NEW YORK TIMES COLUMN: FAMILIES TODAY:
PREPARING THE FAMILY FOR THE NEXT BABY
By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.
(This article is adapted from “Understanding Sibling Rivalry,” by T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua D. Sparrow, M.D., published by Da Capo Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group.)
Facing a second pregnancy is both thrilling and daunting. Parents will ask themselves: “What will this do to my older child? Can I manage with two? How could I ever love another child as much?”
When sibling rivalry arises, parents are bound to feel responsible, and guilty.
Later, they will find they need not divide their love, for they will love each child differently. But before the new baby arrives to help parents make this discovery, they may feel they must try not to grow attached to the new one, but instead must focus even more on the one they already have.
The fear of “deserting” the older child is inevitable. All parents wish they could eliminate the older child’s negative reactions to the new baby. This parental pressure makes the older child feel unacceptable as he is, and wonder if he really deserves to be replaced. Of course he knows that he both does and doesn’t want a new sibling.
Although these feelings are most prominent with the second pregnancy, they are likely to be present with any subsequent pregnancy. It can be a challenge to see each new baby as a “gift” to the family.
But parents needn’t feel that it is their role to protect their children from all the feelings – anger, jealousy and others – that they will experience with a new baby. Adjusting to a new sibling is a child’s opportunity to learn about these feelings and how to handle them. And parents can help.
When Do I Tell My First Child?
You never don’t tell him. As soon as you know a new baby is on the way, it can be discussed in the family openly. Your discussion is not so much an announcement as an acceptance of the baby as a future step for the whole family. But try not to overdo the information.
One couple told me that they had discussed the baby-to-be so much and so often that the older child was sick of it by the seventh month. He was tired of being prepared for so long.
Talking about the new baby coming into the family in an accepting way is different from excitedly preparing the older child for a major event. Parents can make it clear the family will “all deal with it together” without dramatizing that “everything will be different and you will have a big adjustment to make.”
Why Shouldn’t We Wait Until He Knows I’m Pregnant?
He may know almost as soon as you do.
Even a young child will notice. Leslie was 2 1/2 and and came to my office for a checkup. He was a handsome curly headed, dark-skinned toddler – the adored child of his lovely parents.
Every time he leaned over in my office, every time he’d lower himself to the floor, he’d let out a soft grunt. I thought that he might be hiding a bellyache or some problem in his joints. I felt his stomach more carefully. No tenderness. I examined his hips and legs. No problem. I watched him walk. Absolutely perfect, even graceful. I kept observing him. Each grunting sound made me more alert and more anxious. No physical signs.
Finally, out of the blue, I questioned his mother: “Are you pregnant?”
“No,” she assured me. A few days later, she called me to say, “I am pregnant. But I’m only eight weeks along. How did you know before I did?”
I was quick to answer: “I didn’t, really. But Leslie did.”
The job for parents is to give a name to the change the child senses, and gradually to make it seem real to the child. You might tell him, “You and Mommy and Daddy are going to have a baby. You can help us with the baby. You’ll be a big brother.”
Then, listen. Don’t keep telling him about the new baby. Wait for his questions. They’ll come.
When he passes a baby carriage, watch his eyes and his behavior change. He may say, “Can I help push the carriage?”
“Of course. You can be my best helper.”
He is already learning about giving. You are helping him discover its rewards. This is, of course, one of the most important lessons a sibling can ever learn.
How Will My Toddler React?
Everyone is talking about the changes that will occur. Of course, an older sibling has his questions: “When?” “Why?” (Aren’t I good enough?) “Will he be like me? Who will take care of me?”
All these questions deserve answers. As you answer, you’ll demonstrate your caring, and help your child “become a big brother.”
What you say may not matter as much as your being available. Your responsiveness is most important. This is a good time for each parent to start planning a regular “date” with the older child. Talk about it all week: “You and I will have our time together later this week. You can ask me all your questions and we can be together by ourselves. You are my big boy now and you’ll always be my first love.”
Labor and Delivery and the Older Child
As the delivery approaches, talk about going to the hospital to help the baby come “out.” Let your child know exactly who will stay with him at home, and who will take him to visit his mother and the new baby at the hospital.
It is a wonderful time for a father or a grandparent to point out that he or she will be there for the older child. One of the most rewarding experiences for me as a father was the opportunity to be completely available for my older daughters – and to have them all to myself!
Toward the end, be ready for the older child to build up excitement, as does the rest of the family. Tantrums, whining, sleep setbacks, food refusal and bedwetting can all be expected. These will arise from his confusion about all the intense anticipation as well as from his awareness of your heightened vulnerability.
The more he does now to share his distress, the easier it may be for him later.
When labor begins, and you must leave for the hospital, be sure to say goodbye. Tell him again that you’re going to the hospital for a few days. Remind him that he can call you, and come to visit. Reassure him again about who will be with him.
Tell him when you expect to come home. Show him on the calendar. All this preparation leaves him with a known structure and expectation. This can protect him from his deepest fear – that she’s “gone off to have the baby” and leave him. This fear is predictable for a young child, but parents can help allay it.
Reclaiming the Crib, and the ‘Big Boy’s Bed’
When parents are expecting a second child, they are often tempted to reclaim the first child’s crib to ready it for the new baby. Don’t.
If the older child is still in the crib during the pregnancy, don’t make him move unless you absolutely have to (for example, if he weighs too much for the crib, or is climbing out and at risk of being hurt). He’s already feeling displaced, and he will only feel more so once the baby is here.
Instead, you’ll have to get another crib for the baby and then wait until the older child really feels proud of being “a big brother.”
Responses to questions are not intended to constitute or to take the place of medical or psychiatric evaluation, diagnosis or treatment. If you have a question about your child’s health or well-being, consult your child’s health-care provider.
Dr. Brazelton heads the Brazelton Touchpoints Project, which promotes and supports community initiatives that are collaborative, strength-based, prevention-focused sources of support for families raising children in our increasingly stressful world. Dr. Sparrow, a child psychiatrist, is Director of Strategy, Planning and Program Development at the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. Learn more about the Center at www.touchpoints.org.
Reprinted with permission from the authors.