Although a new baby is an exciting and joyful event for expectant parents, the arrival of a little one can be particularly challenging for siblings-to-be. It is very common for expectant parents to feel anxious about how their children will react to a new baby and how long it will take them to adjust.
What is sibling rivalry?
Sibling rivalry—or the competition, jealousy and fighting that occurs between siblings—usually develops after the baby arrives. But sometimes, a child may begin showing signs soon after they find out about your pregnancy.
Sibling rivalry usually continues throughout childhood and can be a source of frustration and stress for kids and parents alike.
Why does sibling rivalry occur?
Your children depend on you for affection, attention and care. From your child’s point of view, a new baby threatens their relationship with you.
To understand what your child might be experiencing, think about it this way:
Your partner pulls you aside one night and announces that he has decided to go out and get a second wife. Then, after the new spouse arrives, you have to watch your partner (and pretty much anyone else who comes around) spend all his time taking care of her and making a fuss about how young/cute/tiny/adorable she is.
If you had to deal with a hypothetical second wife, you would probably get annoyed pretty fast. It would surely cause resentment and conflict in your household, and you would probably feel jealous or even hurt, at times.
Your children may have similar feelings and concerns about whether you will continue to love them, meet their needs or pay attention to them after the baby arrives.
What are the signs of sibling rivalry?
As expectant parents, it is important that you learn to recognize the signs of sibling rivalry and prepare your older children for your baby’s arrival.
Your children could experience a range of reactions to a new baby depending on their ages and developmental stages. It is very common for older children to become aggressive, angry, jealous or uncooperative.
It also is normal for children to show signs of regression, which means that they might act developmentally younger than their age or stage. For instance, your fully potty-trained four-year-old may begin to wet the bed or your five-year-old may begin to throw tantrums reminiscent of the Terrible Threes.
In a guest blog for Psychology Today entitled “Sibling Rivalry & The New Baby,” Dr. Hindie M. Klein said that younger children are more likely to regress in more obvious ways when a new baby arrives. Because of their increased level of understanding, Dr. Klein said that older children may have deeper feelings of envy and jealousy that they struggle to express.
How long does it take children to adjust?
Each child’s adjustment period can vary depending on a number of factors, including:
- Personality type
- Closeness with you and your partner
- Developmental stage
- Amount of stress on the family
According to the University of Michigan Health System, research shows that your child’s personality will have the most effect on how he or she reacts to a new baby.
Additionally, Dr. Klein noted that the age difference between siblings may also affect your child’s ability to adjust. For example, a child who has been an only child for two years will probably adjust more quickly to a new baby than a child who has been an only child for 10 years.
What can I do before my baby is born to help my older children adjust?
Preparing your children for your baby’s arrival and making a special effort to help them adjust may shorten the timeframe and minimize behavior and regression issues.
Here are some of our favorite suggestions:
1. Tell them what to expect.
You should be sure to give your children a realistic idea of what to expect after the baby arrives. Many children think that babies are instant playmates, so it is important to tell them that your baby won’t be able to do much at first.
It is also a good idea to tell your children that the baby will take lots of your time and you may feel tired, but you will always make time to take care of them, too.
We recommend a book called What to Expect When Mommy’s Having a Baby. The author goes through questions like “Where is the baby?” “How did the baby get in there?” “Why doesn’t Mommy feel well sometimes?”. Each section has a little game or idea to help children understand what’s happening in their family.
2. Provide reassurance.
One of the most important things that you can do for your children—regardless of their ages—is provide reassurance that you will continue to meet their needs and love them, no matter what.
Give your children lots of attention, answer any questions they may have about the baby (in an age-appropriate way, of course) and provide verbal and physical reassurance (by saying “I love you” and giving lots of hugs and kisses!).
3. Give them opportunities to hear your baby.
Although it may not be possible to take your child to your prenatal visits, hearing the baby’s heartbeat or seeing their ultrasound photo might help them to understand more about your pregnancy and begin bonding with your baby.
Fetal heart monitors, such as the Fetal Heart Monitor by 1790, use ultrasound Doppler technology and allow you to safely share your baby’s heartbeat with siblings-to-be in the comfort of your home. And, be sure to ask your ultrasound technician to print a couple extra photos for your kids!
4. Tell them their birth “story.”
Forego your normal bedtime fairy tales, and instead, tell your children about their birth. Look at the ultrasound photos or baby books for your older children and tell them about what it was like when they were babies.
Children love to hear stories about themselves and it may even open up a dialogue about fears, questions or concerns that you child has about your baby’s arrival.
5. Role play.
Have your child practice holding a doll and playing mommy. Teach your child how to hold and touch a baby and gently introduce appropriate ground rules, such as never lifting the baby and keeping small objects out of the baby’s reach.
Better yet, you and your child can take turns being the “baby” and the “mommy”—your child will get a kick out of pretending to feed you or tuck you in for a nap!
6. Give your child choices.
Involve your children in preparing the nest by giving them some decision-making power.
Provide a few acceptable options and allow them to select the color of the nursery, the baby’s coming-home outfit, the color of the bassinet, the sheets for the baby’s crib, etc. This will give them a sense of control and empowerment during a confusing time.
7. Read (or watch) all about it.
Visit your local library or bookstore and let your child pick out some age-appropriate books or DVDs about pregnancy, childbirth and babies.
There are many wonderfully illustrated, informative children’s books and fun DVDs that will appeal to kids of all ages. And, if you feel that you need some extra help, there are no shortage of books for expectant parents that give lots of helpful tips on introducing a new baby into your home.
A great book to read with you older child is Kid’s Book to Welcome a New Baby. The book is designed to involve the child in the preparation process for the new baby, stimulate the child’s interest in the newcomer, and teach about the baby’s capabilities.
8. Take a class.
Check with hospitals and health systems near you to find out if they offer new sibling classes.
Many hospitals offer special classes for toddlers/preschoolers and older kids that are geared toward the unique issues that each age group experiences. Topics covered usually include baby care, holding a baby, safety and what to expect.