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Supporting older siblings with a new baby in the family

by Kate Burn

A new baby! A time of great excitement and anticipation, but also of huge upheaval and adaptation. With so much on the horizon, it is important to prepare any older siblings for what lies ahead. 

You may have already noticed a change in their behaviour – are they more clingy? More resistant to separation at bed times? Are they acting out? Although there is nothing that can be done to truly prepare a child for becoming an older sibling and understanding what this means in reality, there are some simple steps you can take to ensure that their voice remains heard while they take time to process all the changes.

Of course, they may be feeling and expressing excitement about the new family member and that excitement can be celebrated and shared. However, it is vital to make space for the more negative or ambivalent feelings which may be around. It is ordinary for an older sibling to feel displaced as the family adapts to make room for a new baby. If this older sibling is currently an only child, they will also need to adapt to sharing their parents time and energy and this can be a scary and unsettling prospect.

Children sometimes feel they have to join in with the general tone of happiness which so often surrounds the thought of a new arrival and with the above idea of displacement already in their mind, they may begin to feel they have to suppress any more ‘unwanted’ feelings so as to continue to be loved and hold their place.

Adult and child looking at a book together.
Children’s books can help an older sibling make sense of the big changes brought by a new baby.

There are many children’s books which address these themes, helping the older child to understand what is about to happen and to share their feelings; both happy and hesitant with their family. Making the baby a part of the home and the conversation in this way will help them to familiarise themselves with the idea. Being accepting and open to their feelings of wanting to ‘send the baby back’ or ‘squash the baby’ by validating them and reassuring them that it is OK to feel unloving towards this competitor for their parents’ attention is helpful, albeit possibly painful. 

Reiterating that they are loved, both with words and by making special time for Mum and older child as well as Dad or partner wherever possible will ease the adjustment. Keeping routines which pre-existed the baby, such as play dates, childcare arrangements, etc., will help the older child to feel a sense of identity, normality and being remembered amid the uncertainty. If they want to continue to be ‘the baby’; allow this, rather than pushing them into the ‘big brother’ or ‘big sister’ role before they feel ready. Maybe they want some milk in their beaker whilst you’re feeding the baby too, or their nappy changed, or even a cuddle instead of or as well as the baby; allowing these needs to be fulfilled to the best of your capacity will help with the feeling of displacement.

Group of adults and children gathered around newborn baby and looking happy.
Having an older sibling participate in introducing their new baby brother or sister to the sudden stream of visitors can help them to feel part of the excitement and attention.

When the big day arrives and the baby is here, you might find it helpful to pre-suggest to visitors that they first pay attention to the older child and allow them to introduce their sibling themselves. It is easy for the older child to feel excluded from the process and from their family when all of the attention, naturally, turns to the baby. This is the same for introducing the baby to them in the first instance – allowing time to hear about their day, to value what is important to them before presuming they will wish the focus to be on the ‘bigger’ or ‘more exciting’ news of the new baby.

Having a new arrival is a huge adjustment for everyone and once the dust settles, the new family dynamic is gradually established. Putting some thought and energy into preparing your little one as much as you can prior to the birth will help this journey to be easier for everyone to navigate as you find a new rhythm.

If you need emergency support right now or feel a crisis building please remember you are not alone. You can find more helpful resources below.
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