Preschoolers Hit the Big Time as Big Brothers and Big Sisters
By Elizabeth Heubeck
Mothers often describe it as one of the most heartbreaking and simultaneously joyful times in motherhood.
On the one hand, you realize that your relationship with your preschooler will be forever changed as a new baby enters your life. You may wonder how you’ll ever make room to love yet another child as you do your preschooler, without compromising your existing relationship. Yet at the same time, you’re expanding your family with the birth of a new baby and giving your preschooler a sibling, one of the greatest gifts you can offer.
While the circumstance can be traumatic for us mothers, just think how confusing and exciting it can be for a preschool-age child who’s expecting a new sibling.
“Queen Bee for four years, suddenly dethroned,” says Laura, a 36-year-old mother of two, describing the change in dynamics that occurred when her 4-year-old daughter became a big sister. “I didn’t know how she’d react to sharing me, even though she was excited about becoming a big sister. You know when you go back home, it’s never going to be the same.”
Laura’s worries about how her 4-year-old would take to a new brother soon dissolved. “She never lashed out at the baby. She was proud of giving him a bottle, of being involved,” she recalls.
The 4-year-old’s positive reaction could have stemmed, in part, from the strong relationship she shared with her parents before the birth of her new brother. Most likely, her parents’ efforts to prepare her for the pending change helped, too.
What to Expect
Parents naturally wonder how their preschooler will react to having a new baby around. That depends on several factors.
Your child’s personality is one, explains American Academy of Pediatrics spokesperson J. Lane Tanner, M.D., who is associate director of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at Children’s Hospital and Research Center in Oakland, Calif.
“From the kid who is intense and reactive, parents may hear a lot. From a child who’s more quiet and reserved, you won’t hear much,” Tanner says.
But when it comes to figuring out what effect the presence of a new baby has on your preschooler, actions speak louder than words.
“Regression is a more telling indication than what a child says,” Tanner says.
For instance, requests to retrieve an old favorite “comfort” object that hasn’t been used in months or even years, such as a bottle or pacifier, may indicate a bit of insecurity with the new situation.
Age also factors into how well preschoolers adjust to a new sibling, according to Tanner. “The majority of 5-year-olds can weather the change without regression,” he says. “Many more 3-year-olds show bigger signs.”
These significant differences coincide with the rapid-fire pace of development among children of this age group.
Easing the Transition
Regardless of a preschooler’s age and temperament, parents should prepare themselves for some sort of reaction.
“It doesn’t matter how much preparing you do. There’s a stranger in the house. The adaptation process is going to be significant, regardless of the temperament of the child and the family circumstances,” Tanner says.
But you can do some damage control.
“It’s absolutely important to prepare the preschooler for a sibling,” he adds.
Following are suggestions on how to prepare.
•Make changes in bedroom or other living arrangements well in advance of the due date, if possible.
“You don’t want your child feeling ‘displaced’ because of the pending arrival of the baby,” Tanner says.
He suggests that parents attribute a change, particularly to a different bedroom, to part of “becoming a big boy/girl.”
•Attend a sibling class.
“They [the children] come in apprehensive. But once they’ve seen the hospital, and the newborns in the nursery, they’re much more relaxed and ready to get involved,” says Lanny Dowell, parent education coordinator at Greater Baltimore Medical Center, which runs a sibling class that’s open to the public.
“Our job is to get the kids comfortable with the coming changes,” Dowell says. Instructors even go so far as to show the participants a newborn baby, umbilical cord and all.
•Share some books about becoming a sibling with your child. Plenty of age-appropriate books on this topic line the shelves of our local libraries and bookstores.
•Don’t panic if you’re short on space.
“Preschoolers very often like having the baby in their room. Sometimes parents assume, incorrectly, that preschoolers want a room of their own. They’ll adjust to whatever situation the parents set up,” Tanner says.
•Have the baby arrive with a present for the older sibling.
“Then, right away, the baby has some value to the preschooler,” notes Tanner.
This strategy worked for Laura: “I got Elisabeth a gift ‘from the baby.’ She loved it. She leaned into the bassinet and said ‘Thank you.’”
•Make time for the preschooler.
“Once the baby arrives, be conscious of keeping some special focus on the preschooler,” Tanner says.
Laura agrees: “After Elisabeth and I spent some quality time together, she was so much better,” she recalls.
•Create opportunities for your preschooler to spend special one-on-one time with Dad. If they haven’t already, most children this age are ready to expand that close bond they’ve formed with Mom to include other primary caregivers, like Dad. So it’s actually a perfect time to make this transition happen.
“It’s a very nice evolution,” Tanner says.
•Incorporate your preschooler into the baby routine. While your instinct may be to hole up in a quiet corner of the house with just your newborn, this option isn’t always possible or practical. At some point, you’ll need to find a way to include both children in your daily routine. Tanner acknowledges that it’s not always easy.
“It’s a balancing act, trying to read stories and cuddle with your preschooler while nursing the baby,” he says.
But doing so is well worth the effort, as it will make the preschooler continue to feel like an integral part of the family.
•Finally, know that, despite your best efforts, your preschooler may react negatively to the new baby, especially initially.
“Recognize that it’s par for the course. Don’t take it personally; they’ll come back around,” suggests Tanner. “What I hear from parents most often is that Big Brother of Sister is just fine. Most kids adjust pretty successfully.” BC
©Baltimore’s Child Inc. – March 2007
(updated 2/07; orig. pub. In Baltimore’s Child 11/05)