By Howard J. Bennett, MD
It’s an understatement to say that sibling rivalry is a source of anxiety and frustration for parents. That being said, one of the most vulnerable times for families is when they bring their second child home from the hospital.
Having a baby brother or sister can make an older child feel displaced and unloved. This isn’t true, of course, but watching a newborn being fed and cared for hour after hour can make a child feel less important in his parents’ eyes. The jealousy that results from this observation can take many forms. A child can be clingy, aloof or disrespectful. He may wake up at night, not eat normally or have tantrums with little provocation.
What’s required in this situation is to let the child know how much he is loved despite the obvious attention the baby is receiving. To do this effectively, you should be patient and flexible, but don’t be afraid to set limits when necessary.
There are no magic solutions to eliminate sibling rivalry, but there are ways to soften the impact of bringing a new baby into your home.
Before the baby is born
- There are lots of books about bringing a new baby into the family. Visit a bookstore or ask friends which books they recommend.
- Visit friends who have babies so your child can see how babies look and act.
- Children less than five may think they’ll be able to play with the baby right away. Let your child know that newborns sleep a lot and are too young to play “big kid” games.
- Most hospitals offer tours for siblings, though some have age restrictions. Taking a tour allows children to become familiar with the hospital.
- When you shop for baby supplies, ask your child if he’d like to come with you. Letting him select a few items may help him bond with the baby, i.e., he can tell the baby he was the one who picked out her yellow blanket.
- Encourage your child to interact with the baby before she is born. He can check the baby with his doctor kit, feel the baby kick, and you can sing to the baby together.
- Let your child accompany you to some OB appointments. This will show him that lots of other moms are having babies.
- Look at baby pictures with your child, and remind him what he was like as a little baby. Tell funny stories like the time he peed on you during a bath.
- Encourage your child to make a book for the baby. The book can consist of drawings or pictures of your house, the neighborhood, etc. Let him name the book, e.g., My New Brother or Welcome Home, Emily.
Visiting mom and the baby in the hospital
- Have your child choose a picture of himself to put inside the baby’s bassinette. In addition to making him feel important, he will get to see “himself” when he visits.
- Time things so the baby is sleeping or in her bassinette when your child visits. That way, he won’t see you holding the baby when he walks into the room.
- Have the baby give your older child a present. This doesn’t have to be anything extravagant, but a present tells your child that the baby loves him.
- Some parents are reluctant to have a child come to the hospital if the mom is hooked up to IV tubes, etc. If you are “matter of fact” about medical equipment, your child is unlikely to be frightened.
- Encourage your child to have an adventure by getting a special treat in the hospital cafeteria with his dad or grandparents.
- Your child may be aloof or clingy when he visits. This can happen not only because you had a baby, but also because you were away from home for a day or two. If your child is standoffish, tell him how much you missed him and that you wish you didn’t have to be away from home.
- If you’re taking narcotics for pain, try to time the visit so you won’t be too groggy or in too much pain when your child arrives. If he tries to jump on you, have your husband or partner gently set limits so you don’t have to discipline him.
Coming home from the hospital
- If possible, have your child stay at home with relatives the day you’re discharged from the hospital. This will prevent any friction that could result from dawdling or other undesirable behaviors on the way home.
- If possible, feed the baby right before you leave the hospital so she’s not hungry the minute you get home.
- When you arrive home, have your husband or partner carry the baby so you are ready to greet your child with open arms.
- If your child is sick and needs to be kept away from the baby, create a fun environment to make this less of an ordeal. You could set up a tent or pretend castle in his room during the quarantine period.
- If you need to come home without the baby because she is sick or jaundiced, explain this to your child ahead of time. If possible, take a picture or a short video on your phone so he can see the baby when you get home.
Adjusting to the new baby at home
- Children like their lives to be predictable. Because a newborn disrupts the regular flow and sleep patterns in your home, keep your child’s schedule as normal as possible. It’s okay if he stays home with you for a few days, but getting him back to school or camp usually makes it easier for everyone to adjust to the baby.
- It’s common for a child to feel displaced when the baby comes home. One way to deal with this is to let him help around the house and, if he wants, with baby chores.
- Give your child a special job when people visit. The one I like best is to have him remind visitors to wash their hands before they see the baby. To give this job some extra oomph, tell your child that he will be the Hand Washing Police.
- Lots of people will visit after the baby is born. In most cases, visitors will want to see the baby right away. To keep your child from feeling neglected, encourage visitors to spend time with him instead of “oohing and aahing” the baby. After they play with him for a while, he will probably say something about the baby or move on to other activities.
- Visitors usually bring a present for the baby. This can make a child jealous. Keep a supply of wrapped toys on hand. If visitors don’t bring anything for your child, you can slip them one of your gifts.
- Children often act up at the least opportune moment, i.e., when you’re doing something with the baby. There are a few things that may mitigate this behavior.
- Have your child feed a doll or stuffed animal while you feed the baby.
- Read or play with your child while you feed the baby. (This will be easier once the baby is nursing well.)
- Have the baby “clap” for your child when he does something that’s funny or takes skill.
- Have your husband or partner take responsibility for lots of baby chores. This will allow you to spend more time with your older child.
- A tired child is a grumpy child, so keep your child’s sleep schedule as normal as possible.
- If you had a C-section, you’ll be restricted from certain activities like repeatedly using the stairs and lifting your child. If your child is less than 5, he may act out because it’s hard for him to understand why you can’t do things like you used to—especially when he sees you carrying the baby. Do the best you can with quiet activities like reading, coloring, playing games, etc. and let him climb onto your lap if it isn’t painful. Your husband or partner should be able to help with baths and bedtime. Relatives and neighbors may be available during the day. If necessary, consider hiring a high school or college kid to help out. One way to avoid having to lift your child for naps is to use a mat like they do in nursery schools.
- It’s common for children to regress when the baby arrives. After my second child was born, our 3-year-old would climb into her brother’s stroller and act like a baby herself. Rather than tell her that big girls don’t use strollers, my wife and I indulged the behavior so she could explore her feelings. We would pick her up and say, “Oh my, it looks like we have two babies in the house. Let’s snuggle this really big baby and give her a (fake) bottle.”
- Sometimes children don’t want to be big boys or girls because of the perks associated with being a baby. In that case, change the adjective from big to something else: my cute boy, my smart boy, my strong boy, etc.
- Although it’s important to understand the stress a baby creates for your child, he should not be allowed to hurt you or the baby. In other words, enforce your Time Out rules just like you did before the baby was born. Although it can be difficult at times, try not to yell when he misbehaves. Learning to deal with the consequences of negative behavior is more effective than getting angry with your child.
- It’s just as important to praise a child for good behavior as it is to discipline him for misbehavior. Psychologists have a phrase for this strategy called, “catch them being good.” This means you should praise your child for any behaviors you want to encourage. Even if he’s just sitting by the baby quietly, you can say something like, “I like it when you’re gentle with Katie.”
- Ask family members who live out of town to call or Skype your child so he gets additional attention from loved ones. Remind them to ask about what he’s been up to rather than focusing on the baby.
- Take your child for a special treat like ice cream, but make a point of saying that only big kids can have ice cream, not babies.
If you’re like most parents, you will probably “hit bottom” when your baby is 3 to 4 weeks. At that point, you’ll be exhausted from a lack of sleep and all the work that’s required to keep the family afloat. If the above tips haven’t worked, talk to your doctor about other strategies that may help your child adjust to the new family situation.
© 2014 Howard J. Bennett. All Rights Reserved.
For more articles and other information, please visit Dr. B’s website at http://www.howardjbennett.com