So if you're pregnant and you have another child (or two), here are some tips to reduce sibling rivalry and foster a close sibling bond right from the start.
1. Let your child express his full range of feelings throughout the pregnancy, birth, and afterwards, responding with empathy.
Naturally he'll feel some jealousy of all the time and attention you and everyone else are giving to the new baby. Reassure him with your words and actions that you adore him, and be sure to spend "special" time just with him each day. While it's fine to emphasize the advantages of being older, it's good to reassure him that he will always be your baby, too, and to baby him a bit. Some older sibs will want to "play" baby, and that's fine. He won't regress forever.
2. Cultivate the relationship between the older child and your partner throughout the pregnancy.
When you're nursing the new baby nonstop, you want your older child to be excited about spending time with her other parent.
3. Encourage your child's connection to the baby by:
- Referring to "Our baby" or "Your sister" or even "Your baby." The more ownership they feel -- and of course, the less they feel displaced -- the less jealousy they'll exhibit. (Of course, no one "owns" the baby, who is a person in her own right. But we all use possessives like "my sister" or "my son" to denote relationship.)
- Reading books about childbirth with him.
- Taking him with you to the doctor to hear the baby's heartbeat.
- Letting him pick out furniture, toys and clothes
- Letting him help you paint the baby's room.
- Pondering potential baby names together (if you can let him "name" the baby with a name you love, all the better.)
- Packing a bag together for the hospital that includes a photo of him.
4. Make sure your child knows she still has an important role in the family.
She's always been the baby and she's about to be displaced. Now she's the big sister. But she's also an individual who contributes to the family just by being herself. Make sure you reinforce all the wonderful things about who she is. "Sara, I love the way you make me laugh," or "Kingston, I love the way you help me with the groceries like this!" which note specific contributions, help your child develop a sense of why he's still a valuable member of the family. Talk often about the fact that each member of the family is important in their own way and makes their own special contribution. The family needs each person for it to be whole.
5. Get any big changes out of the way well in advance of the birth, such as room changes, weaning and toilet training.
He needs time to make these new routines into habits without associating them with the baby.
6. Keep your relationship with your older child as smooth and affectionate as possible,
...sidestepping power struggles and minimizing conflicts. She needs to be secure in your love to handle the arrival of a sibling with equanimity. Naturally she'll be testing you to be sure you still love her.
7. Emphasize the older child's specialness
by going through his baby pictures and talking about what a wonderful baby he was, and what a wonderful boy he is now.
8. You might consider sibling birth classes,
which offer lessons on how to hold a baby, explanations of how a baby is born, and opportunities for your child to discuss his or her feelings about having a new brother or sister. If you do this education yourself, be sure your child understands that babies cry a lot at first and aren't ready to play for a long time, but that the baby will always look up to big brother and want his attention and care.
9. You'll need to decide and discuss with your older child who will be with her during the birth itself.
This can be a difficult time for the older sibling. Be sure she has the opportunity during a "trial run" to spend bonding time with whoever will care for her. For more info on preparing your child for the separation when you have the baby, click here.
10. You might consider having your older child be part of the birth process.
My own 4 year old son came to the hospital with us and built a new lego during labor, and was present for the birth (up near my head, holding my hand.) He loved being present when his baby sister was born and has always been very protective of her. Of course, I expected an easy delivery like my first, and had arranged for a close family friend to be with us during labor and to whisk him away if the birth got complicated or he got bored. I had also prepared him by reading lots of birth books. Nowadays, there are great birth videos that are appropriate for children; see if you can rent "Gentle Birth Choices" or "Birth Day" from your local library to watch with your child. His reaction can be a useful indicator as to whether he's ready to attend the actual birth.
11. A classic way to prepare a child for observing a birth is to let him help you push a large piece of furniture across the room.
Point out that making loud noises, straining and sweating helps you work harder, and that labor is even more work. It's important that your child know what to expect, including that the baby might look odd, and that the cord bleeds when it's cut but that doesn't hurt the baby.
12. If your child is not present at the birth, you will want him to visit you as quickly as possible after the baby is born, before other visitors.
Emphasize your joy at seeing him, rather than your preoccupation with the new baby. Then let him sit and hold the baby, helping him to support her head. Dr. Lawrence Aber, a bonding expert, says that babies' heads give off pheromones, and when we inhale them, we fall in love, and begin to feel protective. The more your older child snuggles his new sib, the better their relationship is likely to be.
13. Privately ask visitors and family to give "big brother or sister" presents instead of "new baby" presents.
It will help your oldest to feel like there's indeed something to celebrate. And be sure there's a special gift from the new baby to the older sib!
My book Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings includes a large section (the entire last third of the book) on preparing your child for the new baby, introducing the new baby, and helping your child adjust to the various phases during the first year of being a big sibling. I'm honored at how often I hear from parents that this book was their most valuable resource in introducing a second or third child to their family.
And here are some terrific books to read with your child about the process of growing a baby. They don't really address what it will be like to have a sibling -- those books are on this page: Books about the New Baby for Older Siblings. The books below are appropriate to help answer your child's questions about how that baby got in there, and what it's doing for nine months! As always, please preview the book first to be sure you think it is appropriate for your child.
PLEASE NOTE: These books are Amazon links with photos of the books. If you are not seeing them on your page, it may be that your browser is not picking them up. Please try a different browser. Enjoy!