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Elizabeth Pantley: The New Baby

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Barbara and Anwar are proud and happy: today, they’re bringing Emma home—a brand new baby sister for Claire. Soon, for the very first time, Claire will look into the eyes of her baby sister, of whom she’d surely become passionately enamored. At just three years apart in age, the girls are bound to become friends and playmates in no time at all, and the very first moment of their lifelong bond is just a doorknob’s turn away. The rush of emotion that so often accompanies parents through pregnancy and the postpartum phase threatens to overwhelm the well-meaning parents as they approach the front door.

Barbara’s mother greets tiny new Emma at the threshold with the same happy tears and open arms that seem to greet the baby everywhere on these, her first days. Although she’s already seen the tiny cherub at the hospital, Grandma can’t resist plucking her out of Barbara’s hands for a cuddle and coo. A while passes before Grandma hears quick breaths behind her and feels the plaintive stare of a wary child. She turns to see Claire peering around the corner, eyes huge in her tiny face. “Come see your new sister,” Grandma chirps cheerfully.

As Claire makes her way to the baby, Grandma peels back the blanket to reveal a tiny, red…something. “What is THIS?” Claire thinks. She knew the baby wouldn’t be born as a big three-year-old like herself, but she’s never seen anything quite like this! A wrinkly, bleary-eyed raisin of a sister, a fascinating, blinking, breathing being presently regarding her big sister with the searching eyes unique to infants. “A brand-new people,” she thinks. “Emma. My LITTLE SISSER. Emma.” She rolls the baby’s name over her tongue, liking the sensation. “This kid’s gonna love me. I’d better start teaching her stuff right away, so we can play…” she thinks, half to herself and half out loud.

As her peanut-butter-covered fingers reach out to the baby’s face for a preschool-style welcome, Grandma intercedes. “Ohhh. Careful, honey. We don’t want to get the baby all dirty. And your hands, they might have germs…” Claire sheepishly pushes her sticky hands into her pockets; she should have known that, she guesses. Shouldn’t she? She leans over to peer at her baby sister, the wonder of it all apparent in her eager face.

“Hi, little sisser.” Claire tentatively says, “I’m your big…ah…ah-CHOO!”

Grandma quickly moves the baby away, and Mommy appears with a tissue. “Oh, dear, you have to be careful not to sneeze on the baby.”

“Okay,” Claire absently answers. “Mommy, can we go to the park?”

Barbara hugs her big girl and tells her, “Maybe later, honey. Right now, Mommy has to feed the baby.”

As Barbara settles in on the sofa and her cherished task of breastfeeding, Claire climbs up next to her, favorite book in hand. “Mommy read to me?” Claire asks as she hands the book over to her, looking for her free hand but finding both filled with Emma.

“Not now, honey. The baby is just learning how to do this, and I need to concentrate.” Barbara shifts and turns in her seat, seeking the best position for her and the baby. Claire gets out of the chair, sensing that she’s in the way. She stands a safe distance away, wondering what Mommy’s milk tastes like—she can’t seem to remember—and imagining her soft arms around her.

As baby Emma falls into a blissful post-nursing sleep, Barbara gently lays her in the pretty new cradle. Not a minute later, Claire comes roaring through the room with her new plastic airplane, one she’s sure will delight her little sister. But Barbara’s soft but swift admonishment grounds the action mid-flight. “Shhhh! Don’t wake the baby, sweetheart.”

Claire drops her airplane and peeks into the cradle. Those eyelids—they look almost transparent! She’s just reaching in to touch them, and all those other body parts so fascinating in their newness, when Anwar rushes over. “No, no, Claire. Don’t touch the baby’s eyes. Uh…why don’t I read to you?” He pulls out a new book he picked up in the hospital gift shop, appropriately titled A New Baby in Joey’s House. As Anwar settles into the chair with Claire, he tells her how lucky she is to have a new baby sister to play with. Claire, quiet without knowing quite why, looks forward to hearing if Joey can actually play with his baby sister.

The Hidden Message

“The new baby is a special, fragile, precious person—much more important to us than you are. From now on, everything you say or do will be affected by her presence. From now on, she comes first.”

Think About It

The whole postpartum scenario produces a confusing whirl of emotions that envelops everyone in the household in those first tender weeks. In our instinctive drive to keep newborns from harm, we often become overzealous. Thus we protect the baby, but not her sibling’s feelings, driving a wedge between them from the very beginning. The words and actions we use to shield our infants inadvertently seem defensive, accusatory, and negative to our older children, who often do not, or cannot, communicate the hurt. If they are beyond two or three years in age, siblings may perceive that they should be happy at such a time but may be perplexed as to why they may also feel sad.

When we brought home our newest baby, Coleton, our son, David was already a bright and talkative seven-year-old, young enough to feel the impact of this newcomer, but also old enough to voice his concerns. A few days after we came home from the hospital David and I were eating breakfast together. Coleton was in his typical place—in my arms. David was unusually quiet when he suddenly glanced at me and shook his head saying, “Already it’s the baby, the baby, the baby. If I want a hug I can give you one but you can’t give me one.” (If you’re curious—I then put Coleton in his cradle and took David over to the sofa for a nice morning snuggle, reassuring him that we could do that whenever he needed a hug.)

All the confusion an older sibling is feeling, coupled with the unintended negativity from parents, in turn, can discourage siblings from getting to know the newcomer and may plant the seeds for the dreaded “sibling rivalry.” It may also drive our older children to act out in ways that we see as “naughty” but are merely desperate pleas for attention and equal billing.

Changes You Can Make

As with many situations in parenting, a simple awareness of the hidden message can eliminate much of the problem. Many of you living this scenario are probably gasping in the surprise of recognition—and many of you who have lived through this life stage are now shaking your heads at the memory.

In addition to becoming more aware of what’s really happening, some very simple steps can encourage a positive experience for your older child (or children) when a new baby enters the family. First, and foremost, acknowledge that this is a time of adjustment for everyone—time to reduce your outside activities, relax your housekeeping standards, and focus on your current priorities: adjusting to your new family size and paving the way for healthy sibling relationships. I know that this is hard to do. But babies are babies for such a short period of time that it’s worth it to allow yourself this time.

And just how do you encourage sibling friendship from the beginning? One way is to understand and validate your older child’s feelings. Things have changed, and not just for you. The next time you’re holding the new baby, take a moment to look at an older sibling while he or she is unaware of your gaze; you might just catch a glimpse through the window of your child’s eye. Like you, your older child may be more tired than usual, a little more stressed, a little touchier. It’s a natural reaction. The baby does require much time and attention, and will indeed dominate and disrupt family life for awhile. Just be sure to let your older child know you’re aware that he is struggling with this concept—and that that is okay. Simple statements like, “I know it’s hard to wait for Emma to wake up until we go to the park” will help your child hear that you care about her feelings.

Avoid blaming everything on “the baby”—a common error. This story demonstrates some of the creative ways we do exactly that—“Don’t get THE BABY dirty” “Be careful not to sneeze on THE BABY” “We can’t go now, Mommy has to feed THE BABY” “Don’t wake THE BABY” “Don’t touch THE BABY.” Very soon, your older child will be ready to send THE BABY from whence it came! Of course, “the baby” really is the reason for all of your schedule changes, and the reason for required behavior changes from your child, but it would behoove you to watch your wording. A few multipurpose statements for schedule changes include “My hands are busy right now,” “We’ll go later, after lunch/nap/TV show,” “Yes, we will, in about 20 minutes.” And “Not right now.”

When addressing the behavior changes that you require of your child, focus on the issue at hand instead of its connection to THE BABY—“Your hands are dirty, let’s go wash them.” “Remember to cover your mouth when you sneeze.”

Accept your child’s curiosity about the new baby, whom she will want to touch and hold. Allow your child to explore, hold, and feel the baby when the baby is sound asleep. Once your child is a bit more experienced (and the baby a bit sturdier), let your child hold and caress the awake, alert baby. And encourage having your child touch and talk to the baby when the little one is safe in your arms. Touch and communication are important to both of them and their budding relationship. You and your child will soon be rewarded and delighted by smiles of recognition from the little one.

If you are breastfeeding and your older child has been weaned, she may express fascination with your breast milk. Consider letting her have a taste of your milk (on a spoon or in a cup, if you’re more comfortable with that) so she doesn’t feel excluded from some mysterious ritual or culinary treat. It certainly won’t hurt her, and one taste will be enough to convince her that she much prefers her ‘big girl’ glass of chocolate milk.

Use positive terms to patiently teach your older child how to touch and play with the baby. Avoid using “no” and replace it with positive instructions. As an example, instead of saying, “No! Don’t touch the baby’s eyes!” you can say, “Emma’s eyes are very delicate; touch her instead on her cheeks and her chin.” You can also use the baby herself to teach your child what she wants; your child will be amused as you play ventriloquist, putting words in the baby’s mouth. “I like when you smile to me!” for example, or “I’ll stay nice and healthy if you wash your hands before you tickle me.”

Avoid overusing “no” and “stop” by using an approach I call “hover and rescue.” Hover over your children and intervene only if you see things moving away from your comfort zone. Then simply pick the baby up, distract the older child, and move on to something else. When our third child, David, was born—his sisters were two and four—this was my most lifesaving technique and I relied on it often.

Give your older child realistic information about babies—that they sleep a lot, nurse a lot, have a noisy and loud cry, will have lots of messy diapers, and that it will be a while before they will turn into a fun playmate. Teach the older sibling how to be helpful with the baby, without expecting your firstborn to become a built-in babysitter. Encourage and praise whenever things are going right. Help your child take delight in the ways she’s earning the title “Big Sister.”

It’s a great time to pull out photos and movies of your older child as a baby. As you go through them, help your child see that at one time she was the baby who was getting special attention.
The new baby will require extensive care and commitment from you. But make sure that your older child is also getting some one-on-one Mommy/Daddy/Grandma/etc. time. Allowing time for a shared game, book or cuddle can go a long way towards helping your older child feel secure in your love for her.

Above all, talk. Encourage your child to vent feelings, good and bad; let your child know that negative feelings are a natural part of the puzzle so that she doesn’t feel “bad.” Ask her what she thinks and listen without judgment. Commiserate with your child and reassure her that this phase will pass, that things will seem more “normal” soon, and that the baby eventually will become a child who will talk, play, and run with her. Read together some of the many books available for children that address the issues faced by an older child when a new baby enters the family. It will be reassuring to your child to learn that other big brothers and sisters have the same mixed feelings about their new sibling.

Our new baby, Coleton, is now four months old, and our family has settled nicely into its new configuration. Just yesterday I asked ten-year-old Vanessa if having a baby in the house is different than she expected it would be. “Yes,” she answered, “I didn’t know he would make everybody so happy.” David adores his baby brother, too, which is evident by the many hugs he showers him with. And Coleton, well, he thinks his big sisters and brother hung the moon.
With a little heart, increased awareness, and a few new tactics, you can all enjoy this remarkable family transformation together.

(Excerpted with permission by NTC/Contemporary Publishing Group Inc. from Hidden Messages – What Our Words and Actions are Really Telling Our Children by Elizabeth Pantley, copyright 2001)

Hidden Messages is available in most bookstores, and on-line at