With so many books on the market that address parenting and children, written by both experts and non-experts, you may notice that many of them suggest various degrees of spacing in terms of how many years should be between your children.
However, even in this enlightened day and age, there are still folks out there who wish to allow nature to take its course, which means that the various options for spacing aren't always an available consideration. The reasons offered by these authors for the spacing suggestions often center around topics like the older child s self-esteem, jealousy, the second child s depth of bonding with the parents, and sibling rivalry, among other things. With all due respect to the experts, it has been my experience that many parents today prefer to have children 18 months to two years apart, while the most common suggestion in the books is three years. So are these parents posing a threat to their children s development? I seriously doubt it. Hundreds of years ago, before the advent of birth control and other preventative measures, children were often born as little as ten months apart, and they grew up to be conscientious, moral, productive citizens.
Be that as it may, no matter how far apart children in the same family are born, sibling rivalry may rear its ugly head and force parents into corrective action with their kids occasionally. And there can be a veritable plethora of reasons it happens, whether it s totally the personality of the children involved, favoritism shown by parents (unlikely because we love our children equally, right?), a talent that one child has over another that yields him or her extra attention, or other such environmental factors. Many parents who anxiously await their second child wring their hands in concern over the way the older child will accept the younger brother or sister. Then, they are pleasantly surprised when the older child greets the newborn baby with nothing more than cautious interest, curiosity, warm feelings, and all the semblances of love. You know why? Because the baby just lies there. He can't do anything yet! He's a pink bundle of hunger, dirty diapers, spit-up, and, most of all, sleep. But what happens when the baby develops further and starts to become mobile? Ah, now we have a problem. All of the adult attention is no longer the sole possession of the older child. Be it for positive or negative reasons, the attention gradually disperses and is shared more evenly by the two children. What can happen? Jealousy, anger, resentment, and maybe aggression will start to appear.
Helping your child adjust to a new baby
Fortunately, there are ways to minimize the trauma for both children who play the roles in this scenario. Some of it can start before the baby even appears on the scene. Later, there are ways to interact with the two so that resentment is minimized and nobody is the victim.
Before the baby is born, talk to your child as much as you can about how the newborn will affect everyone in the family. The older child needs to understand that the baby will need attention, love, and tender loving care. But, this must be done without placing blame on the baby for being the reason for extra work or an inconvenience because of middle-of-the-night waking, etc... He needs to understand that this baby will be a wonderful, permanent addition to the family. He also needs to know that no matter how many children parents have, there is plenty of love for all of them! I've actually heard a lot of mothers say they were concerned that they would not or could not love a second child as much as the first, but it s amazing how they always do. How can we not?
When the time comes to put up the cradle, pull out baby clothes, and set up the nursery, be sure to involve the older child as much as possible, explaining all the while what you' re doing for your family. Even washing the little sleepers and bottles can include your older child. He will love feeling needed and important. Times like this can foster some great conversations between child and parent. If any transitions need to be made, for example, moving the child to a big bed, do so before the baby comes so that he won t feel displaced by the newcomer. And bear in mind, that if potty training coincides with the birth of the baby, chances are good that you will see some regression in terms of progress. It s to be expected, as the child s environment will be changing a good deal. But, if you keep conversation flowing about the pending events, your child will be that much more secure in his place in the family. He must always be reassured of his role and of the love that you have for him, regardless of any extra circumstances! This is also important once the baby arrives and also has a place in the family.
Handling the resentment and jealousy your child may feel
Let's fast-forward into the future a few months. Your baby is growing and changing everyday, and one day he starts accomplishing huge feats such as rolling over, and creeping, and eventually crawling! Everyone is amazed and thrilled to see the developments the baby is making. Everyone except for your older child. Now, not every older sibling will feel resentment when the baby begins to show more autonomy, but it can happen. In the event that it does, you may see some signs of resentment and jealousy. It s always hard to deal with two children that are at odds with each other, because naturally, we don't want to show favoritism or defend one over the other, but there are some good guidelines to follow when this occurs.
First of all, the baby must be protected if the older child does get physically aggressive in his demands for control. That s obvious to us all. Secondly, however, the older child should not be made to feel guilty over this very natural show of emotion. When things get ugly between the two children, it s important to have a gentle conversation with the older child, and let him express how he feels. But, he must understand that hurting the baby is unacceptable and that you will not tolerate it. You can ask him how he would feel if someone did that to him. Oftentimes, this kind of questioning helps a child to learn to look at life from someone else s perspective....a good life lesson! Thirdly, limit your intervention during these problem moments to only when you really need to get involved. Involving yourself too often may send a message that you are inadvertently assigning the personalities of aggressor and victim, resulting in the children actually falling into those roles down the line. Just remember that the feelings, behaviors, and reactions are natural and that, in spite of the fact that not all parents encounter these circumstances with their kids, it is not uncommon for an older child to feel that he has been removed from his important position in the family.
Here's a little checklist of things you might try in an effort to prepare an older sibling for a new baby:
Most of us have a friend or two with a small baby at some time or another. See if you can take your child to visit their home and see how the baby fits into the family. This is a good time for your child to see the kind of gentle attention that babies should receive. If no baby is available, use a doll to portray how the new sibling will need the child' s love and help. Emphasize that the baby will look up to the child because he is bigger and can teach the baby some things.
Show him pictures of yourself when you were pregnant with him.
Explain what will happen while you are in the hospital, on a level that he can understand.
Plan to call him at home while you are there to show that you are thinking of and love him. When the baby comes, have a gift for the older child from the baby.
Put the child s picture inside the baby' s cradle so he knows which one is his baby!
When you pack a diaper bag for the baby, ask if there s anything special that the older child would like to put in there, too, whether for himself or for the baby.
Try to get the child to act out his feelings with dolls or puppets so that you can get an idea how he feels. You can then respond accordingly with tenderness and love.
It can be very hard to try to juggle your time with a newborn in the house, especially when an older child still needs and deserves time with you. But just remember, you are only one person, and all anyone can ask of you is your best. And would you want to give your children anything less? Lastly, enjoy the time with them. It goes so fast!
Mia Cronin Copyright 2000 Mia Cronan is a married full-time mother
of three girls, ages 5, 3, and 1, living in Pennsylvania.