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Trials of the Older Sibling
How new arrivals impact kids as well as parents - in the most unexpected ways
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I’ve written in the past about the sheer impact that having a newborn takes on your mental health. Especially going from non-parent to parent, I felt like I was questioning my sense of self on a daily basis. I knew that I wanted to be a dad and I was overjoyed at being one, but I can’t deny that part of me mourned the passing of my old life how things were before.
I’m not experiencing those same feelings this time around. The transition to parent for me is already complete. The trappings of newborn parenting are slowly coming back to me: analysing the colour of each dirty nappy, counting and timing the breast feeds, catching up with TV shows at 3am whilst the baby’s awake. Sure, going from sleeping through the night to being grateful for three hours is jarring, but not nearly in the same way as before.
The hardest part of all this for sure has been watching that existential crisis happen to my three-year-old daughter.
Research tells use that being a new big brother or sister can be really difficult, and it shows in all manner of ways. These can include difficulties in regulating emotions (something that children aren’t always capable of doing anyway) and regressing developmentally in a range of areas, such as sleep, eating or toileting. Another study broke down the occurrences of these types of behaviours in children who’d recently become older siblings:
The most common negative behaviors in the previous brothers were regression (77.74%), sleep changes (47.76%), violent behaviors (46.28%), changes in toilet habits (32%) and decrease in appetite (31%).
Armed with the knowledge that these kind of things could happen, we did everything we could to prepare our daughter for our new arrival. We kept her involved at every stage of the pregnancy, read her books specifically aimed at older siblings-to-be, bought her a present “from the baby”, and took her on playdates with other kids her age who were also older siblings. The best thing I read on the prep you can do for your child before (and after, in fact) baby arrives was Adjusting to a New Baby from.
We also made sure that she was totally aware of what would happen when baby was about to be born: mummy and daddy would say goodbye before going to hospital, and she would have a sleepover at her grandparents’, then come home the next day to meet her baby sister. She seemed very comfortable with the plan, and the idea that soon she’d be a big sister.
Trouble is, when it comes to births and labours, plans are for the naive. We learned this the first time, and thought we had flexibility built-in this time around. I won’t tell the full story, but let’s just say that we did not plan for what went down.
The labour was short, and happened in the dead of night. It became clear quickly that we needed to leave for hospital whilst our daughter was still asleep.
By the time her grandparents had arrived to take care of her and let us get going, labour was quite advanced. There was commotion, which inevitably woke her up. One of the abiding images in my mind when I recall that evening was glancing up the stairs whilst we were getting ready to leave, and seeing her stood on the landing in her Bluey pyjamas, clutching her blanket and bunny rabbit, staring wide-eyed at the chaos ensuing downstairs. If I think about that image for too long, I’ll cry all over again.
I was able to quickly run back up and explain what was happening, but it wasn’t how we planned parting ways with her at all.
Everything else went how we said it would for her; she spent the day with her grandparents, had a sleepover and came back the next day to meet her baby sister. Some of the time she was uninterested and just wanted to play with all the balloons we’d been given. But when she did interact with the baby, she was loving, gentle and affectionate, which was all we could really ask for.
The trouble isn’t necessarily with her relationship with her new sister - it’s with bedtime. She’s been much harder to put down for sleep, stretching the routine out for way longer than she usually does. I thought she was just overtired - after all, she had been woken up a few times in the night by a crying baby.
Then one night, after I’d explained that her grandparents were going to take her to the beach the next day, she freaked out. She cried and screamed like I’ve not seen for ages. After we’d calmed her down, she looked at us both with teary eyes and said “are you leaving me forever?”
Then it all made sense.
It just goes to show that as parents, we really can’t plan that much ahead of time. There’ll always be something that trips us up that we’re not expecting to have to deal with. It also reminded me that we can’t always protect our kids from hurt or worry. There was simply nothing we could have done with how quick the labour was to make our parting that night any easier on her.
The only thing we can do as a family is be there for her. More than ever I have to be able to hold space for her big emotions, and lean into the things that make her feel safe and reassured that we’re not going anywhere, and that we’re not abandoning her. I already feel bad enough when she wants to show me something or play with me, but I’m holding the baby so I can’t leap to her attention in the same way I used to. I just have to accept that I have to spread myself that bit thinner from now on.
Hopefully she won’t even remember any of these feelings she’s having. But just knowing that she’s feeling them right now breaks my heart. But in time, by being there for her during this turmoil, I hope she’ll realise that her routine hasn’t changed, and that she’s still just as loved as she was before she was a big sister.
How about you?
Judging by both the research and anecdotal evidence, I’m far from the only parent dealing with an older sibling who’s having some difficulty adjusting to life with a younger brother or sister.
How did the expanding size of your family affect your kids? What did you try to overcome it, and how did it work out? Hearing from other parents is one of my favourite things about writing this - so thanks in advance for telling your side of things.
I said this last week, but just wanted to flag again that the situation being what it is, I’ll probably be having less time (and headspace) to write. I’m still committed to the Friday slot, but I may have to be more succinct than I usually am (probably not a bad thing, to be honest).
Also apologies if it takes me a while to respond to a comment, or if there’s any funky formatting in any upcoming posts. I’m doing most of my writing on mobile at the moment which is far from ideal.
Previously on Some Other Dad
Last week was a scheduled post that actually turned out to be quite pertinent - we’ve been dealing with holding boundaries as a family with a newborn recently. It’s been hard, but better than it was the first time around, thanks to the experiences we went through before. This issue was all about those who find it difficult to say no to boundary bullies in the post-partum period - especially when those people are family.