Preparing to welcome a new baby into your home can be an exciting and happy experience, but it can be a difficult time of adjustment for older siblings. Older siblings may need additional consideration, support and attention to assist them to cope with this dramatic change in their lives.
WHY MIGHT IT BE DIFFICULT FOR MY CHILD TO HAVE A NEW SIBLING?
Many siblings struggle with mixed feelings when the new baby is born- excited about having someone new at home, scared that parents will have less time for them, and uncertain about how life at home will change.
Many young children have a hard time verbally communicating with others (which is developmentally-appropriate), so it may be difficult for them to ask questions they may be wondering about, or talk about emotions they may be feeling. Many have challenges understanding what is said to them so your child may not understand the information told to him/her about where mom will go to deliver the baby, how long she will be gone, the birth process, what the hospital is, what having a new baby will be like and safety rules that need to be in place once the baby is home.
Young children often need help managing changes- big and small. Having a new baby in the family leads to many changes- availability of mom and dad/other family members, changes in routine, changes in sleeping arrangements (child may need to move to his/her own bed, a different bedroom), changes in caregivers while mom and baby are in the hospital, and new roles within the family as a big sibling.
WHAT CAN I DO TO PREPARE MY CHILD?
SHOW FAMILY PHOTOS
Show your child pictures of him/her as a baby and talk about his/her growth and changes. Create a story/book together about your growing family. Read this story/book frequently to your child as it may take time for him/her to understand and to think of questions or worries.
ANTICIPATE ISSUES AND QUESTIONS THAT MAY COME UP
Do not ever leave your child unattended with the baby. Even children who appear to be gentle and happy about having a baby can unintentionally exhibit unpredictable and potentially dangerous behavior towards the baby. Review the layout of your home and ensure you have a safe spot in most rooms in which you can place your baby if you have to attend to your child. Continue practicing using safe words (stop, gentle) to ensure your child remembers to immediately respond to them.
REDUCE EXPECTATIONS OF YOURSELF AND YOUR CHILD
Try not to start any new self-help routines (such as toilet training) right after the baby is born. Expect some more “babyish-like” behaviors, as these are typical in all new siblings. Try not to plan new tasks or projects to complete that you have had waiting for a time you would be home. Save your energy for providing care for you and your expanded family.
SPEND FREQUENT TIME WITH YOUR CHILD AND LABEL IT OUT LOUD
Making sure that you set aside times to spend 1:1 time with your child is very important. By saying out loud to your baby “I am spending very special time with Joey right now” makes your child more aware that the time is just for him/her.
SCHEDULE SPECIAL TIME BLOCKS WITH YOUR CHILD
This time can be for activities with mom, dad or another person that your child enjoys being with. Setting up a visual schedule with pictures of time blocks in the day for the baby’s feeding and sleeping will make the day more predictable for your child and help him/her know when his/her special time is coming up. You can also use a calendar to show any doctor appointments, when visitors are coming and any other special events. Using a timer also may help your child understand the concept of time – for example – “You can play by yourself for 10 minutes and then I will spend time with you for 10 minutes.”
INCORPORATE YOUR CHILD DURING FEEDING TIMES
Whether you are breast or bottle feeding, feeding your baby often takes a significant amount of time in your day. If you can include your child in some of that time by seating them beside you, perhaps with a snack of their own, they may not feel as left out. Some parents find it helpful to create a routine and find ways for their child to have fun during feeding times:
- Create a Busy Bag for your child with developmentally-appropriate activities and toys that you only bring out when you are feeding or tending to the baby. Activities may include coloring, stickers, Lego blocks, puzzles, look and find books, etc. Creating a unique activity bag gives your child something to look forward to.
- Ask your other children to pick out music to play during feeding.
- Consider reading a book to your other child while you are feeding the baby. Your child can be in charge of holding the book and turning the pages. Older children who are learning to read can read to you and the baby.
- Have your child gather supplies for diaper changes or burp clothes when you are ready for them.
- Create sensory bins for your child to quietly play in and explore during the feeding. Some ideas include: beans, rice or oats with cups and funnels, pompoms with a smaller container that has a cover and hole cut in it (children can practice putting the pompoms in the hole), sand and animals, and toy bugs hidden in rice with a magnifying glass.
TEACH YOUR CHILD WHAT TO DO, NOT FOCUS ON WHAT NOT TO DO
Think about all the little things that your other child can do with/for the baby. These might include getting you diapers/wipes, helping to soap up the baby’s feet in the tub-talking quietly to the baby, etc. Provide enough support to ensure he/she is successful and then provide specific praise in regards to their efforts (Instead of saying, “Joey, you’re such a great big brother,” say. “Joey, great job reading your sister a book while she was feeding!”). Try using visuals or pictures of things your child can help with to make it clear what “helping behaviors” are appropriate. If your child does not want to be involved in the baby’s care, do not push it, but simply praise “baby friendly” behavior (quiet voice, gentle hands, patiently waiting, etc.). Continue to read books and stories about babies and what it feels like to be a big brother or sister.
USE FAMILY AND FRIENDS TO HELP YOU
With a first baby, most mothers try to sleep when the baby sleeps in order to catch up with missed sleep at night. When you have an older child, sleeping while that child is awake is unsafe for both the child and the baby. Use people within your support circle to try and schedule some time when someone can care for your older child while you catch up on the sleep you need or do something nice for yourself. Being well rested and taking care of your own needs will allow you to provide all the loving care your growing family requires.
Adapted from “Helping your Child with ASD Adjust to New Siblings” by the Surrey Place Centre