Mama Musings: Preparing the Older Sibling for a New Baby

This is the third installment in Rhianna’s series of posts about her home birth preparation.

You can read the first here and the second here.

photo credit: danhuse, flickr creative commons
photo credit: danhuse, flickr creative commons

My husband and I had gently closed the door on actively trying to grow our family when I unexpectedly discovered that I was pregnant. When the idea of parenting two children finally took root for me, I, um, kinda melted down a little. Just how deep are my wells of flexibility, patience, creativity, energy, and kindness? How much space is there in these wells for the successful, gentle parenting of more than one child?  And then this beautiful post showed up in my reader, as if it were written just for me at just that time to reassure me that it will be okay. And much of the time it even will be better than okay. I will be fine. My son will be fine. The new baby, too, will be just fine.

Once I regained confidence in my ability to navigate the challenges of expanding our family, preparing my son for his impending big brotherhood and this milestone of big family change secured an ongoing presence on my to-do list. He’s two years old, and developmentally it’s all still quite abstract for him.  Perhaps much of my prep approach has as much to do with readying me for this new sibling dynamic, too.

But, wait–this post is part of a series that is supposed to be about home birth preparation, right? My son was one of the big factors playing into my decision to pursue a home birth, so it’s difficult to tease the sibling stuff out of the home birth experience for me.  I want my son to be included in the process of welcoming this new baby at any appropriate opportunity we identify; I do not want there to be any limitation in our ability to incorporate him into this birth experience. And I want to preserve as much of his routine as possible, because I know much of it is about to be upended.

These may all be unrealistic aspirations–perhaps these things will have little helpful impact, perhaps this is all beyond his current developmental grip–but at least I will know that I gave my level best effort to acclimate him to the idea/event of home birth and a new sibling. Over the last many months, this is what we’ve had up our sleeves in this effort: 

We found out our baby’s sex. We pointedly chose not learn our baby’s sex when I was pregnant with Arlo. Holding out to discover if our baby was a boy or a girl made us feel like we were holding on to the only Hallmark moment available to us after a meticulously orchestrated effort to get pregnant.  This time, though, we wondered if knowing our second baby’s sex might help make the idea of a new baby more concrete for our son. Perhaps being able to pepper our conversations with references to his sister could travel some distance towards making the baby seem “real” to him. 

My son has attended every appointment with our midwife, both at her office and in our home.  My in-laws had been watching Arlo for my appointments when I was seeing the OB in the early weeks of my pregnancy. From the appointment wait time (sometimes as long as an hour) to the actual office environs, my OB’s office was not at all toddler-friendly. I’d  wager that most aren’t. When I first interviewed my midwife, she inquired about my thoughts for Arlo during birthing, and when I explained my hope to have him present on some level, she immediately and warmly advised that it’d be smart to bring him to  our appointments. She encouraged that this would make him comfortable around her and would normalize the experience of having her in our house. Makes perfect sense. She is so animated and sweet with him and always prompts him to be involved in the the appointment, such as inviting him to help measure my fundal height (he holds one end of the tape, while she holds the other) or listening to the baby with the fetoscope (she gives him a second one to play with while she’s listening. I so wish I could get a picture of this!).  He greets her by name now (adorable), which tells me she has become just another normal part of our landscape.

We’ve coordinated with my in-laws to have them care for our son in our home during our birthing time. We’ll call them when it’s Go Time, and they’ll be here in the house or close by in the neighborhood  with Arlo. This way we’ve got the comfort of knowing our toddler is in capable hands and that he can be with us at any time we want him to be. This will hopefully disrupt his daily routine as minimally as possible, and it gives him the opportunity to meet his sister sooner and visit without an interruption imposed by someone other than us.

We gave him a baby doll. Our son was given a baby doll over the holidays, and he instantly loved her. It was all spontaneous kisses and tender cuddles and loads of the sweetest stuff you’ve never seen your child give to an inanimate object before. She was the ideal specimen for practicing gentle touches, swaddles, and diaper changes. She became the perfect reference point for our soon-to-come little sister.

We find ways of incorporating mentions of the baby in our daily haps. For example, “When the new baby comes, we’ll take her to school with us like Alexandra brings baby Luke to school.” Or, when we’re eating dinner, “What do you think the baby will eat when she comes?” And then we talk about the baby nursing, how he nursed a lot when he was a little baby, and how he both nurses and eats food like Mommy and Daddy now. We try to connect the idea of the baby to whatever we might be doing at that given time.

We’ve checked out a stack of “new baby” children’s books from the library. I started with this list, including those recommended in the comments. I re-read the blogger’s take on each of the books after reading through (or attempting to read through) these books with Arlo. I nodded my head ardently to her assessments. Some are too wordy and geared toward older children, so I omit entire paragraphs or simply just describe what I see in the pictures. I found some on the list gratingly and disappointingly negative, so back to the library they went. The three big winners for us have been:

  • Lizzy Rockwell’s Hello, Baby!–this is a hospital birth story, so I edit some details as I read (for example, changing in the word “midwife” for “doctor” and totally excluding the fact that the parents leave to go to the hospital). This is my son’s favorite of the batch. The big brother is very much included in the preparation for the new baby and in his newborn sister’s care. Fun.
  • Jenny Overend’s Welcome with Love–a home birth story. It is a little too wordy for a 2 year old’s attention span, so I edit out much of the story or simply describe what I see in the pictures. The illustrations are soft and pretty, but more birth-graphic than you might expect from children’s literature. I was a little surprised at first blush, but I think these are valuable, gentle illustrations about the truth of birth. There are pictures of the mother laboring, leaning on the father; a picture of the baby’s head emerging as mom births in a supported standing position; and a picture that includes the subtle detail of the placenta hanging out in a bowl. And there is nursing and bedsharing depicted, too.
  • Mary Batten’s Who Has a Belly Button? is from the juvenile non-fiction section and is clearly intended for older children, but it uses anatomical language (“uterus” instead of “belly,” for example) and the pictures are great. It spends a great amount of time identifying mammals and discussing their belly buttons, so for my animal-lovin’ toddler the pictures alone are fun. Lots of mom and baby animal illustrations. 

We  have a small gift from the baby for Arlo to be given to him sometime shortly after he meets her. Arlo adores his Schliech animal figurines. We got him the pair of lion cubs from this set, and we’ll tell him that they are brother and sister, just like he and the new baby. We found these at our local zoo’s gift shop; we have a zoo membership, which includes a discount of gift shop items, so it was totally a budget-kind and wildlife conservation-supporting purchase, too.

Will these approaches go some distance towards easing Arlo’s transition into big brotherhood? They certainly can’t impede it, that’s for sure. It’s going to rock everyone’s world, this adjustment to a squishy-faced fourth member of our family, and we have a realistic understanding that these approaches we’ve implemented aren’t magic bullets and that there will still be challenges aplenty.

These are a few other links I found interesting and insightful about big sibling preparation:

Rhianna's biopic Rhianna lives in St. Louis and edited this post with her newborn daughter snoozing serenely on her chest. She’s happy to share that big brother repeatedly interrupted said editing effort by peppering his new sister with sloppy kisses and unrequited high-fives.

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