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Nurturing a Happy Older Sibling!

Dr. Susan Bartell

Having a second child is a wonderful and exciting time in a parent’s life. Nevertheless, almost every parent worries about whether their older child might struggle to adjust to the new baby. It can be especially difficult for toddlers and preschoolers to understand that mom or dad must turn some attention to the seemingly demanding, constantly crying baby.

It is valuable for children to learn to be patient when they aren’t always the center of attention, and to become practiced at not having their own needs met immediately. These life skills can be tough to learn, but are necessary to growing up well-adjusted and happy.

Becoming a big brother or sister can also help young children develop feelings and behaviors associated with love, nurturing and empathy. It is much easier for young children to develop these feelings in relation to other children, than in their relationships with adults. In fact, learning how to relate to a sibling is often the first opportunity a child gets to practice these empathic behaviors. After all, their relationship with parents and other adults is largely one-way: adults provide nurturing and children receive it.

Parents don’t have to wait for the baby’s arrival home to begin working with a child to develop the important behaviors associated with love, nurturing and empathy. There are steps mom and dad can take that will jump start this process. Young children learn most of their valuable emotional lessons through play—because even very bright kids don’t have the proficiency to effectively communicate complex feelings with language. Parents can capitalize on this emotional stage by providing their child with a doll—this gives the child an opportunity, through play, to explore nurturing feelings, and practice loving behaviors even before they become a big brother or sister.

Air Baby, Baby’s First soft, light baby doll, perfectly fulfills this task of providing a palette for emotional growth in a way that even a cute stuffed animal, can’t do. Since Air Baby so closely mimics a human baby, both boys and girls can benefit from owning one and being encouraged to hug, care for, ‘feed’ and change the doll—with mom or dad’s help if necessary. It might be the first time that a child feels the good feelings associated with nurturing their own ‘baby’ and it is likely to feel positive and empowering.

Once the new baby arrives, owning a baby doll will continue to offer support for an older (but still young) sibling’s transition by providing opportunities for play that help to work through conflicted feelings. For example, parents might find their child being rough with the doll—a behavior that the child (hopefully) wouldn’t express towards the real baby. The child may want to ‘introduce’ their doll to their sibling, as a way to begin bonding with the baby. Finally, the doll might continue to provide chances for the child to express caretaking behaviors—especially if the strangeness, constant crying or squirming of the real baby seems scary.

Parents often have high hopes that their first child will immediately bond with the new baby. Sometimes this does happen—and providing a doll to help a child learn nurturing behavior, or to work through ambivalent feelings can certainly help. However, it is common for older children to express resentment, regression— like toileting accidents or difficulties going to sleep.

Further, some kids will want to ‘help’ feed, diaper and care for your new baby (much like they would their doll), but other kids reject involvement with the baby as their way to express negative feelings about their life being turned upside down. It is important for parents to accept each child’s expression of both positive and negative feelings, be patient and continue to show ample attention and love towards the older sibling. Expressing frustration, pressuring a child to ‘help’, or yelling, is likely to result in your older child disliking their younger sibling—after all, everything was fine until the baby arrived. That being said, if a child expresses very hostile, or physically aggressive behavior towards the baby, it may be important to seek professional help.

This is a huge time for change in a family. It can take months for a new equilibrium to be reached. Until this happens, enjoy every minute of your larger, more interesting family!

Dr. Susan Bartell is a nationally recognized child and parenting psychologist, consultant, speaker and author. For over twenty-five years she has been guiding parents to raise happy, healthy and well-adjusted children by helping them to understand the developmental needs of their child at every age and by providing strategies to help parents and children through challenging times at every stage of childhood.

To reach Dr. Susan Bartell: (516)944-5856 |

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