The most often discussed concern that I’ve seen regarding bringing home a new baby is jealousy. Ironically, this emotion is also the most abstract, which means your older child is probably not articulating that they are feeling “jealous” (our friend, Daniel Tiger, has a decent episode about this emotion if you’re looking for something). But, because so many adults (me included) consider this a major concern, I found myself assuming that my oldest was “jealous” when she probably wasn’t.
Interestingly enough, for me, anytime I would feel negatively about the way I was balancing my time between my children (this even started in utero), I would take any negative action from my oldest, Jenna, to be representative of her repressed jealousy. This, it turns out, was problematic. I would end up giving Jenna more time, more attention, and more of me, which then had her acting out more consistently in order to get “more.” After a few weeks of feeling rather wretched about my life, here’s what I did:
(1) Get the big sibling involved before the baby arrives. While this probably won’t work with younger kids (Jenna was almost 18 months old when we got pregnant with #2), I found that it worked well to give my daughter a brief explanation of what was happening and give her a way in which she could help me. Empowering her to be part of the pregnancy seemed to give her purpose, and she was much more inclined to actually do what I was asking of her. For instance, instead of cajoling her into a nap, I would ask her to help me take a nap by being quiet and taking her nap. If I needed to get stuff done for the nursery or around the house, I would ask her to help me carry, clean, or pick out what we needed. She will still point to aspects of the nursery with great pride because (or at least I feel this is true) she was “part of” preparing for her sibling.
Seeing how well this worked for my daughter while I was pregnant, I decided to start prepping her for being involved when her brother arrived. As a role-playing fanatic, she loved “practicing” with her baby dolls. We went through every unavoidable, daily chore that I could think of: diapering, feeding, napping, etc. For each one, I would give her a list of things that she could do BECAUSE she was a big sister. For diaper changes, for instance, she could retrieve a diaper, help with wipes, entertain her brother, play quietly in the same room, or play more exuberantly elsewhere. For baths, as you can see in the picture, she would get wash cloths warm for me (and when that got boring, we encouraged her to “wash” one of her water proof toys). By having (and practicing) her “jobs” before the baby arrived, our daughter was beyond ready to try these skills in action. When her little brother did arrive, she already knew where she fit in the new worldview.
(2) Being an older sibling is SPECIAL. This concept became key to our success as a growing family. It helped that any baby shower someone threw for me, there was always a gift or two for the “big sister.” I would also pack a preemptive gift for her to open in the car on the way home in case there wasn’t one there for her. These gifts were basic: coloring book, dollar store toy, etc. My plan was to thank her for being so kind to all of our friends and how excited I was to share this special day with her, the big sister.
We also tried to be clear at home that being a big sibling was unique and important. As most kids do, when we got out the baby gear, my daughter wanted to play with the baby things. To avoid any confusion or jealousy when the baby actually came home, we instituted a rather firm “no big kids in the baby stuff” policy (it helped that our 2 year old was/is big for her age and was well outside the weight/height guidelines for most baby things). To ease her feelings, we would show her pictures of herself as a baby using the baby items, and we would practice using them with her baby dolls. Again, she could have a role to play with these items: a big sibling role. Here’s an example:
When baby came home and started using the swing, there was no jealousy because of course that swing is for a baby. A “big sister” gets to push the “on” button or the “music” button if she asks with her manners (and an adult acquiesces). The baby, on the other hand, isn’t “allowed” to push these buttons because he isn’t big enough.
“Babies” also don’t get to have fro-yo or play with stickers or ride rides at the amusement park or watch shows. Whatever your big kid covets, I guarantee it’s something you either don’t want your 1 week old doing, or they wouldn’t be capable of doing it if you tried to let them. Either way, the more we highlighted big sister privileges, the more our oldest wanted to be a big sister. This book also really helped us imprint the message. I’ll get into this more in later segments, so stay tuned!
(3) First impressions. There are many ways to orchestrate the meeting of the new baby with your older child(ren). Ultimately, you know your child best and how they handle stress, change, and transition (which a new baby is all of these things), so following anyone else’s plan to the letter probably won’t work as well for your kid. If you’re looking for some brainstorming ideas, here’s what worked for us (you can find more details on our introducing the siblings here on lilbirdie.com):
Gift: We (parents, because according to our daughter, “babies can’t give gifts”) gave our oldest a gift in the hospital that would allow her to interact with her brother.
Timing: We waited to have our oldest come to the hospital until discharge day so we could all leave together as a new family of four.
Protocol: I met Jenna in the hallway without the baby so she could re-connect with me, and then we introduced the siblings in the hospital room. We took the rest of our cues from our oldest and what she felt comfortable doing. No pressure, no expectations.
(4) Let your oldest observe you explaining the sharing protocol with your infant. It stands to reason that the big sibling will need to wait for assistance on daily tasks where they used to have the almost immediate and virtually undivided attention of their adults. I noticed this problem and set out to solve it.
On a daily basis, I would think about what I was telling my daughter about needing to wait. Then, I would tell my infant son the same thing later in the day. For instance, if Jenna had asked for me while I was elbow deep in meconium, and I said something like, “John Jr. needs some Mommy time right now, and then I will help you.” The next time Jenna needed me, and I didn’t NEED to be occupied by the baby, I would tell John Jr. to “Jenna needs some Mommy time right now, and then I will help you.” Obviously, these “conversations” with John Jr. were entirely for the benefit of my oldest to see that it wasn’t just her who was being put out. She would see that there was no reason to be jealous of him because he wasn’t getting it any better.
This worked for every inevitable circumstance where the baby would trump her needs. Eventually, it would be her turn to come first, and I would try to make sure that she recognized that I was prioritizing her in those moments. As written above, I also tried to use similar language to bring this point home for her. After a while, she began to automatically give me a little space (emotionally and physically) to tend to her brother’s basic needs. I like to think that part of her rationale was that eventually the tables would turn, and she would get her time too.
As with everything on this site, these goals may not fit you or your family. Your child may exhibit jealousy in different ways or be able to conquer that emotion with a different set of tools. Ultimately, you know your child better than anyone else, and you will be the best person to prepare them for this new challenge!