Louise Carr is well-versed on how to introduce members of her brood to the concept of a new baby brother. With three boys – Callum, 8, Connor, 4, and Cameron, 17 months – Carr has had to deal with gently breaking the news of a new arrival twice. Being the oldest child, Callum was more aware of the adjustments he’d have to make upon the arrival of his first brother, Connor. The Carr family used a book about the stages of pregnancy to illustrate how the baby was growing and what was really going on inside mommy’s body. “I’d say, ‘This week his hair is growing, and this week his nails are growing,’” said Carr. Many parenting experts recommend this as a good method of not only preparing older siblings for a baby, but also making them feel connected to the experience. Carr found other techniques useful, such as letting her children feel her tummy when the baby was moving, showing them the ultrasounds, and discussing baby names.
American Kaatje Harrison also used a book to help introduce her firstborn, Benjamin,2, to the concept of his little sister who was on the way. “We had a book about a little boy whose mom is expecting a little girl. I’d point to the photos and say, ‘Who’s that?’ and he’d identify himself, me and his sister in the photos,” said Harrison.
Sibling rivalry is not merely a result of the arrival of a new child, but can be influenced greatly by the actions of the parents. Once baby number two has arrived, parents can easily feel a strain on their formerly single-child families and may even unknowingly exacerbate problems. A University of Michigan study of 80 second-time parents revealed that the relationship between mothers and their firstborn children are usually tense after the birth of a second child. They also found that this relationship continues to be strained for the first year following the birth.
Regression in the older child, particularly if they are toddler-aged, is also very common. In an effort to remain close with their mother, children can revert back to old behaviors to receive more attention, such as insisting to be bottle-fed, or wetting their pants despite being toilet-trained. In Harrison’s case, Benjamin desired more time with his mother, making more requests to be held and stronger protests when she left his side. Separation and individualization are important tools parents can use to ease the transition. To prevent the older child feeling as if they’ve been usurped, make them feel like they’ve reached a new milestone and are getting closer to “big kid” status. Carr recommends parents give older children responsibilities. “To be given small jobs, like bringing a clean diaper to mom, or passing a clean bib; it made my kids feel important and not left out,” says Carr. Experts also recommend moving toddlers out of cribs and giving them their first big bed long before the new baby is introduced into the home. This saves the older child from feeling like their new sibling has “stolen” their crib, and can be explained by parents as one of the perks of being an older child.
Nicola Pallister had three children in 29 months. Her oldest is now almost 3 and she attributes the good relationship her children have with each other to their narrow age range. “I can easily share my time with all three, whereas if the gaps were bigger I would be splitting my time on different activities for different ages,” says Pallister. She believes that if the age range was wider, it would cause fights and jealousy over who gets the most play time with mom.
It can be easier to do a group activity with all of your children at once, rather than play with each child individually, but it’s the latter that Childdevelopmentinfo.com strongly recommends. They believe parents should spend valuable alone time with each child, separately from their siblings. Simple things like a one-on-one bedtime story, or a trip to the supermarket alone with mom can help children feel special. They also advocate parents avoiding total equality between children. If one child deserves a reward, it should not be immediately applied to the others simply to avoid fights. Contrary to popular belief, they state that a mother’s attention should not be spread evenly amongst her children, as not all behavior warrants positive reinforcement. For example, if one child is being disobedient, they should not be given the same level of attention as those children who are well-behaved. This is easier said than done.
Carr says that when one of her sons did something good, she would give them a hug as a form of praise, but she found the other boys, who missed out on cuddles, became upset and insisted on joining in. She solved this by introducing a daily ritual that made each feel they were getting enough attention. “Every morning we have ‘morning cuddles’ for everyone. They all love this and think it is great fun,” she says.
Siblings quickly move from fighting for the attention of their parents, to fighting amongst themselves. A study from Samantha Punch, Ph.D, from the University of Stirling in Scotland found that siblings develop very complex methods of interacting in order to survive alongside each other. To parents this looks like fighting, but to siblings it is an advanced form of negotiation. From the 90 children used in the study, the most commonly used words to describe how they handled their relationship with their siblings were “barter,” “trade,”and “bargain.” The number one word that children used most frequently to describe their sibling interactions? “Bribe.”
One of the most common mistakes parents make when intervening in fights between siblings is taking sides. Usually this takes the form of attempting to punish the child at fault – usually the child seen actually striking or taunting the other sibling. However, consider how long that child had to put up with taunting and teasing from their sibling before resorting to such violent measures? Experts recommend that unless the disagreement becomes violent, parents should leave siblings to their own devices and allow them to resolve arguments themselves.
Whether parents have two children or seven, sibling relationships are a unique mix of jealously, love and competition. Carr believes that as long as parents do everything they can to make the introduction of a new sibling into the house a smooth one; the kids will sort the rest out amongst themselves. “Callum was thinking long-term – it was cool to think about what games he’d be able to play with his new little brother,” she says. Imogen Kandel