeeding parent some older child snuggle time in the night if there are sleep disturbances. Waking up in the night is so common in the first few postpartum weeks, so finding a way to meet his emotional needs without impacting your sleep further is key. This will not last forever.
Make sure you have support at home. Family, friends, a partner, and a postpartum doula can make the difference between feeling chaotic and feeling confident. Self-care is vital as you try to meet so many needs.
Make space for your older child on the couch next to you while you nurse (once you get a good latch!) and encourage this as reading/snuggling time. Try to avoid blaming the baby for things, "Shhh! Baby is sleeping you can't make so much noise!" and make it a more general or personal comment, "Can we use quiet whisper voices like this? Mommy is trying to have quiet time." Both of these make the older child feel less replaced/threatened by the new baby.
Continue to narrate the baby’s thoughts about her older sister. How interested she is to watch her play, how much she looks up to her and admires her, how much she loves her and can’t wait to be big enough to play with her. Continue to talk about the baby as “our baby” and “your baby” instead of “the baby.”
Again, expect regressions. Expect meltdowns. There is a huge emotional shift in the home-- not only are the adults paying attention to the baby, but the adults are sleep deprived and may feel worn thin. Children experience this shift in different ways, but common things you may see are clinginess, baby talk, anger, and tantrums over things that normally aren’t a big deal. The best thing you can do is love them through it. Now is not the time for tough love and enforcing rigid expectations. They will get through this. Your child is not permanently changed. It is a stage and with love and patience they will pass through the stage.