A new arrival to the family is an exciting time but can also feel overwhelming, particularly when you already have young children. If you’re expecting your second, the first sibling in particular can experience a range of emotions and display a variety of emotions because of the shift from one to two.
With such a big adjustment for the firstborn, it’s helpful to remember that changes in behaviour are to be expected. Depending on age, they will be picking up on conversations, your hormonal changes and physical changes around the home, and also your body.
Some common behaviours include aggression, biting, hitting and kicking, fussy eating and an increased need for control in everyday activities. Regression to younger behaviours, such as bed-wetting, increased night-waking and clinginess may also occurbefore and/or after the new arrival.
They will always be your baby and you will still love them just as much, even when you are distracted by the new baby. Reassure them that they will have an important role in being big sister/brother and can help the grown-ups with important jobs. And when the baby gets older they’ll have a playmate.
Staying calm during increased changes in behaviour is important, but can be difficult to do 100% of the time. It is normal for increased tantrums, clinginess and sleep disruption. Although these behaviours are not ideal at a time when you are trying to run a household with an impending birth, it is helpful if you can remain calm and centred in the face of aggressive or disruptive behaviour where possible (we’re not perfect so don’t expect to manage this every time).
Allow the child to process their emotions in a safe space, with you present. Stay in the room with them and try to avoid leaving them in a dysregulated state. Your child won’t yet have the vocabulary or developmental ability to articulate how they feel. In fact many adults struggle with this themselves. The child is not intentionally being ‘naughty’, they are simply picking up on the changes and processing it the only way they know how. Responding gently from a place of calm, models self-regulation. It’s normal to feel triggered and reactive in these moments. Breathe, count to ten in your head and remember you want to model self-control. Responding with punishments e.g. time-out, can give the message they are not allowed to feel their emotions and can put the child in a state of shame.
Boundaries around harming themselves, other people or objects is important within this however. A firm “I don’t like hitting hands/biting/broken objects” followed by “I have a cushion you can hit/a bed you can jump on” etc, can be a great way to set boundaries but allows the processing of big feelings. It may also shift the dynamic and bring some humour to the situation, which can be just as effective as an emotional release as a tantrum. You may find that once the tantrum has passed, the child melts into your arms for a cuddle. Lots of extra cuddles, kisses, quality playtime (even if just 10mins of distraction-free playtime) will go a long way to help prevent changes in behaviour. Connection, or re-connecting, is always the key.
Include the older sibling
When the baby arrives make an effort to include the older sibling. Give them jobs that make them feel important if they are receptive to helping. This could include sterilising bottles together (safely), changing nappies, rocking the baby to sleep together, choosing a lullaby to play etc. If they are not immediately receptive that’s ok. When well-meaning visitors give the new baby a gift, let the older sibling open it and include them in the conversation. It is very easy for the older sibling to quickly feel displaced within the family. Small actions go a long way, and lots of reassurance.
It’s normal for the older sibling to feel jealous. After all, the new baby that has been talked about so much is not quite the playmate they imagined (at this stage). From the sibling’s perspective, the baby is taking up a lot of time and attention from the adults. It’s helpful to validate and acknowledge the jealousy if you spot it. You can say something like “it’s so frustrating when mummy has to feed the baby again.” This helps the sibling process their feelings and feel understood. Frustration often stems from feeling unheard and invisible. This is true for any feelings you clock in them. Naming any strong feelings helps them process them and gives them an emotional vocabulary and the beginnings of emotional intelligence. It will pay off as they get older and are able to identify and articulate how they feel. This is a life-long gift!
10mins of quality time
A few minutes of quality on-on-one time goes a long way! It is a juggle with two, but if you can manage even 10mins a day one-on-one time with the older sibling, it will help with that all important re-connection. This means phone off, TV off and really spending time connecting. Making eye contact, talking, listening, perhaps reading a story, playing a puzzle together, doing a drawing together, lego, having a pillow fight on the bed. Any activity you can do together that you both enjoy.
Don’t try to be perfect.
Parents are sold an image of unrealistic family living day in day out. Unless you have a housekeeper, nanny, chef and fully staffed house, it’s unlikely that you will ever feel on top of things. That’s ok and that’s normal. Family life is chaotic, exhausting and stressful. Look after your own mental health by acknowledging you’re doing the best you can at this moment. Things will get easier in time and looking after a young baby and a sibling is tough. In times gone by there would have been a community of family members to provide childcare and support. For many, these support systems are no longer in place. It can be an isolating, desolate place at times. Go easy on yourself, you are raising two wonderful human beings!