By Emma Reilly
In a perfect world, the moment we first introduce a new baby to an older sibling would play out like a soft-focus movie montage: the older child would shyly but lovingly approach the new sibling, gently stroke their cheek, and declare immediate and undying love.
(And of course, in this perfect scenario, we moms would have flawless hair and makeup and would in no way appear to have just been through hours of hard physical labour—pun intended).
But, as is so often the case, real life doesn’t often play out like the movies—especially if the older sibling is still very much a baby themselves.
Adding another child to the family is always challenging, but welcoming a new baby to the mix when the older sibling is 2 years old or younger can be particularly sensitive. Children at that age don’t have the intellectual capacity to understand there’s a baby on the way—meaning that their family life will change seemingly overnight.
Happy birth day from baby
Hamilton, Ont., mom Julia Holmes found there was no real way to totally prepare her son, who had just turned 2, for his younger sister’s birth. During her pregnancy, Holmes and her husband often talked about the new baby, commented on Holmes’ growing belly, and read books with their son—but they’re not sure whether that preparation had an impact.
“I don't know how much, if anything, he got,” Holmes said.
With that in mind, they carefully planned their kids’ first meeting. Holmes and her husband waited until she felt well enough to see her son after her C-section, and chose a time of day that their toddler would be calm and well-rested. They also presented their son with a gift from his new sister—a baby doll of his own to care for. Holmes’ son eventually started to called that toy his “baby daughter.”
Sarah Banfield, who had her second son, Henry, when her older son, Thomas, was just under 2, also relied on the “gift from the new baby” approach. Those toy cars were a godsend when she and her husband were at the hospital for Henry’s birth.
“It was almost more for a distraction for while we were gone,” she said.
Don't rush the move to Big Kid
Once there’s a new baby in the family, our temptation is often to start expecting older children to immediately embrace their new role as “Big Brother” or “Big Sister,” says Cindy Smolkin, a Toronto-based parent and child therapist with Connected Parenting.
But Smolkin suggests we avoid the temptation to treat older siblings as though they’re suddenly grown up.
“It's a very natural inclination to talk about ‘You're a big brother.’ We think that we are instilling a position of honour,” Smolkin says. “But when you’re 2 or 3 still, you want to be the baby.”
Smolkin suggests trying what she calls “baby play” with older siblings, including singing lullabies, wrapping them up in blankets for a cuddle, and using the sing-songy voice we instinctively use with our newborns. This helps reinforce the idea that no matter what age they are, every child in the family is always Mommy’s and Daddy’s baby.
"Good job being gentle!"
It’s also important to notice and encourage older siblings’ positive behaviour with the baby—but Smolkin suggests phrases like “I love that you’re being gentle with your new sister,” rather than “You’re such a good big brother.”
“It doesn't need to be couched to a status—we want to really notice the traits that the older child uses that are positive toward their sibling,” Smolkin says.
For Banfield, this kind of level-playing-field approach has been helpful with two very young kids. She says she often carries both of them in her arms around the house and lavishes her attention on both boys.
“I try to make Thomas feel equal to Henry—not so much to treat him as a baby, but with my love,” she said.
Holmes and her husband also try to treat her kids them as a team, especially when it comes to discipline. For example, if the baby accidentally swats her brother, Holmes will remind her now-seven-month-old that she needs to be gentle with her brother. That way, she says, her toddler won’t feel like he’s constantly the one in the disciplinary limelight.
On the flip side, Holmes also says she and her husband each try to give special one-on-one time to each child. Holmes spends two days at home with her daughter while her son attends daycare. She and her husband will make special grocery shopping trips with their son or take him sans sister to his weekly music class.
“It's definitely a work in progress. We're still finding every phase in development for both of them, there's different things that come up,” Holmes said. “But overall, they love each other beyond belief.”
Emma Reilly is a newspaper reporter and the mother of a toddler, and always carries a phone, a pen, a note pad and a pack of wipes. Because you never know.