Take care to demystify the baby to your first child

Take care to demystify the baby to your first child

When my mother was seven, her baby sister was born - much to her absolute shock and horror. She had been having a perfectly nice time getting full attention from both her parents and this new arrival was there to spoil the party, as far as she was concerned.

She doesn't remember being given any preparation for a little sister and responded negatively. Her favourite thing was to sneak up and pinch the baby when she was in her cot unattended.

If you are planning any transitions with your first child, such as moving them from the cot to a bed, do it well in advance.  

Of course, that's a textbook case of how not to do it. Thankfully we have moved on from those less communicative days when pregnancy wasn't talked about and babies just appeared as if by magic. If anything we err now on the side of too much information. But no matter how you do it, a new arrival can turn your routine at home into a bit chaos for a while, while everyone learns to assimilate.

Diane Levy, the New Zealand parenting coach and author of Of course I love you.. Now go to your room says parents can be guilty of building up the arrival of the new baby - and that inevitably it's a let down.

“I don’t quite understand why, but we feel obliged to tell our young children amazing whoppers,” she says. “Things like 'We're having a baby and he's going to be your baby', and 'It's going to be so lovely for you to have a baby to play with'.”

The reality is, within a day of the new baby's birth, your toddler is likely to feel horribly betrayed. This isn't her baby. She's only allowed to hold the baby briefly - and even then, the newcomer just cries or sleeps. The baby can't be 'played with' at all.

Entrusting your suddenly huge, galumping toddler near a tiny newborn is one of the hardest things you'll have to negotiate as a parent - and you don't want those first few months (or years!) to be spent constantly saying, “Don't do that” or “No, not now, darling.” 

Levy says while you do want to emphasise the positive, the best way of preventing inevitable jealousy is not to compensate for having a baby in the house, and never to excuse your child when they hurt the baby - especially if they do it more than once. Children must be shown that the basic household rules remain constant, so things, such as “No hitting” and “No cuddling too hard” apply now just as much as they did before.

And the gift-giving that goes on in the first couple of weeks has to be played carefully, warns Levy. She says that a present for the preschooler in the baby's cot, supposedly from the baby, can be a good idea. But don't  set up expectations for your toddler or preschooler that every well-wisher will come armed with gifts. It can become pretty embarrassing when your child rushes to a new visitor and asks for their present.  

Of course, the age gap between the firstborn and the new sibling is key to how much you can explain to your child before the baby arrives. Maryann, a Sydney mum of two, says she and her four-year-old were able to peruse her pregnancy book throughout the nine months together. They would talk about how big the baby was as the pregnancy progressed, and discuss interesting facts like the baby having fingernails at a certain stage.

She also made sure that her son was the first one in the family who knew about the baby after her and her husband. “That was important. And we told him not to tell anybody just yet.”  He was also included in all the logistical decisions, and 'given a say' in which bedroom would be the baby's (although of course it was all decided). "We would talk about the role that he would play. He was given presents. He saw it all pretty positively,” Maryann says.

Danielle has just had her second son, and fortunately has her husband at home helping with her older son, Ben, aged two. She says Ben is acting up quite a lot, and she is struggling not to tell him off all the time. Unfortunately, due to recent renovations, he's only just moved into his new bed very recently. This means if the baby isn't keeping them awake in the night, it's Ben coming in for a nocturnal visit. Danielle says she now empathises with parents of twins.

Psychologist Jackie Riach, who runs the Australian-developed Triple P Positive Parenting Program in New Zealand, says if you're planning any transitions with your first child, such as moving them from the cot to a bed, do it well in advance.  

Also take care to demystify the baby to your first child, she says. Explain what a baby is going to be like, and that they sleep and cry and need feeding. “Tell the child that they should be prepared that things are going to change,” Riach says.

It's also a good idea to plan well ahead in advance on what will happen on the day you go into hospital - for example, tell them, “Mummy is going to be away probably for a couple of days and Daddy and Grandma will be taking care of you." If your child goes to daycare, write them a note about what's happening, which can be read to them.

When the two siblings first meet in the hospital, the psychologist advises having a photo of the first child in the room, so the message is that the baby is joining the family - not replacing the first born. When your partner brings your child in to meet the new arrival, try to make sure you're free from feeding the newborn, so you can give your child a big hug and a cuddle, suggests Riach.  

Meanwhile, make plans to spend time with your child while the baby is sleeping - even though it might be tempting to get washing sorted or do other chores then. “What's really important is spending lots of time with them. Even when you're feeding your baby, notice what the elder child is doing, still attend to them,” says Riach. 

When it's feeding time, try to save up some highly engaging activities that your toddler can do, she suggests. She notes that if you're constantly putting on DVDs for them, these won't be special and interesting enough to hold their attention.  

It's not unusual for toddlers to play up during this time of change, but Riach says to try not to give negative attention to bad behavior - it's better to spot the times the child is behaving nicely.

Don't be surprised if the first child regresses in the early times of the new baby, says Riach, and try to be relaxed about this. She remembers her toddler trying to squeeze into a baby seat at the age of two, while other parents have noticed potty training going backwards for a while. Sometimes they may just throw a toddler-like temper tantrum which you'd thought they'd grown out of.

“They're just trying to cope with change,” Riach says, adding that if your child is acting really naughty, you should be prepared to use the usual strategies of quiet time and planned ignoring

“Most children adapt. It's like learning to read - most get there in the end,” she says.

Chat with mums about how they coped with baby number two, three and beyond in our forums.