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.
For a child under the age of four, it is not always clear where the baby is coming from and 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 and 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.
The most important thing a child needs to know when they are expecting a sibling is that they are going to continue to be an important 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. It is also an important time to 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.
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).
Additionally, there 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.
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.
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. It is important for a parent to remember that this is a difficult concept for a child to grasp and 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.