NEW YORK TIMES COLUMN: FAMILIES TODAY:
WHEN A FIRSTBORN MEETS THE NEW BABY
By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.
When you arrive home with your new baby, I’d suggest that you have a special toy ready to give to your older child – preferably a “baby” of his own that he can feed and diaper as you attend to the newborn.
If he’s more interested in trucks, give him one that he can fuel and wash. Thus he has the chance to imitate your nurturing and learn from it.
Don’t be afraid to set limits on how much he can handle the new baby. Limits will reassure him as his feelings about her come to the surface.
If he wants to hold her “like you do,” ask him to sit in a chair. You will need to stay right by his side. Then he can learn to put one hand under her neck and head to protect her. He can learn to cuddle her, to give her a water bottle. He can begin to learn how to help diaper her and to talk to her as he does so. He will be learning how to be a big brother – with you nearby.
If the older child soon loses interest in being a big brother, don’t be surprised and don’t make too much of it. Though he may at times be proud of his new role, it’ll be a burden for him, too.
He may want to be your baby again. He may fall back on behavior you’d thought he’d outgrown. Don’t expect too much of him right now.
Many children who are just discovering what it means to be an older sibling begin to be cruel to the dog or cat. Stop your child firmly and let him know that you can’t allow this behavior.
Help him with his feelings by letting him know that his anger is understandable, even though he can’t take it out on the pet. It won’t help if these feelings go underground. An older child is likely to feel that the new baby has displaced him because he was not “good enough” or even “bad.”
A 3- or 4-year-old can often recall mischief that angered you and made you, in his mind, want to replace him. He is bound to feel that if he could have been all that you wanted, you’d not have needed a new baby.
A child who is 6 or 7 or older may just ignore the baby – and you. He may even seem to disappear because he’s spending more time with friends or dawdling on his way home from school.
Instead of being your companion as you get to know the baby, he seems to want to avoid you – to punish you. Time alone with you – and your willingness to listen and to answer questions – will become all the more important.
HELPING A CHILD ADJUST TO A NEW BABY
If you have just returned from a stay in the hospital, tell the older child how much you missed him while you were away.
Let him know that the baby has been added to the family and is not a replacement: “Now you have a brand-new baby sister. But nobody could ever be just like you.”
Hold him close and remind him of experiences you’ve shared and will share again.
If he pushes you to discipline him, remember that limits can be especially significant for him now. To him, limits mean that his parents “haven’t changed, still love me, and will stop me when I need it.”
Don’t urge him to be “a good big brother.” This job won’t always seem appealing. It will mean more when he finds his own motivation to fill the role.
Guard against wanting him to grow up too fast. He will grow up, when he’s ready. And his younger sibling is already pushing him enough.
(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.)
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.