Helping siblings adjust to a new baby can feel like a daunting task. Do you get a gift for an older sibling when the baby is born? Are there ways to show an older sibling how to prepare for a baby? How do you make up for the lost attention? It’s far easier to dream about the great picture of a sibling kiss on the forehead, or one kid holding the other just long enough to make the meeting Instagram official. But sometimes it doesn’t go that way. That’s nothing to get upset about. Parents need patience, planning, and the ability to keep their hopes in check.
“Don’t have high expectations,” says Tovah Klein, director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development at Columbia University and author of How Toddlers Thrive. “Some children are very excited. Some children completely ignore it or worse.”
Klein notes that tempering expectations can keep the focus on the long term instead of the short term. While a great hospital moment is ideal, and it’s possible to set up the meeting for success, parents shouldn’t stress over it. The goal is happy children and happy parents. So, instead of a chance bedside meeting, she suggests choreographing the meeting a bit. For starters, the baby should be in a bassinet, not in the parents’ arms when they arrive. From there it’s time to start a conversation.
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“Introduce them. Say, ‘This is your new brother or sister.’ Have a gift for them from the baby,” she says. “It can be small. Tell them it’s from the brother or sister and they couldn’t wait to meet you. Slip a picture of your child in the bassinet. ‘The baby wanted to see you right away so I showed him a picture!’ Then talk to the baby. This is your brother or sister.”
The older child should feel like they are a very important member of the family.
How to Introduce a Child to a New Sibling
- Choreograph the meeting rather than allowing it to happen haphazardly after birth.
- Introduce the new baby, not in the parent’s arms but in a bassinet.
- Offer the older sibling a present from the new baby.
- Create a ritual by lighting successive candles to watch the light of the family grow.
- Don’t put to much stress on big brother or sister status, considering that everything little has now become so loved.
- Relax. Siblings have years to get to know each other.
Alyson Schafer, author of Honey I Wrecked the Kids and a family counselor, says she likes to focus on the concept that there isn’t a finite amount of love to give. And this moment is when family love grows even bigger. “So, one of the ways to explain having a new baby is to light candles on a cupcake. You can do this in a hospital room,” she says, offering a script for the event. “’When I met your dad, I gave him all your love.’ Use the first candle to light a second. ‘Then we had you and there is more love in the family.’ Light a third candle. ‘Now we have your sibling and there’s even more love.’ Light the fourth. ‘Look how much love we have!’”
Schafer suggests guiding those first interactions carefully. Ask questions like, “Where do you think the baby would like you to touch her? How about her toes? How about her leg?”
“You don’t want the first interaction with the new sibling to be one where you’re correcting them,” she says. “You don’t want to say, ‘Don’t do that!’ Guide them and keep it positive.”
And while T-shirt makers love to call out the new “Big Brother” or “Big Sister” status, Schafer says she would tone that down. “Suddenly, everything small is wonderful. Look how tiny the baby is! Such little feet. Little hands,” she says. “Small becomes desirable and emphasizing big makes them feel less cherished.”
Also, realize that these two humans are going to have a lifetime to build a bond and friendship. If it’s going well, don’t push it, Klein recommends. “Keep it kind of brief,” she says. “Toddlers are so very self-centered. What are we doing today? Who’s taking care of me today?”
So book your win and prepare for life after the initial meeting.