Interview with Dr. Debra Lobato, PhD by Abbie Schiller
I vividly remember the day, at age five, that I became a big sister. I had been perfectly happy as an only child when my father announced that I was a big sister and my life would “never be the same again.” Although my mom had read me books about babies, clearly nothing prepared me for the emotional changes I was about to face. I spent the next one and a half years in a state of awe and anger as I struggled to adjust to this new, crazy family. While I adored my little baby sister, I did not adore all the things that were no longer mine because of her – mainly the time and attention my parents gave to me. And I made sure through a series of daily “snits” that they knew it.
Now, as I am weeks away from welcoming a new baby boy into our family, I have spent the past six months trying to prepare my six year old daughter for what’s ahead. I keenly relate to what her experience will be and am determined to make it more positive than my own. We’ve talked about realistic expectations of what home life might be, the good and not-so-good things about becoming a big sister, and how to communicate to me and her dad that she is feeling jealous or in need of more attention. I taught her the word “conflicted” so that she can recognize that it is normal to have two opposing feelings about her new situation. We are currently preparing a look chart of all the things she can do to help (giving bottles, choosing clothing) – and all the things she can’t (giving medicine, waking up from sleep.) But really, I’ve never done this before either! Am I going down the “right” path? To get wisdom from someone who really knows, we turned to siblings expert Dr. Debra Lobato.
How far in advance should a parent prepare an older sibling for a new arrival?
The timing of preparation depends largely on the age of the older sibling. I advise that parents wait until after the first trimester and check ups that indicate that all is well with the pregnancy. For siblings about 5 years of age or younger, the pregnancy seems less real if the mother is not visibly “showing”, and 5-6 months of waiting can seem like an eternity. However, beginning to talk about having a brother or sister during this time is part of what can prepare a child for change. Generally, for children under 3-4 years old, 3-4 months before the next baby is due, can help the older child be part of the pregnancy experience. Some changes the older sibling may experience (e.g., graduating to a bigger bed or booster seat instead of a high chair) should start to happen a few months before the baby is due. In this way, the older sibling does not associate the arrival of the new baby with loss of a treasured position.
What can parents do to help their child feel involved in their growing family, both before and after the birth? (Besides reading books about a new sibling, shopping for baby clothes together, or taking the child to doctor appts to show the ultrasounds.)
Before and after the baby is born, point out families with siblings as you go about your day. Comment on the behavior and relationships of the siblings to one another and with their parent. Encourage your child to share his/her observations about the children. For example “Look, there is a little girl your age who has a baby brother. She is holding her mother’s hand. I bet her mom is really proud of her. I wonder what the little girl thinks about her little brother…I wonder what she likes about being a big sister. What do you think?” By gently inserting these kinds of questions about other families, your child can provide a window into his/her own feelings. Don’t judge or take personally what your child says. Simply listen with interest.
Encourage older siblings to have a special job or toy that they alone do for the family or for the new brother or sister. Make sure it is something simple, and that you praise him/her for doing it.
Should parents prepare their child to expect that having a new sibling might be tough sometimes – or that she/he might feel jealous or frustrated?
It is a good idea to inject some reality into the preparations for a new sibling, but not to over-focus on the negative or to put words in their mouths. Most kids’ books about new siblings do acknowledge the tough things about having a new brother or sister. Talk about some of the things that babies do that can be challenging for sibs (e.g., crying a lot, needing to eat a lot or changing diapers, getting a lot of attention from others). By doing a bit of preparation that things might not always be easy, we are giving older siblings permission to express their feelings. Even when you talk about the tough times, also talk about what you would like your child to do to feel better. Focus on solutions.
How should parents deal with their child regressing before and after baby arrives?
There is generally a period of about 2 months after a baby is born during which siblings show some regression. And they are most likely to engage in this kind of behavior when parents are actively taking care of the newborn. For example, siblings decide to have a toileting accident while mother is nursing. The best way to deal with regressive behavior is to stick to the expectations and routines for the sibling’s behavior that were in effect before the baby arrived. This sends the message that you continue to be the same parents you were before the new baby arrived.
What tips can you share to help parents ensure their first born feels important while they devote so much time to their newborn?
Try to maintain the older sibling’s own schedule. Minimize the amount of disruption the child experiences associated with the new child. Schedule special time alone, even if it is only 15-20 minutes. Join your older child in his or her activities. For example, if she enjoys playing with action figures or building with legos, join in and do this with him/her. This will let an older sibling know that they continue to be important and that you enjoy their company.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
There is no magic formula for raising siblings who get along well and love one another. Adapting to the birth of a new sibling is a wonderful life lesson – not something to be feared. All of these adjustments early in life can make a child more resilient and flexible. So, as parents, be attentive, but relax and enjoy. Some of the most important ingredients for raising loving siblings have to do with the big picture of relationships within the family – how their parents/caregivers get along and treat one another; How their parents/caregivers get along with their own brothers and sisters.
Dr. Debra Lobato, PhD is the director of child psychology at Rhode Island Hospital and Hasbro Children’s Hospital. She is also a clinical associate professor of psychiatry and human behavior at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University. Founder and director of SibLink, an internationally recognized program created to promote understanding and healthy adjustment among siblings, she is an expert on the unique needs of siblings.
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