Social psychologist Dr Sandra Wheatley shares eight top tips for introducing a baby to older siblings.
While not every family has two future kings in it, some parenting challenges are universal, including how to introduce a newborn baby to older siblings.
As the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge introduce Prince George and Princess Charlotte to their third arrival, Dr Sandra Wheatley, a social psychologist who specialises in families and parenting, shares her advice to ensure plain sailing.
1. It’s important to explain things in the right way
One of the key factors in how you tell children they’re going to have a baby brother or sister is their age. For older children, like four-year-old Prince George, you can explain quite clearly about the fact a baby is coming and how exciting it is, and have a conversation about what this means for them.
Dr Wheatley says: “Be gentle, and explain that while it may seem like Mummy is always occupied with this very noisy little thing, it won’t last forever.
“With a younger child, like Princess Charlotte, their psychology makes it harder for them to understand and recall information when a baby is being noisy and irritating. The simpler you keep it, the better. Don’t go into great detail, but make sure they know what to expect, so when you say there’s a baby in Mummy’s tummy, they aren’t imagining a penguin!”
2. Give them constant reassurance
“As a parent, your principle job is to reassure your children you will love them just as much as you always have done, even when a new baby comes along,” says Dr Wheatley.
“The experience of being a second or third-time new parent is often laced with emotion, because you feel guilty for not attending to your older children as you once did.
“Despite you insisting you still love them as much as the new baby, they might not understand how you couldn’t possibly love them more than this new crying, pooing thing in their lives.”
There’s that lurking thought pattern in children’s minds, especially if they are a bit older, as they can draw comparisons. So make sure they hear reassurance from a variety of sources, like grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends and cousins.
3. Try not to burden them too much with the responsibility of being the eldest
While they may be excited about becoming a big brother or sister, they might also understand this comes with responsibility. Dr Wheatley says: “Pretty much every parent with more than one child will find themselves uttering the words, ‘You’re a big brother/sister now, you should be setting an example’, to their eldest children.
“Ask them to pass nappies or wipes, tell them what a lovely older sibling they are, how much you’d have liked a big brother or sister like them when you were little. Make them feel like they play a special role in the baby’s life,” she says.
4. If your older child is moving rooms keep them involved in the process
Moving bedrooms can create potential instability or unfamiliarity, so focus on how exciting it is to have a ‘big boy’s bedroom’, rather than a nursery. Maybe ask them to pick out stickers for the walls of the baby’s new bedroom.
5. Listen to what they’re saying to you
As a parent, you have to listen to the tough stuff, so don’t be afraid to talk about it. Ask them how they’re feeling, what they miss about life before the baby, even if it’s painful to hear.
Dr Wheatley says: “If they say they want to spend more time with you, enlist the help of your network to free up your time to have a day just with them. You will be feeling exhausted, but making a plan for something you can do together can often swing it for the older ones. Use it as an opportunity to do new and exciting things together and make it special for them.”
6. Give yourself a break
Dr Wheatley says: “Yes, the reality is you won’t get as much one-to-one time as before, but even without a new baby, your relationship with your children adapts and grows.
Don’t feel guilty about the fact you can’t do the things together you used to do, as you probably wouldn’t still be doing those things anyway.”
If they see you’re listening to them, this is often enough to help them feel a bit better.
7. Know that all relationships are different
As your children grow, so too do their relationships with each other and with you.
Dr Wheatley says: “A new baby introduces a new dynamic to this. With three children, there’s a risk the middle child may feel left out, as they’re no longer the baby, or the two elder children might gang up on the newborn, and then it almost becomes parents and baby versus other children. When these moments happen, just know that it will evolve and change, like family dynamics always do.
“There is likely to be a discord for the first couple of months, which for a child of two or three, like Charlotte, actually represents a large percentage of their life. But initial irritation will soon give way to joyful pride and happiness at other times. For older children, it can last a little longer, but equally they can accept it more readily because they are more able to understand that life may be a bit unfair sometimes, but it doesn’t last forever.”
8. There are no right or wrong answers
It’s important to be adaptable and open-minded. Dr Wheatley says: “Even if you’re discussing parenting tactics with a friend and they mention something you think wouldn’t work for your family, you may find yourself in the middle of a shopping-centre meltdown and you know what? Their advice came in very handy.”