Sibling Squabble

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For most adults, a promotion would be seen as a fantastic opportunity; a time for growth and heightened responsibility, but for our little people – a promotion to being a big brother or sister often isn’t met with quite as much enthusiasm. Our Fourth Trimester blog looked at managing the adjustment for parents and newborns, but when you have gone through this adjustment before, you feel more confident with the changes – until there is a toddler in the mix!

Changing family dynamics can be a challenging time for everyone, but for some new siblings, who may not yet be able to reason as well as adults, it can seem as though the world as they knew it has come to and end. What a daunting position for a little person to be in! The good news is, it won’t last forever – although there may always continue to be some amount of sibling rivalry, a big brother or sister will soon adjust to their new role, and realize that Mum and Dad are still the same, despite the fact that this new little-wrinkly-noise-maker doesn’t seem to be going away!

Many parents begin to prepare a soon to be sibling for the upcoming changes during pregnancy, which is a fantastic idea. Including them as much as possible in the pregnancy and building excitement about the baby is a great way to build positive associations. Depending on their age, comprehension of ‘baby in Mummy’s tummy’ and the reality of ‘baby being a part of the family’ often differ. I will never forget caring for a couple that had done everything they could think of to involve their little Miss during pregnancy. They were feeling confident that she never wavered from being anything but excited about the baby in Mummy’s tummy – until the baby actually came out, and was met with her begging for the baby to be put back! ‘Baby lives in Mummy’s tummy’ she screamed through the ward of the hospital – a mix of confusion and worry too overwhelming for a little princess to handle. It was a long first few weeks with a certain little Miss wanting to spend all her time with Grandma instead of Mum, slowly coming round from feeling betrayed. I spent a good few weeks during home visits with Mum reassuring her that things would get easier – much like first time round the adjustment to life with a newborn was challenging, this time that transition seemed a breeze compared with balancing life with a newborn and a toddler. I checked in with her again at 6 weeks – life was back to happiness all round, albeit slightly more tired.

This confusion resulting in disassociation is not always the case though, as on the other end of the spectrum we have those little people who are so excited about embracing their new role as big brother or sister that they can smother (sometimes almost literally) the new addition to the family with love. This can also lead to some negativity being created if they are always being told ‘no’ or being reprimanded for wanting to be involved. Their lack of understanding about wanting to always see/touch/hold their new sibling conflicting with negativity from parents has the potential to lead to jealousy and uncharacteristic outburst of behaviours or regression of things like toilet training and waking through the night.

Seeing parents’ transition through pregnancy to parenthood for the second or third time, I have come to realise there is a fine line to balance, for everyone, when the family dynamic changes. Some families move through this transition without so much as a ripple in the ocean of family life; where everyone is able to carry on with a newborn and a mum needing more rest are seemingly well accommodated. Others have a harder time, with toddlers throwing a higher hurdle into the leap of life with a new addition. Some things I have seen work to make this transition slightly smoother are:

  • Involve them in pregnancy. Talk to them about what is happening and what it all means in ways they can understand. Bring them along to your appointments if you like – and we will try and involve them as much as we can in what we are doing at your check ups.
  • Role-play during pregnancy – buy them a doll (yes even boys), and let them ‘practice’ specific tasks for after ‘Mummy’s baby’ is here. If they have a connection to something such as this before the time comes, they may continue to find joy in feeling included afterwards. I have been to many a home visit where someone’s dolly has needed to be weighed and helped with feeding too!
  • Introduce activities that you might want/need them to do when the baby comes such as reading or drawing while you feed, changing rooms, moving into a big bed – get them used to these changes well before there is an extra addition.
  • Think of specific things that they can do to help such as choosing an outfit, packing nappies into the bag, getting a wrap or some socks, and let that be ‘their job.’
  • Allocate them some (supervised) time with the baby, to hold them while they sit in your lap, to lay with them while they’re on a play mat, to read them a book.
  • Keep some one on one time with them as well. Have someone watch the baby while you take them round the block on their scooter, take them to the park or do some reading – they’ll soon realize all these special things can still happen and Mum and Dad are still the same – they just share their time with someone else now.

If you have ongoing concerns with adjusting to family dynamic changes, make an appointment to see your local child health nurse, GP, or seek input from a supportive mothers group. You’ll be surprised to hear how many other people have been through a similar transition and the things that they found useful. Most importantly, don’t struggle in silence, if you are having difficulty coping, whether it be specific to your toddlers transition or not – tell someone about it. Remember toddlers are fairly robust little people and while it might seem like they all of a sudden need mum and dad more, or have a short lived aversion to mum and dad (or the baby) they will forget about it soon enough.

Kaitlin Reid – Arrivals Midwife

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