When Bee arrived, Zippy was nothing but positive about his baby brother. He was fascinated with him and thought he was the greatest thing since Elmo. Still, there were signs that this change to our family was a big adjustment for him. He had just turned three, so he didn’t have the words to understand, much less verbalize, how becoming a family of four affected him.
What we saw, instead, was that Zippy was more emotional than usual and suddenly wanted us to do things for him that he was more than able to do for himself. I remember one evening when he had a full on meltdown because my taco shell broke. My taco shell – it wasn’t even his! I mean, why would he care? But he did. Oh, he did. “Noooooooooooo! No, Momma! You’re taco shell didn’t break! Nooooooooooooooooo!” Another common scenario was Zippy wanting me to spoon-feed him at dinnertime or dress him while he lay like a ragdoll on the floor.
It was as though he was regressing to test his spot in the family: “Will Momma still take care of me, like she is taking care of the new baby?” I recognized where the change in his behavior was coming from and I didn’t want him to feel abandoned or second-class, yet I wanted to encourage his independence and to get things back on track. I’ll admit it: His increased dependence on me suddenly meant I was dealing with two babies…which I didn’t always have the energy for. And I realized that we were becoming more negative with Zippy, as we tried to get him to do things he’d always been able to do or got frustrated with meltdown #4,379 of the evening.
All that is to say, as much as Zippy loved the baby, he didn’t necessarily love the other changes to his life and it showed. Friends with multiple kids have shared similar experiences, although exactly how each child responds to the arrival of a new baby is different - noncompliance, tantrums, becoming super-clingy - and sometimes it isn't noticeable right away. For whatever reason, three months after baby arrives seems to be the typical end of the honeymoon period.
We did our best, recognizing that to some extent the road was just going to be a bit bumpy for a while. Here are several things we did to navigate this transition time (which lasted a few months):
1. I tried hard to still have special time with Zippy each day. For a while, this meant being the one to read stories and tuck him in at night, ensuring we had a little Momma-Zippy cuddle time.
2. Long ago, I heard someone point out that while the baby isn’t going to be offended by waiting an extra couple of minutes to be picked up, an older sibling is sensitive to always being put “on hold” while parents tend to the baby. I tried to keep that in mind and make sure that Zippy got taken care of first at least some of the time. I also made a point not to attribute things I couldn’t do to the baby, so that Zippy wouldn’t blame his brother for momma being less available. So, instead of “I can’t read you a story because I have to nurse Bee,” I’d try something like, “I’d love to read to you, just as soon as I finish feeding your brother. Maybe I could watch you play right now.”
3. We kept our routine and schedule as consistent as possible. Even while I was on maternity leave, Zippy went to day care 3 days/week as usual (we didn’t exactly advertise to him that Momma and Bee would be home all day), had the same bedtime, and had the same rules. This helped keep his world predictable.
4. Babies get ooo’ed and aaah’ed over all the time, so it is important to make sure big siblings get lots of praise and compliments, too. We especially commented when Zippy was kind and loving to his brother, to reinforce the kinds of sibling behavior we wanted to see.
5. We let Zippy “play baby” sometimes. I think he needed to know that we would still meet his needs for affection and care-taking, and that actually went on for a long time. Sometimes Zippy would snuggle up in my lap while I rocked him, his long, skinny legs hanging off the side of the chair. If he wanted to pretend to be a baby, I tried to go along with it as often as I could manage (tried being the operative word, because I’ll admit sometimes it was annoying or inconvenient). The only place I really drew the line were nursing and diapers. I tried not to argue with him when he wanted to play baby, but to instead acknowledge the feeling behind – we all want to know we will be taken care of and that we are important. I also tried to reassure him that he didn't need to be a baby to get a little TLC.
6. Along a similar vein, we talked a lot about when Zippy was a baby and made sure that he knew we had done the same things we were doing for Bee, for him. I had nursed him, walked him while he cried, changed his diapers, taken him for walks. People had brought him presents, doted on him. We looked at his baby photos and told him the stories behind the pictures. I think it reassured him to know that, although he couldn’t remember being a baby, he had received the same love and nurturing he saw his baby brother getting. He still loves to hear stories about when he was a baby and I think he senses the joy with which we share these memories.
7. We continued to acknowledge not just the great, but also the difficult parts of becoming a big brother. Zippy still denied any negative feelings about it, but I let him know it was perfectly normal and understandable. The fact he might not liking being a big brother all the time doesn’t mean he and Bee won’t have a good relationship. (This isn't something I necessarily tell him - rather something I remind myself.) There is room for unpleasant feelings in families, too. Being the oldest in my family, I let him know that I understood that it could be hard to be the “big kid” sometimes.
8. To turn the tide of negativity that was starting to emerge, we started a sticker chart. The goal was two-fold: cut back on the meltdowns and encourage Zippy to be more self-sufficient again, but rewarding him for things we knew he could do. I can’t remember exactly, but I think he earned stickers for not crying (unless he was really hurt), for feeding himself, and then for things that he was doing anyway but fit into the self-sufficiency theme, like brushing his teeth and such. Periodically throughout the day, we’d stop and put stickers on his chart, and if he earned enough he got to choose a reward at the end of the day, like an extra bed-time story or a treat after dinner. The chart worked really, really well for us – in part because Zippy was old enough and verbal enough to “get” it, but I think also because the reinforcement was frequent and the goals were reasonable for him. It gave him the motivation to get back on track.
As I’m finishing this up, Zippy just asked what I’m writing. I asked if he has any suggestions for what parents can do to help big brothers or big sisters when a new baby comes along. Zippy’s words of advice? “Let the big brother bounce the baby in the bouncy seat or they could sing a lullaby.” Which reminds me I totally forgot this one – get the big kid involved and let becoming a big sibling be something they can feel proud of!