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Sibling Preparation Tips

I wrote this in August, 2002, when Arlo was 3 1/2 years old and baby Kendra was 4 months old.

In case it's useful, here's a list of the things I did with my preschooler, Arlo, to help prepare him to be a big brother. He's turned out to be a fantastic big brother, with a wonderful relationship with the baby. I don't know if that's because of something I did, or if it's that Arlo happens to have been born with a personality that makes him a good big sib, or if it's sheer good luck. So I have no idea if any of this stuff would be useful for any other kid or any other family. But I'll list it here in case anything is useful to you.

During pregnancy:

  • I talked a lot about what babies are like. When I was 4, I expected my baby sister to be a playmate right away. I was very disappointed when instead she was a baby. So I did a lot of talking to Arlo about what babies do, and how many things they can't do. We talked about this endlessly.
  • We visited occasionally with real babies and talked about what they're like.
  • After all the talking about how boring and nasty babies are, I thought maybe I'd been too negative. So we also talked about how after a long, long time (in kid terms it's nearly forever) the baby would learn to smile, sit, crawl, walk and do all the other things that kids do. We talked about how it would be our job to teach the baby how to do cool things. We talked about this a lot, and made a big deal of how it's our job as a family to teach the baby to be a cool person.
  • I think this one is particularly important: We referred to the baby as "our baby," not as "Mommy's baby" or even "the baby". Sometimes we made a point of specifically pointing out that this would be Arlo's baby too.
  • We read lots of books about being a big brother. Arlo was usually only interested in hearing these books once, so it seemed like a waste to have so many of these books. But he did seem to absorb what was in those books, even though we only read them once or twice each. There was one particularly good one that talked about cool things big brothers can do, where the main character kept saying, proudly, I'm a big brother." After we read that, Arlo went around proudly saying that he was going to be a big brother. He seemed pleased. Even today Arlo loves to tell people that he's a big brother. When he says that, you can hear in his voice how he views being a big brother as a very important job, something to be proud of.
  • We made being a big brother sound like an important job. We talked about how Daddy is a big brother to Uncle Niels.
  • Arlo attended a sibling preparation class taught by the local Lamaze association.
  • We bought a fairly informative book about how babies are made, and read it several times. That's definitely not for everybody, but I was glad to have done it.
  • At first I tried shielding Arlo from other people's negative comments about siblinghood, such as when people would say, "When my brother was born, I asked to give the baby away." But then I realized that hearing conversations like that was okay because it gave Arlo the idea that having a little sibling wouldn't be all fun. I figured that it was better for him to have overly low expectations and be pleasantly surprised than to have high expectations and be disappointed.
  • From time to time at Arlo's school they had a "baby day." They would get out the doll babies and give them baths. Sometimes they had real babies from the school's baby room come visit Arlo's classroom.
  • We made sure Arlo had some baby dolls of his own.
  • This wasn't intended as sibling preparation, but it turned out to be handy: When Arlo wants something, Jan (he's Arlo's dad) or I will usually say, "I'll help you with that as soon as I finish what I'm doing now." So when the baby was born, he was already used to waiting for his parents to finish with their current task, so having the baby didn't seem like a big change to having to wait for Mom or Dad.
  • We talked about how tired mom and the baby would be at first.
  • I hadn't thought much about the fact that he'd be around for some of the early part of labor. Luckily, his sibling preparation class talked a bit about contractions. They had the kids hold up their fist and then squeeze it tight, then loosen it up again, and the teacher said this was like a contraction. It turned out to be a good thing that Arlo had some idea about contractions, because when I was in early labor I had a few of the "stop everything and wait for the contraction to pass" type of contractions while I was alone with Arlo, and it seemed to be a good thing that he had some idea of what was going on.
  • The sibling preparation class talked a lot about the umbilical cord stump. Evidently some big sibs are weirded out by the stump, so it's good to tell kids ahead of time to expect it.
  • We had complicated plans about where Arlo would go when I was in labor, with different contingencies depending on the time of day and day of the week. We talked a lot with him about what the plans were and what he could expect to happen. (And then we ended up doing something completely different.) (By the way, we completely forgot to plan for what we would do if Arlo was sick when I went into labor. And right around my due date he had the flu. Oops. I never did figure out what we would do if he was sick when the baby was born. Luckily he was healthy again by the time baby Kendra arrived, so we were able to send him off to stay with a pregnant friend.)

When the baby was born:

  • When Arlo came home, I left the baby in the guest room and I went to the front door to walk into the house together with Arlo. The idea here is that I've heard it's good if the older child first sees Mommy with the baby not in her arms. At the front door I hugged Arlo and told him how much I had missed him. We walked together into the guest room to greet the baby.
  • Especially the first day, and especially in the first days, I made sure to find lots of time to play together with Arlo and to pay him lots of individual attention. I felt that this was more important than even sleep. I could catch up on sleep later, but those first few days of siblinghood, when Arlo was setting attitudes toward Kendra that might last through his entire childhood, would only happen once.
  • We let Arlo hold Kendra almost whenever he asked. The rules for holding the baby are: (1) Ask a grownup if it's okay. (2) Wash your hands. (We often forget to ask him to do that.) (3) Sit down on a sofa or bed. (4) The grownup will bring you the baby. (5) Support the baby's head. (6) When you're done holding the baby, make sure to tell a grownup -- don't just let go and try to stand up. We hover a lot. Until Kendra could support her own head, we would usually help Arlo to support it. Also, it helped a lot to prop a pillow under his arm to support the arm that supported Kendra's head.
  • We gave Arlo a bunch of little presents as big brother gifts. Some people like to say the gifts are from the baby. We didn't do that, though it seems like a reasonable idea.
  • We had a stash of small gifts ready so that if someone came over with a gift for the baby, we could give Arlo a gift from our stash too. Actually people were great about remembering Arlo and so we never needed to use this stash of gifts. But I was glad to have them ready just in case.
  • We tried to include Arlo as much as possible with visitors. He could talk to them first, show them the baby. I'd thought about putting a note on the door to ask visitors to make sure to pay attention to Arlo first, but I never did it and never needed to.

As a general philosophy later on:

  • I try to spend some one-on-one time with Arlo every day.
  • I think it's important for Arlo and Kendra to develop a relationship with each other without me hovering or micro-managing the details. I don't generally leave them alone together for any length of time, but I do try to let Arlo do what he wants with Kendra, without me criticizing, as long as it doesn't look like it threatens life or limb. I've often watched and said nothing even when Arlo did something that I thought ran the risk of making Kendra cry. He hates it when she cries. He's never actually hurt her and made her cry, but I've figured that if he ever did, Kendra's crying would do a much more thorough job of teaching him how to treat her than a thousand droning warnings from me. I'm not 100% sure this is the best possible approach, because sometimes when Arlo holds Kendra she looks up at me with an expression on her face that looks to me like she doesn't feel safe, and that makes me feel terrible. But all the rest of the time Kendra seems to totally adore Arlo, so hopefully it's not damaging her.
  • We try to point out to Arlo how Kendra smiles when she sees him, so she must like him quite a lot. I've heard this described as a clever trick for making the big kid feel good, since babies will smile at anybody. But it's already very clear that Kendra thinks Arlo is wonderful, so I feel that it is honest to point that out to Arlo. I think this is a technique to be careful with, though. When I got to be a big sister and people pointed out that the baby liked me, I figured that it was a sign that the baby was stupid, since I certainly wasn't nice to the baby and hadn't given the baby any reason to like me.
  • I try to sometimes mention it when I have negative feelings about the baby, rather than only mention positive things. This gives Arlo permission to voice his negative feelings too. He never has, but I try to make it clear that he's welcome to. For example, in Kendra's earliest days, I'd sometimes talk to Arlo about how I was frustrated with some breastfeeding issues.
  • Arlo duplicates how I talk to the baby. Whatever I say to her in a particular situation, Arlo will say exactly the same thing the next time the situation arises. He is Watching. So I try super-hard to model the type of behavior I'd like him to use with her.
  • I never expected Arlo to like or love the baby. (He does, but I didn't expect it!)
  • I've tried to give Arlo ways he can help with the baby, such as making silly noises to make her smile. He loves to help out. I've tried to be careful, though, about what kind of jobs he's asked to do. When I was a kid, the grownups used to make me crawl under the crib to retrieve the bottles the baby threw down behind it. I disliked and resented that job.
  • I've run across people who say that they found it helpful to tell the big child, "my hands are full" rather than, "I'm busy with the baby." The idea is to avoid focusing the big one on the idea that the baby takes Mommy away from him. I'm not sure this technique was particularly useful, but I've made a point of doing it anyway.
  • I never let the baby cry or fuss while I ignore her and play with Arlo. I read somewhere that this is important because letting the baby cry would make the big child worry that you might do the same thing to him and not meet his needs, which the child would find very scary. I guess that's true, but to me the more important thing is that Arlo treats Kendra exactly the same as he sees his grownups treating her. I want him to learn compassion. I don't want him to learn that you can go play and ignore someone's unhappiness. I've been surprised by how well this has worked out. There have been times when I was trying to read a book to Arlo and I've had to interrupt it a zillion times to try to cheer up Kendra. I'd expect Arlo to be annoyed, but he's always been really good about it.
  • Arlo loves to talk about all the things he can do that Kendra can't. If he wasn't harping on this topic, I would be. It makes him feel big and important to be able to do all these things that Kendra can't. It's easy for a big sibling to feel like the baby has all sorts of special privileges, so I think it's good to help the big one be aware of all the great things about being big.
  • Arlo likes to hear stories about when he was a baby.
  • Now that Kendra likes to hold toys, Arlo has been very interested in learning how to tell what she can hold safely. I gave him a toilet paper tube that he can use to test the size of things, to make sure that they're not choke hazards. He knows to check objects for sharp corners, pieces that can come off, and things like paper and cardboard that could dissolve. He seems to enjoy picking out things to bring to her, and he is indeed pretty good at knowing what is safe. And, thankfully, he is very good about checking with an adult before giving her anything new.

The future:

  • I've heard from a lot of people that their big one adored their little one only until the little one became mobile and could mess with the big one's toys, at which point things became much more challenging. So I'm working on telling Arlo what to expect, and making plans for how to keep Kendra out of Arlo's toys. It's going to be challenging!

If you have questions, thoughts, things to add, things you disagree with, things that are outdated, please let me know

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