We all wish that sibling-hood could forever be like this picture of Zoe holding her best friend, baby Tate (at the time two younger and four pounds heavier than Zoe), but how often does that happen? Fights break out, jealousy erupts, and toys are coveted. Maybe you find it strange that I’m writing a post about siblings three months before my due date, but we can prepare our children for changes in their lives much earlier than we think. Some of these tips are valuable even if you are not expecting; our children need help learning how to cherish and respect babies.
Below are some of the ways Oliver and I are helping Zoe adjust to a baby before the baby is even born:
1. Give your child a time-frame. It’s up to you when to do this, but we told Zoe as soon as we found we were expecting. We told her that the baby would be here in September for her birthday and described some of the other activities that happen before the due date (after Valentine’s Day, after we move to Connecticut, after summer is over) so she would have some idea of how long it actually takes.
2. Be honest. Babies are not easy. Children need to know this before hand so they can be adequately prepared. From the beginning we’ve been describing to Zoe how babies cry because they can’t talk, how we change their diapers, nurse them, and bathe them. I’ve already invited Zoe to join me in taking care of the baby. “Do you want to help me feed baby? I can put the milk in a bottle so you can help.” I’ve even described the umbilical cord stump, how to clean it, why it’s there, and how it falls off. Gross, I know, but something she’s going to be asking about in three months whether or not I take the time to explain it to her.
I’d suggest spending a lot of time around babies. Luckily when you’re a Mormon, babies are in no short supply so Zoe has a lot of experience holding and caring for babies of all ages. If that were not the case, I would go out of my way to make it happen.
3. Allow your children to express their feelings. Listen without attempting to change them. My mother-in-law took a class on how to tell your child that they will be getting a baby sibling, prepared for months, and when she finally told Oliver the news, his response was a clear, “No.” That was it. Completely threw off her stride.
Luckily, the conversation does not end there. Learning how to love another human being takes a lifetime of practice and we are making a mistake if we expect our children to master this in nine months. Some days Zoe will say she is excited for the baby, some days she will say she hates the baby and doesn’t want it, some days she wants to help when the baby is here, some days she doesn’t. Last time I checked, these are all normal human emotions. In fact, that’s exactly how I feel. When Zoe expresses negative feelings to me, I don’t bat an eye. Those conversations go something like this:
Zoe: I hate the baby.
End of story. The next day she’ll feel differently. And I’m sure after the baby is born, these negative feelings will multiply rapidly. Let’s think about why. She’s been the center of my world for the entirety of her almost-three years and now has to share that with a little pink blob that can’t eat, can’t talk, defecates in diapers, shares her room and cries at all hours. So cut your kids some slack if they act out when their life has just been shaken like a snow globe.
4. Make time to spend alone with your older child. This is one of those things that is so easy to say and so easy to forget. I’m sure I will do worse at this than I hope, but I will make it happen. I am specifically planning to sit and hold Zoe while the baby is crying and needs attention. On occasion. Not all the time. Obviously the baby needs to be cared for regularly, but once or twice, the baby can wait. I plan on doing this with my husband, as well. This is something I failed to do the first time around because the sound of a crying baby drove me absolutely insane, and I regret not making my husband aware that he was my #1 priority. Zoe doesn’t hold any rank over future baby, but the baby doesn’t hold any rank over her either.
This is basically my opportunity to teach both of my children that love is not a scarce resource and is not zero-sum game. This is my shot to teach them that love multiplies love and there is always enough to go around. I intend to take this teaching opportunity seriously.
5. Allow your child to see you loving other children. I love other people’s children just as much as my own. This sounds unthinkable only if we believe love is a scarce resource. We’re all children of God. I have plenty of love to spare. When Zoe and I are around other children, I am listening to them, looking into their eyes, holding them, and kissing them. Zoe sees all of this. Sometimes she gets jealous if I have a friend of hers on my lap and this is another chance for me to explain to her that there is enough space for all as she joins me on my other knee. Eventually I’ll run out of lap-space, but not love.
6. Don’t force your child to share. Living with other human beings is so hard already; why add eminent domain? We hardly have any toys to begin with, but we will probably have to buy many duplicates in order to avoid forced sharing or fights from lack of sharing. We’re okay with that. Two cans of pink Play-Doh instead of one is not going to break the bank. Zoe has a huge library of children’s books that I bought her and I will not force her to share these, either. The board books that she has outgrown have now become the baby’s and Zoe will not have the right to grab one from the baby, just as the baby will not have the right to grab anything from Zoe.
Magical things happen when you stop forcing kids to share. The first one is that your child becomes 100x more likely to share. I have mothers stop me in the park and ask me how I taught Zoe to share so well. The answer is that I didn’t teach her. We all have a natural desire to care about others. We don’t like seeing other people unhappy. Zoe has seen other children become unhappy when they are not allowed to play with a toy and she decides she cares more about their happiness than playing with a particular toy. Why rob your child of that lesson?
This is especially true with babies. They like to grab everything. Allowing them to take toys from an older child is a guaranteed method for building up resentment and animosity.
7. Teach your child that it’s not okay to hurt the baby, intentionally or unintentionally. Hopefully you’ve already taught your child that hitting and pushing is never okay, but babies are so delicate that toddlers need to be much more aware of their bodies around younger siblings. I’ve started teaching Zoe that it doesn’t feel good when she lays on my stomach, that it is no longer okay to jump near me, and even sitting in my lap takes a certain adjustment. The key to this is firm, calm, consistency. Don’t shame your kid or overreact when they inevitably slip up (or they may intentionally hurt the baby just to elicit a reaction from you) but make sure to correct it every single time. It’s just too important.
8. Let your child talk to your belly. Definitely, absolutely do not force this. I allow Zoe to talk to my belly for the same reason I let my husband do it: it helps her become excited and makes the baby more real. She turned me down many times when I asked her if she wanted to feel the baby kick or say hi, but the first time she said yes, the expression on her little face was priceless. She lit up and said, “Mommy, she kicked! She wants to come out and play with me! Hello, baby? Your crib is ready for you!”
And finally, 9. Just love your child. Unloved children make unhappy children. Aren’t we bringing them into this world specifically so that they can be happy and grow? For many people babies are easier to love because they don’t talk back, but we are in the process of molding tiny human beings. Even when they can talk, use the potty and tie their own shoes, they still need our love and guidance. Let’s not forget that.
That’s what I’ve got. How do you prepare your children for new siblings?