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Babies Arrive All at Once

A parent wrote to my advice column recently because she was having "power struggles" with her four-year-old daughter. While she gave me many details about her little girl, the most helpful comment was that seven weeks ago, she had a baby boy.

A seven-week-old infant requires an enormous amount of time and attention. Siblings will necessarily receive less attention from their parents than they did before the baby arrived. No matter how well the parent prepares them for this change, it will be a major and sudden change for them. One day Mother is still pregnant; the next day the baby has arrived.

If a baby could somehow appear gradually - if a baby could be present for one hour the first day, two hours the next day, and so on - the siblings could adjust more easily to this gradual change in the amount of attention they receive from their parents. But babies arrive all at once, and the other children must do their best to adjust to this sudden lessening of their parents' time, energy, and attention.

It is our job as parents to understand this situation from the child's point of view. The better we are able to empathize with the siblings' inevitable feelings of disappointment and jealousy, the better we will be able to meet their need for attention. It can be a challenge when siblings require even more attention than usual - at the precise time that parents have less to give. It is not an easy task to give an older child more attention at a time when we are so fatigued; our own adjustment to the new baby has come suddenly too.

We might wish that the older child could understand the situation from our point of view, and demand less attention from us while the baby is small. But that is not the way things are. It is simply not fair, realistic, or helpful to expect children to be able to postpone their own urgent needs for love and reassurance. It is our task to empathize with their needs. And our empathy for each child is precisely how he or she learns to have empathy for others - including their new brother or sister.

It is, as always, a matter of trust. We need to believe in our children. We need to understand and truly believe that they are communicating their legitimate needs in the most mature way possible at that point in their development and circumstances. If we punish them for this communication they cannot move on to more mature means of expressing their needs and feelings. As the educator John Holt warned us, "When we make a child afraid, we stop learning dead in its tracks."

We need to find the love within our own hearts to empathize with a child who is faced with such a sudden and difficult adjustment. But how can a parent who is overextended after the birth of a baby find the energy to cope with an older child's feelings of rejection and jealousy?

Careful nutrition and adequate rest, both before and after the birth, can make a remarkable difference in our ability to cope with an older child's adjustment - and our own. Taking the time to prepare a child for the new sibling - through patient listening, full response to questions, sharing informative books, and spending time with babies in other families - all this can be helpful. But the most important factor will always be our emotional capacity to love, respect, and trust each child. This capacity has come about through the love, respect, and trust we received in our own childhood - and so the cycle continues.

How can we give more to our children than we received as children? That is the dilemma, and resolving this dilemma is the most important job we have as a parent. It can be difficult - but we are thinking beings. By learning from those who have experience and insight - and taking the time to reflect - we can break this cycle, giving our children a life of health and happiness.

Portuguese translation

Jan Hunt, M.Sc. is a parenting counselor, director of The Natural Child Project and author of The Natural Child: Parenting from the Heart and A Gift for Baby.