There's no doubt that introducing a new sibling into your family is a major life change for your first-born. According to Michael Grose, author of eight parenting books, including the best selling Why First Borns Rule the World and Last Borns Want to Change It, introducing that first sibling in some ways represents a dethronement for your oldest child – and they don't always appreciate it.
"When you introduce that first sibling, your oldest child loses their crown, to a degree," he says. "For a year - or possibly several years - they were the only child and had your undivided attention. Now suddenly they have to share you and they have to compete for your time.
"Whether or not that change will result in jealousy or challenging behaviour depends, to a certain extent, on the temperament and age of your first-born, but most parents can certainly expect an adjustment period."
Grose suggests some commonsense strategies parents can employ to help minimise family disruption:
• Be open about what's happening. Long before your tummy starts to grow your first born will probably notice some changes, so don't be secretive about what's happening. Let your child know as soon as practical that you're growing a new baby in your tummy!
• Get them involved in the preparation. From buying baby clothes to decorating the nursery and cleaning out the cupboards, there's a wealth of baby-related preparation your first-born will like being involved in. "It will depend a bit on the age of your first born," says Grose. "If they are under one year old they may not be old enough to understand what is happening, but certainly toddlers and older children can take a lot of pleasure from helping you to prepare and choose items that you need."
• Introduce the notion of a baby in a realistic way. While we fondly imagine our children playing happily together all day, that isn't the immediate reality when a new sibling arrives. "It can be tempting to talk it up, to enthuse about how wonderful it will be for your child to have a new little playmate," says Grose. "But the reality is that babies aren't immediate playmates – they can't run around and play with your first born. They're babies! So try to give your child some realistic expectations of what a new baby can and can't do."
• Schedule some playdates. "It can be helpful if your first-born has the chance to observe in their own family or friendship group how siblings operate," suggests Grose. "So if you have a family member or a friend who has both a young child and a baby, then see if you can schedule a few playdates before your own baby arrives."
• Share the load. Once your new bundle of joy has arrived your first-born is suddenly competing for your time, so try to share the load with your partner and organise some one-on-one time with your oldest child.
Remember that, ultimately, whether it's having a great playmate, having someone who will back you up in an argument or simply having that shared sense of family, there are so many benefits to having siblings. It just may take some work for parents to help their children realise it!
First-born at the birth
Whether it's a home birth, a birthing centre or a hospital delivery ward, couples are increasingly deciding to have their first-born child at the birth. Associate Professor Hannah Dahlen, a leading midwifery researcher in Australia, describes this as magical.
"Having your older child present at the birth can really help them to feel engaged with the whole process and understand the whole process," she says. "The key of course is to prepare your child – to talk about what to expect. Even very basic things such as whether your child has seen you naked before, and whether it will upset them too much if they think that you are in pain. There is a wonderful book called Hello Baby (by Jenni Overend) written for children which explains the whole birth process in a child-appropriate way."
According to Dahlen, having oldest children at the birth can help them to feel completely connected with the whole process. "Otherwise it can be confusing for children," she explains. "There can be a big disconnect: one day Mum is walking around with a big belly and then suddenly she's walking around with a small baby."
Being present at the birth is not for all children, though. "Parents know their own children and generally know whether or not they will cope," says Dahlen. "Very young children tend to cope particularly well, whereas at around four or five years of age it can be more challenging as by then children have a sense of empathy; they understand if Mum is in pain and that can distress them. It's also very important to always have a support person for your child at the birth; that way, if your child does get upset or wants to leave, there is someone to take them out and look after them."
When the stars align though it can be a fantastic bonding experience. "Because the older sibling feels that they've been involved there is a sense of pride and ownership of this small baby," says Dahlen. "As well as being beautiful, it can really ease that transition process and strengthen the sibling bond. The most magical births I can remember are the ones where the older siblings have been present."