Dethronement: When Your Child Meets the New Sibling in Town
By Denise Daniels
I recently spent five days babysitting my granddaughter Hartley, and most of my conversation sounded like this:
“Look, Hartley—there’s a baby crying over there! Babies cry a lot.”
“Babies mostly sleep and nurse and cry, sleep and nurse and cry. They’re not that much fun in the beginning.”
“Babies can’t go down the slide like you do, Hartley.”
No, I wasn’t trying to win the Grandma Grumpypants Award. I was just trying to help prepare Hartley for her dethronement.
For two and a half years, Hartley has been the center of the universe—meaning she’s been a doted-upon only child. But that’s all going to change in a dramatic way in August, when my daughter gives birth to Hartley’s new baby sister. I call this process “dethronement” because it’s the equivalent of a king or queen taking a tumble off their throne: The ‘only’ child is soon going to have to share the spotlight with that tiny creature who’s all lungs and diapers. And we’ve all heard the stories of older-sibling jealousy: the child who’s sweet as an angel one minute and bonking the baby on the head with a rattle the next.
That’s why it’s so important for Hartley—for any child who will soon have a younger sibling—to come to understand “What’s in it for me?” That’s where parents (and grandparents!) have a vital role to play. Here’s how you can help ease the transition from ‘only child’ to ‘older child.’
Start early. Way early. Begin the dialogue long before the baby arrives, so that you can manage your child’s expectations and let them know what’s in store. If your child is three or younger, it can be hard for them to understand the concept of having a new baby. But they see Mommy’s tummy and they hear you talking, so they know something different is happening! Let the little one rub your tummy and feel the baby kicking. Or find room in your (disappearing) lap so they can curl up and read a book with you. Have them talk to the baby, too; research has shown that babies can recognize their parents’ voices early on, from having heard them in utero. So why not siblings, too!
Reminisce about their baby days. Kids never tire of hearing stories about when they were born and how cute they were. So go through their baby book with them, look at the photos, their tiny footprints, the little mementoes. Tell them how excited you were when they were born, and how everyone brought them presents. It’s a good way to prepare them for the attention the baby will be getting, but also to let them know how special they were and continue to be. And if you each have children from previous relationships, bring out photos of all the kids.
Give them a job. Older children can offer suggestions for the colors of the nursery, or help plan a coming-home party. Younger ones may want to donate one or two of their stuffed animals or toys they don’t “need” anymore. Once the baby arrives, you can make the older sibling feel special and important by naming them “Mommy’s assistant.” They can help bring the bottle or the pacifier, cover the baby with a blanket. But perhaps draw the line at carrying the baby downstairs by one arm, as my three-year-old son did when my daughter was an infant! (Yes, I had a heart attack, but I managed to rush over and retrieve the baby while telling my son what a “good helper” he was.)
Point out the perks of being the “big kid". When I told Hartley that babies can’t go down the slide, I was boosting her ego by emphasizing all the things she can do! “The baby has to take a nap, but you get to stay up late.” “This toy is too dangerous for the baby, but you can play with it because you’re a big girl.”
Lay off the training. Time the potty training, or moving a toddler from the crib to a bed, for before or well after the baby is born. You’ll have enough on your hands without trying to coax a two-year-old out of diapers! And expect some regressive behavior from toddlers and young children, who may suddenly act babyish in order to get some time in Mommy’s arms. One thing that may help: When your child comes to the hospital for a visit, make sure that someone else is holding the baby, so your arms are open for your older child.
Provide one-on-one time. Whether it’s Mom reading to the older child while baby sleeps in a sling on her chest, or Dad/partner taking them to the park while Mom and baby nap, it’s important that the older child still gets some undivided attention. Even a solid 15 to 30 minutes of one-on-one time helps the child feel loved and secure.
Give them a gift. Ask friends who are bringing baby presents to bring a little something for the older child. When you bring the baby home from the hospital, bring a little gift for the older sibling, “from the baby.”
Validate their feelings. So if your little angel does whack the baby with a Tonka truck? Your first instinct may be to get angry, but remember: They’re angry, too. Look at it from their point of view—this squalling intruder has invaded their happy home, where they held center stage. First, validate their feelings, then give the lesson. “I understand you’re feeling angry, and that’s okay. But it’s never okay to hurt the baby.” What is okay is to color their feelings—with red crayons for anger, blue for sadness, yellow for happiness. Let them express everything they’re feeling…on paper. Remember: Hands are not for hitting. Feet are not for kicking. Teeth are not for biting.
Lower your expectations. Having a brand-new baby and an older child to care for gives new meaning to “timeshare.” First of all: Give yourself permission to let the housekeeping slide. Take a nap when they nap. If you’re tempted to put a load of laundry into the washing machine, let someone else do it. Some days you may not get a shower—that’s what baseball caps are for. Practice asking for help. Nothing’s more important than your health—if you don't have that, you can’t help anyone else.
Finally: relax. The most important thing you can do is love your kids. That’s the easy part!
Denise Daniels is a Peabody award-winning broadcast journalist, parenting and child development expert and author who specializes in the social and emotional development of children.