What's normal?

It’s natural and normal for an older child to respond to the birth of a new baby with mixed feelings of excitement and happiness, as well as feelings of jealousy, resentment, anger and sadness. Often, the relationship between a young child and their baby sister or brother can be affected by competition for their parent or carers affection and time.

Early years staff can play a crucial role in helping the older child have a sense of being their ‘own little person’ who is still loved and important.

Here we will be looking at how sibling rivalry can present itself in children, and how early years staff can support any children in their settings who may be affected by this.

We’ll also look at how early years staff who work directly with families might be able to help these families support the older siblings and make things easier for them - both before and after the new baby is born.

Signs of sibling rivalry

Feelings of sibling rivalry can be expressed in many different ways, for example the older child may:

  • try to physically hurt the baby or say that they want the baby to go away
  • be loving towards the new baby, but distant or challenging to one or both of their parents
  • become very withdrawn
  • display regressions in their development (perhaps mimicking the needs of their baby sibling) for example, sucking their thumb, wanting to be carried everywhere, toileting accidents, asking to drink out of a bottle.
  • display unchanged behaviour at home, but challenging behaviour in their childcare setting or with their childcare worker

Some difficulties might not emerge until the younger sibling is slightly older, and some of the triggers may be associated with:

  • sharing toys or other items
  • making new friends or joining the same childcare setting as their sibling Difficulties can also arise when younger children start to develop more independence ie. when they don’t appear to need their older sister or brother as much as they once did. Brothers and sisters may be very close during some periods while growing up, but less so at others.
Ways to support older siblings in your settings following the arrival of a new baby

Help them express their feeling and emotions about the new baby

You can support the older child to talk about how they feel about having a sibling, and how things are going for them at home. It can be hard for children to know and express how they feel, and they might need you to name some common emotions such as: sadness, anger, excitement, happiness. You can bring yourself into this, and talk about how you might/might have felt with the arrival of a sibling when you were young.

Use play, dolls, and baby items

Young children often express feelings and experiences using play and toys. You can pay attention to the child’s play and stay alert for when there are themes about birth, siblings, and family life. Often children will project their feelings and experiences onto characters and toys. You can use these moments to name the characters’ involved feelings and make them feel normal, without directly addressing the child or referring to their situation.

Give attention and one-to-one time

With the arrival of a new baby, children can experience the loss of their parent or carer’s undivided attention. It is important to make time to provide extra reassurance and time to an older child who may be experiencing sibling rivalry.

Ways to help a family prepare the older child for the arrival of a new sibling

Children’s understanding around the arrival of a new baby will be different depending on their age and stage of development. Despite differences in understanding, even very young children will be aware that their parents may have a new preoccupation. Or they might notice that their mum’s tummy is getting bigger. Young children may have worries about what it will mean to have a sibling and that the idea that will have to share their parents or carers with the new baby. It is important to support parents and carers to prepare the child for the arrival of a sibling.

Explaining the news to the child

Encourage parents/carers to explain to the older child, in a simple and age-appropriate way that there is going to be a new baby in the family. They could use a sonogram of the baby to talk about the new baby and say “look, you are going to have a baby brother/sister and the baby is going to grow inside mummy’s tummy slowly”. They can use photos of the older child when they were a baby or videos on the internet to talk about babies, and what they do e.g., how they eat, how they sleep and cry. They can also use examples of any babies that the child already knows.  

Reassuring the child and being honest

Let parents/carers know that it is important to talk about what to expect, and the advantages and disadvantages of having a sibling, without overwhelming the child. Some of the advantages can include being able to love and care for the baby. The disadvantages might be how babies can cry, need a lot of attention and time. They should know that it important to reassure the older child that they will continue to love them, as well as the new baby. They can let them know that it’s normal and alright to not feel happy about the baby’s arrival at times, and to feel angry, upset, jealous and worried. Parents/carers should know that the child will appreciate reassurance and being reminded how important and loved they still are.

Keeping the child involved

Encourage parents and carers to involve the child in thinking about and planning for the new baby. This can include involving them in deciding on names, arranging the baby’s room, doing baby-related shopping, packing the hospital bag together.

Ways to help a family support the older child after the new baby has arrived

You can share the following advice with parents or carers to help their older child:

Be curious about how they are feeling

Although parents/carers may have a sense of how their older child feels after the birth (through their behaviour and language), it is important for them to show curiosity about their thoughts and feelings. This will let them know that they are thinking about them and that they are being seen by them. Parents/carers can help them identify their feelings through saying things like “I wonder how you are feeling about the baby, maybe you are happy but also a bit sad that things are different”.

Let them know that their feelings are normal

Older siblings need to be told that they are not “bad” for having negative feelings towards the baby and that the parent/carer knows how hard it is for the older child to accept the new baby. 

Make them feel important, reassured, and loved

With a new baby coming, older children may have fears about being unlovable, unimportant, and replaceable. They may need extra reassurance and love to feel that they are important to parents/carers. They need extra reassurance and love, along with clear guidelines about what is, and is not, acceptable behaviour.

Make them feel involved

It is important for the older sibling to feel involved, that they have an important role in their family. Parents/carers can involve them by finding small, manageable tasks for them to do. For example, they can get them to hold the cotton wool while they change the baby’s nappy. Afterwards they should show them gratitude for helping..

Encourage and appreciate positive gestures and behaviour towards the baby

When parents/carer notice the older child showing positive gestures and behaviour made towards the baby e.g., gently stroking the baby, singing or talking to them, showing them their toys, they should acknowledge this and appreciate them. They can say things like “that was really nice that you stroked him gently like that, I am sure he really appreciated it”.

Schedule in special baby-free time

It is important for parents/carers to arrange for some special baby-free time for the parent and older child to enjoy playing or reading books. Even a small amount of time spent together can make a big difference.

Ask for support from other familiar people

The firstborn child needs love and support from other familiar people when their parents and carers become less available. It is helpful if the extended family or friends can step in to avoid too many separations, new places and strange faces at this time of major change.  Everyone in the family must make a big adjustment when a new baby arrives.

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