How exciting! A new baby will soon claim his or her place in the family. Many children are thrilled at the idea. Only the idea. The reality of a new baby may affect them differently. New babies bring tired mommies and peanut-butter dinners. New babies makes lots of noise and demand tons of attention. What is the best way to help toddlers and pre-schoolers adapt to the change?
Helping the Little Ones Adjust
Little children who have only recently left their own “babyhoods” behind benefit from a gradual stepping down strategy. These guys used to be the ones who everyone wanted to hold and cuddle, patient play with and smother with kisses. Now they have to take a back seat to the new comer. Adding insult to injury, they are often rudely ousted from the protective shelter of babyhood into the cold, crueler world of childhood: “You’re a big boy now,” parents will tell them. “You’re Mommy’s helper.” Children of two, three, four and even five, are actually not all that big. Fifteen is big. Fifteen is sometimes taller than you are, but toddlers and pre-schoolers are still quite small. They are small in size and small emotionally — they are still babies.
Respecting the babyish quality of this young group helps little ones make a much better adjustment to the newborn. Call everyone under 6 “my baby.” If all your kids are under 6, you can greet them this way, “How are all my babies this morning?” “Did all my babies have a good sleep?” If one of these “babies” protests that she is not a baby, she is a big girl, then go with it. As long as the child promotes herself then she’s ready to move out of her babyhood. However, when the child is still 5 years old or less, you can offer to extend the pampered years a bit longer by correcting her: “O.K. You’re not a baby, but you’re not a big girl either. You’re my little girl. My sweet little girl.” Now you may be wondering why the mother would want to make a self-defining “big girl” into a “sweet little girl.” The reason is this: there is a very short period in life in which we can be coddled, protected and nurtured – completely taken care of. When we are not rushed through that tiny window of time, all of our needs for infantile nurturing will be met appropriately. If we can’t be little when we really are little, then we may end up being inappropriately little when we’re actually big. Have you ever seen an 8 year-old competing for attention with a baby? Have you ever seen a grown man or woman do the same? Sometimes teenagers insist that other people take care of them: wake them up, stay at home with them, plan their schedules and so on. Wouldn’t it be better for older children and people to be independent? Independence comes when all of our dependency needs are met. The time for dependence (and “littleness”) is in the first five years of life.
Therefore, let the little children in the family remain little, even when you bring home an even littler one. This is not the time to suddenly wean a child. This is not the time to take a child who was in your bed out of it. If at all possible, let some months go by before you make any changes in the lifestyle of the other little people. If a new baby will be born at just the time that a child will first start playgroup, try to have that child go to camp or a children’s program before the birth. If a child will be moving out of a crib, either wait a few months after the birth or change the bed before the birth. Anyone who is still eating baby food, sucking on pacifiers or wearing diapers, can still do so for some months after the birth. When life with the new baby has become routine again, any change that is needed can be addressed.
Enhance Group Bonding
In order to reduce jealous feelings, it’s helpful to adopt an inclusive “we” mentality regarding the baby. Instead of “I have to feed the baby now” it can be “We have to feed the baby now. Let’s go to the living room.” “We have to get the baby dressed—let’s find his undershirt.” This technique helps the children bond with the baby and with the family unit. Everyone is in this together.
In order to reduce competition, never blame the baby for having to neglect another child. Instead of “I can’t play with you right now because I have to take care of the baby” try “Let’s take care of the baby so we can sit down together and play.” Don’t mention the baby as the reason another child can’t have what she wants. Instead of “I was up with the baby all night and I’m too tired now to go to the zoo” just try, “We can’t go to the zoo today. We’ll go later this week.” Instead of “I can’t feed you until I finish feeding the baby,” just try “I’ll make your lunch soon.”
Finally, don’t leave the baby at home in order to have quality time with another child. This gives the older ones the impression that there is not enough love to go around and that everybody has to have a “turn.” It also makes older ones insecure, knowing that you are willing to leave the baby behind — it triggers their own abandonment fears. Security is increased when young children know their parents will bring the baby too; family outings include the baby.
These strategies can help little children have a smoother adjustment to the new baby. Keep in mind, however, that the individual nature of a child also plays a major role in his or her adjustment to change in general and to new siblings in particular. Some kids will just find it harder. Be gentle with yourself as a parent and gentle with the kids too. And don’t worry: soon the new baby will be the old baby and there will be other issues to address!