Two days after my son was born, his five-year old sister carefully and quietly carried his bouncy chair to a room in the back of the house that wasn’t used much. When I walked back into the living room and found him gone, she said, “He has gone to the baby dungeon, and that’s where he should stay!”
When a child is born, emotions of all kinds can surface for everyone as a new family constellation takes shape. Although the prospect of having a new baby brother or sister can be exciting for your older one, often those feelings are mixed with resentment, jealousy, and anger. As parents, there are a variety of things we can do to take care of ourselves and support older children in the transition. Here are some things you can do to make this transition go more smoothly before and after the baby is born:
Develop a Regular Practice of Special Time with Older Children
Before the baby comes, make a date each week with your child to do whatever he wants to do. Whether your little one chooses to jump on the bed, run through the rain, or explore the attic with you, follow his lead and refrain from giving him advice, instructions, or suggestions. Let him show you who he is: how he wants to do things, where his frustrations lie, and what he loves.
Set aside ten, fifteen, or twenty minutes to have this one-on-one time, trying for a total of an hour a week. Turn your phone off for special time, use the bathroom before you start, and be prepared to pour undivided warmth and attention into your child without having to answer anyone else’s questions or requests. This hour a week of focused love and attention can really shore a child up. It will show him how important he is to you, and it will build a foundation of trust and safety. Then make sure to keep up Special Time after the new baby is born—he’ll look forward to having you all to himself for these precious moments.
Create A Village
Find people in your life that your child enjoys spending time with, and invite them over as often as you can before the baby comes. Set up playdates with your child’s friends and one-on-one time with other adults. Maybe it’s a grandparent, an aunt or uncle, a babysitter, or a good friend. Help your little one nurture those relationships that they have with friends, babysitters, or relatives.
A friend of mine who has a ten year-old daughter, Marina, was looking for child-care for Marina on Wednesday afternoons and decided to ask her close friend, Stephanie. A successful, single lawyer, who has no children of her own, Stephanie was delighted to spend time with Marina. It has now been two years, and Stephanie and Marina’s Wednesday afternoon date is still going strong—a godsend now that my friend also has a two-month old baby at home.
The relationships that young people form with adults outside of the immediate family can be an anchor in a stormy sea. One mom I worked with, Marie, grew up with a chronically ill mother and four sisters who fought constantly. Although the sisters rarely got along, each of them had someone special in their lives who they could spend one on one time with at least once a month. For Marie, it was an aunt, who she adored, that took her on vacations along the New Jersey Shore with no other sisters around.
Help your child with separation anxiety before the baby comes
Separation anxiety is common among children, and adding a brother or sister to the mix can make challenging behaviors flare up in a big way. When a parent goes to another room, answers the phone, drops a child off at school, or pays attention to someone else, a child can become irritable, whiny, aggressive, or withdrawn.
Before the new baby comes, notice where your child has difficulty. Often bedtime evokes fears of separation. If your son begs to read one more book (after you’ve read your usual quota) or wants just one more piece of apple before being tucked in, set a firm but loving limit and listen to his response.
You can tell him, “Now it’s time to sleep, we can read another book tomorrow.” If he begins to cry, stay with him. Repeat the limit gently and listen while he shows you his upset. If he has a chance to cry through his desperate longing for another book or one more piece of apple, he might actually be showing you how scary it feels to sleep alone at night or how hard it was to say good-bye that morning. And he’ll have the chance to clear through some of those sad feelings that surface around separation.
Set up a System of Support
There is never enough help after a child is born. If only we had a band of angels that flew into our home to prepare our favorite meals, clean the house, massage our back with essential oil, hold the baby while we sleep, and pick up older children from school—at no cost—we might be able to rest and relax more in the months that follow the birth of a child.
In lieu of that, do your best to set up systems of support and nourishment to get through the early weeks and the months that follow the birth. Enlist family members or a group of friends to cook meals for you. Sites like lotsahelpinghands.com are good resources to help your community coordinate meals after the baby is born. Hire a postpartum doula or find a relative to come by and hold the baby while you nap. Ask someone to come over so that you can spend, even small pockets of time, with older children.
Pay Attention to How YOU are Doing After the Baby is Born
There are many feelings that can surface for parents when a child is born. No matter how little our children are, they know how we are doing. If we are exhausted and feel like we barely have anything left inside, or if we are feeling blue and the days ahead of us look bleak, our children know. They may not understand it completely, but they have a sense that all is not well and that mommy or daddy needs a little extra support.
Find a friend or another parent who you can talk to on a regular basis. Having someone that will listen to us through a big cry or simply laugh with us through the trying times and amazing moments of parenting can shore us up—so much so that when we head back to our children we might be able to figure out how to help them sleep through the night for the first time. Or we might be able to give them a big smile when they bring home yet another piece of cork taped to a feather and ask us to hang it on the wall.
Whether you’re finding little patience to handle a whining older child, or you’re still reeling from the birth experience, having someone with whom you can share the highs and lows with, can help you work through the many feelings that surface after the birth of your baby. Whether it’s with a friend, a neighbor, or someone you meet in a new parent group, set up a regular date with another person in which each parent gets to talk and each one gets to listen. It makes us better parents and can have a direct impact on other relationships in our lives.
When the new baby arrives, expect that older children will have lots of upsets (no matter how well you prepare them), sometimes about seemingly small things. However, developing a regular practice of special time with your children, supporting your older one through their upsets, and getting support for yourself can help you nourish and enjoy your relationships with each of your children. When your older daughter says, “Mommy, I’ve had enough of this baby! When can we send her back?!” You can remind her how much you love her, tell her that her baby sister is here to stay, and that no one will ever, ever take her place.