The first time most people embark upon the journey of parenthood, they don't quite know what to expect. While parents learn so much with their first child, they probably have a hard time imagining what life will be like with two. The first child also has no idea what it's like to add another child to the household. That's why sibling preparation can offer huge benefits.
Preparing for birth
Most hospitals and birth centers allow children to be present for a birth of a sibling, with the exception of a surgical birth or other emergency situation. Even so, different families will make different decisions about whether an older child will be present for the birth. Parents must consider numerous factors, including the parents' comfort with having the older child there, the older child's age and temperament, the health conditions and risk factors associated with the pregnancy, and the support available to care for the older child during labor and birth.
Being present at the birth of a new baby offers a sibling some unique advantages. It is an amazing experience that can teach an older sibling about life, biology and the miracle of birth. It can also help an older sibling feel connected to and excited about the new baby, as well as make it very clear that the baby "belongs" to the family.
Any sibling who is going to be present at the birth will needs supervision and caring from an adult other than her parents, who will both be busy attending to the birth. In addition, if something unexpected occurs during the process, it's important for an adult to be able to help the child understand and cope with the situation.
Child-friendly birth videos and childbirth books will help prepare your older child for the sights, sounds and smells of labor and birth. You may be surprised how easily small children accept these concepts because they have not yet learned any of the cultural taboos related to birth. For example, my 2 year-old is fascinated by birth videos and explains every time the details of the process unfolding on the screen as she watches. She actually uses the words "uterus," "umbilical cord" and "placenta." These books and videos may also be helpful for children who are not expected to be at a birth.
Preparing for baby
A new baby's arrival can be a rude awakening for an older sibling, who may expect a crawling, cooing playmate within a few days of birth. Most children don't understand how much a baby can cry, how often a baby will nurse and how tired their parents can be taking care of the new baby. Telling your child, "Babies don't have words, so they cry to communicate with us," can help a sibling be more patient with what seems like incessant crying from a new baby.
Classes on sibling preparation, both for birth and for being a big brother or sister, are available from my favorite organization (and my employer), Great Starts Birth and Family Education (www.greatstarts.org). Sibling preparation classes are also available at Gracewinds Perinatal Services, Overlake Hospital, Swedish, UW Medical Center and other hospitals in the Puget Sound region.
Preparing for adjustments
Every older sibling is going to have adjustments with the arrival of a new baby. In fact, everyone in the house will have adjustments. As a mom, I actually felt guilty that my older daughter was not getting as much of my energy as she had before. So I made sure that she and I set aside time for just the two of us every day for the first few months.
Parents should expect regression in some areas. An older child may suddenly become interested in his crib again or be less interested in potty training. A weaned toddler may ask to nurse again. It is important not to come down too hard on the older child for these regressions because a strong reaction might actually make them last longer. An older child may find that negative attention is more desirable than losing the attention that is now being given to the baby.
The addition of a new sibling can exciting and fun if an older child has an opportunity to help with diaper changes or bathing the baby. A new role in life, that of "Big Brother" or "Big Sister," may make an older child very proud.
Parents can help capitalize on these positive feelings. For example, making T-Shirts that say, "I am the big sister" can be fun and help maintain the focus on the positive aspects of having a new baby. Involving the older sibling in choosing and sending out birth announcements that say "Introducing Christopher's New Baby Sister" can nurture the older child's pride at being a big brother.
Perhaps the most important thing that parents who are adding to their family need is postpartum support. If family and friends are not available to take considerable time to help out, consider a postpartum doula. (Learn more and find referrals at www.naps-doulas.org.) Since most people who already have children will not need a lot of new baby clothes, toys or equipment, it is a great opportunity to let friends and family know that an appreciated gift would be a contribution toward the postpartum doula of your choice.
There is no way a parent of a second child will be able to give both children equal attention and do the same things for the new baby as were done with the first baby. Nor will the older child receive the same level of attention that she did before the new baby came along. Rather than focus on what their kids are not getting, it's important for parents to do their best to give their kids what they can. Remember that one of your gifts to all of your children is the sibling relationships they will have with one another as well.
Tera Schreiber is the executive director of Great Starts Birth & Family Education and the mother of big sister Daisy and little sister Ginger.
Books for siblings
- Baby On the Way (Sears Children Library), by Martha Sears, William Sears, Christie Watts Kelly, Renee Andriani
- Welcome With Love, by Jenni Overend, Julie Vivas
- Mom and Dad and I Are Having a Baby, by Maryann Malecki
- We Have a Baby, by Cathryn Falwell