The birth of a new human being is normally a joyful time but it also brings changes in the lives of the baby’s siblings and half-siblings. Here is a guide how to smooth the way for the new baby and start to build lifelong family relationships.
Nature of Sibling Bonds
Three of the people I love the most and am closest to are my brother and sisters. I’m always happy to see them and, like the best old friends, we can catch up with each other’s news in a moment.
These relationships are not an accident however. They are the result of our parents’ efforts over the course of all of our lives to remind us that these, our siblings, are people we can count on. This work starts the minute a child learns that they are about to become an older sister or brother.
The challenge of nurturing these bonds — though closeness into adulthood is never guaranteed — is greater for blended families. Apart from greater age differences usually, shared custody also limits how much time half-siblings spend with one another.
Birth Preparation for Children
For a child under the age of four, it is not always clear where the baby is coming from. So it does help to demonstrate that the baby grows inside their mother.
Many parenting guides recommend having a child come to some prenatal visits. Some obstetricians, family doctors, and midwives include a visit for the whole family as part of their standard prenatal care. In fact, it is no longer unusual for older siblings to be present for a birth, especially when a child is being born at home.
Every Child in the Family is Precious
The most important thing a child needs to know when they are expecting a sibling is that they are going to continue to be a central part of the family and that no new baby will ever replace them. This is a good time to reinforce a child’s gifts and special qualities.
As birth nears, we can remind a child of their ongoing importance by sharing pictures and memories of them through all stages of their lives.
It helps all the children in a family, including even the newest child as they grow, to begin to realize that every family member is important. A picture of the family beside the new baby’s bed and pictures of their siblings help everyone understand their belonging to their family.
My grandmother’s quilt
One of the people in my life who helped most with this was my grandmother. She kept a beautiful family quilt, with everyone’s name embroidered into it. I remember her telling me that she always waited to see what a new baby was like before embroidering their name.
My name was embroidered in blue, just as my mother’s was. She told me that when I was born, no one thought I looked like my mother. My grandmother, however, said that I had looked out at her with the same “beautiful blue eyes” that my mother had.
“Don’t let anyone tell you you’re not like your mother,” she told me. This story always helped me remember how I was connected to my family. I believe these special stories from a child’s life are important for just that reason.
As well as stories about themselves, stories in general help a child learn about the biological reality of how a baby grows. Scholastic books recommends a number of stories that can be helpful for this purpose (click here to see that list).
Managing Time With Each Child
Another issue is the shift in the amount of time that a child receives from their parents. In general, I find that one of the things that helps a child become accustomed to the time they must give up with a parent when a sibling is born is for them to be reminded that there are somethings a parent can only do with an older child.
Such reminders as, “we’ll be reading together when the new baby is here because babies are too little for reading,” could be appropriate. Reinforce that a parent will always have time for the older child.
Managing Custody Schedules for Older Half-Siblings
When you are sharing custody of your new baby’s half-siblings, effective time management becomes critical. A helpful strategy is to distribute parenting duties so the parent of the older children gets plenty of time with them when they stay over. After a visit, the parent can then pay extra attention to the little one, an approach that also helps you avoid missing your shared-custody kids.
Ideally, you can get creative and find activities that children of all ages are able to enjoy together. Older children often like being with much younger children but can get bored of it fairly quickly. Group activities could include going to a park, dining together (with a high chair near the main table) and driving in the countryside.
You may also want to re-examine the custody schedule for the older child or children. One of the goals in creating a parenting plan is to give siblings of all kinds plenty of time with each other. For example, if the other parent agrees, you could transition from an every other weekend custody arrangement to a better schedule such as 60/40 or 70/30.
Families Getting Stronger Together
I love families. Working with families and helping them to grow stronger is one of the most important things I do in my work. My wish for every parent reading this is that I can help in some small way to give you the tools to make your family more resilient.
Each new child makes a family stronger because they bring gifts and strengths to that family that were not there before. With this in mind, I am not going to recommend reading about babies and children since much of this reading you will already have considered.
Instead I am going to recommend to you a wonderful book about families by an American psychologist, Mary Pipher, The Shelter of Each Other: Rebuilding Our Families. You can find out more about this book on Dr. Pipher’s website.
Addressing a Child’s Mixed Feelings
I want to finish by considering with you the ambivalence a child experiences when a new sibling is born. It is natural from their viewpoint, to worry that you will lose your place, that people will love the baby better – even your parents.
Most people who had a sibling at an age they can remember will identify with that ambivalence, that feeling of loving your new sibling at the same time as feeling angry about them being there.
It was impossible for me to understand how a parent could love two children as much until I had two children of my own. Parents must remember that this is a difficult concept for a child to grasp. One way to ensure that an older child continues to feel special is to remind them of the ways in which they are unique.
One of the ways this ambivalence can emerge is that a child, especially a toddler, may briefly go back to behaviors they associate with being a baby, such as drinking from a bottle or wearing a diaper. These behaviors are normal within a short time frame after the birth of a younger sibling, but usually resolve within a month or so. A child can often be coaxed out of these with gentle suggestions such as, “Oh, where did my big girl go? I wanted to do a puzzle.”
Finally, as your family embarks on this next journey, make sure to record the events and stories. The stories of each child’s life become the stories of their family. When my brother or sisters visit, there is nothing that we all like to hear more than the stories of our family, the stories of our place in the world.