Child Behavior: Say hello to the new baby!

Disgruntled siblings could lead to poor developmental wellness

Say hello to the new baby

What is the best way to prepare a child for the birth of a new family member so that the transition can be a positive one — what are the guidelines?

A child who has been over coddled by parents will have more difficulty giving up the role of “being the baby” than a child who has developed a greater sense of autonomy, self-definition, and competence. Girls, whether by nature or cultural modeling, seem to not only tolerate, but accept and enjoy a new sibling much more than do boys. 

Children who have been born with an “easy” temperament also have a much easier transition when a newborn arrives. Only children also seem to have difficulty with a new baby as they are no longer the center of the parental universe. Small wonder first born males exhibit the greatest number of maladaptive reactions to a newborn sibling.

The reaction to a new sibling by a firstborn may also be mitigated by age. A six or seven-year-old has less difficulty with this addition than does a three or four-year-old who has not sufficiently developed a significant level of independence.

I like Benjamin Spock’s analogy in his classic Baby and Child Care, to help us see the child’s position. Suppose your partner came home with another person one day and said “Dear, someone else is coming to live with us, I don’t love you any less — but this person will take much of the time and attention I spend with you away, not too much will change — isn’t it wonderful?” How would we react in that situation? For children, jealousy and hostility are the most common emotions evoked. Outright aggression toward the baby is usually rare — most hostility is directed toward the mother (as she is usually the primary caretaker of a newborn), often in the form of direct disobedience and escalating demanding behavior. Regressive behavior such as whining, clinging, and tearfulness is also common.

Other regressive behaviors might include baby talk, demands to be carried or fed and children wetting or soiling their pants. Recognizing the normalcy and transitory nature of this behavior is important. Punishing the child or drawing attention to this “babyish” behavior might escalate the child’s anxiety.

Avoiding aggression and regression

Preparing the child for the new baby seems to be the best defense to prevent or at least mitigate jealous or hostile feelings, not only for firstborn but for all children. Parent’s who minimize change in their child’s life as much as possible prior to the birth of a new sibling, reassuring the child that becoming a big brother or sister will have its benefits, has been shown to be helpful in mitigating the potential toxic impact this change will bring. Including the child in as much of the process as possible—hospital visits, baby’s room preparation, picking out clothes — all help alleviate anxiety the child may be feeling.

In addition to emotional and intellectual preparation, children benefit from practical preparation as well. If the child is to sleep in a new bed, or have a new sitter or any other change in routine, this should be initiated well before the new baby arrives. New arrangements made when the baby arrives might not only be seen as rejection but outright banishment.

It is also important to allow negative feelings about the baby to be expressed without reproach or undue criticism. Allowing your child to talk about their anger or resentment teaches them that the development of character is learned by the recognition that it's not the feelings we have that are inappropriate but how we express or resolve these feelings.

Stressing the helplessness of the newborn and the “grownupness” of the “big” brother or sister often becomes the catalyst for adaptive reality testing. The child begins to think “Mom and Dad are right, I can do a lot more than this helpless bundle, — eat by myself, watch TV, stack blocks, stay up later, talk on the phone…” This insight will often turn hostile or jealous behavior into mentoring, where the older child becomes one of the baby’s teachers, and later takes delight in the baby “copying” them — imitation is indeed the sincerest form of flattery. Part of this process might include parents asking the child if they want to give the baby one of the toys they have outgrown. This sense of competence and autonomy is very empowering for children.

Don’t be disappointed if the older sibling is not demonstrating the expected behavior. Be patient, and follow the guidelines; acceptance will come in time. Keep in mind, that even as adults we may be rationally prepared for a change in our relationships yet devastated by the experience of that change. Take comfort in the idea that this behavior is almost always transitory, and helps the child begin to learn what is probably one of the most important lessons in life — change is inevitable. Happy Holidays to all Hudson Valley Parent readers and their families.

Paul Schwartz, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology and education at Mount Saint Mary College