NEW YORK TIMES COLUMN: FAMILIES TODAY:
HELPING A CHILD ADJUST TO THE NEW BABY
By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.
When you arrive home with the new baby in your family, I’d suggest that you have a new and special toy ready to give your older child – preferably a baby of his own that he can feed and diaper while you care for your baby. If he’s more interested in trucks, give him one that he can hold, fuel and wash. This is a chance for him to model on your nurturing.
Don’t be afraid to set limits on how much he can handle the new baby. Limits will be reassuring for 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. You can show him how to put one hand under her neck and head to protect her. He will be learning how to “be a big brother.”
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. Instead, expect him to want to be your baby again. Let him.
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 but gently, and let him know that you can’t allow this. 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 are allowed to go underground. An older child is likely to feel that the new baby has displaced him because he was not “good enough.”
A 3- or 4-year-old can often recall mischief that made you angry and led you, in his mind, to want to replace him.
A child of 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 his 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 answer questions will be all the more important.
How to Help an Older Child Adjust to the New Baby
- Let the older child know how much you’ve missed him.
- 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.
- Be ready for his need to fall back on old behavior you’d thought he’d outgrown. Don’t expect too much of him right now.
- If he pushes you to discipline him, remember that limits can be especially reassuring to him with the new baby around. Limits mean to him that his parents “haven’t changed, still love me and will stop me when I need it.”
- Don’t urge him to be “such a good big brother.” This job won’t always seem so 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.
Prior to Dr. Brazelton’s passing in 2018, he was the founder and director of 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 now the director of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. Learn more about the Center at www.touchpoints.org.
Reprinted with permission from the authors.