One of the greatest challenges I support families with is integrating a baby into a family that already has at least one child. The experience for that child or children is one that often rocks their world and so many parents are left wondering how to help support their child through the transition. While my experience won’t be exactly like yours, I want to share it here to remind you that you’re not alone if your child is struggling with the adjustment to a new sibling. After all, that’s what we’re all about here; normalizing postpartum challenges, speaking the truth, and finding solidarity with one another. I’ve also learned some things from that experience and would like to share them in hopes that they might help you. Here’s my story.
When my second son was born, my first was 25 months old. I had no idea what to expect in terms of how he would or wouldn’t welcome the new baby. I was so worried about leaving him home when we went to the hospital to have the baby. I wrote out pages of instructions for his grandmother in the last weeks of pregnancy. I knew he would be in good hands, but I also knew that I’d worry about him. He was still young and attached to my husband and to me. I also had this vague idea that adjusting to a new brother might be a little tough for him, but I didn’t know what that would look like. Within the first week home, I quickly began to see exactly what that looked like for him.
He greeted us all happily when we arrived home from the hospital. Within a couple of days though, it was clear he was truly experiencing some deep postpartum challenges of his own. The first time he hit the baby, I was utterly shocked and appalled. He walked right up to my sleeping newborn and whacked him on the top of the head. I honestly had no idea how to react, and I know that my emotional reaction did nothing but further fuel a bad situation. If you’ve ever experienced one of your children hurting another, you’ll understand the confusing emotions that came up for me. My instinct to protect my fragile newborn kicked in fast and I was so angry with my toddler. He saw this and it probably further confused him. While I tried to prevent this from happening again, we dealt with it a few more times. I don’t think I ever found a good way to handle it. It was so hard to remain calm and in control, especially when in the midst of my own postpartum adjustment. The challenges might look different in your family. Perhaps your child is loving towards the baby, but is crying a lot more or seeming more angry in general. Perhaps he or she is having trouble sleeping. I encourage you to consider that any changes in typical behavior might be a result of adjusting to this change, even if they aren’t directly affecting your newborn and even if your child can’t explain why he or she is acting this way.
It seemed like all was settling down with the hitting, but then my toddler starting saying to me, “I don’t want to see you right now”, when I would walk into the room. This absolutely broke my heart. And it continued for months. Again, I was at a loss for how to respond. I wanted him to know I was feeling hurt, but I also knew that he was hurting and possibly feeling a bit abandoned and resentful towards me for having another child. I think he was trying to figure out if he could push me away or if I would stay strong and continue to be there for him unconditionally. Before the baby, it had been me and him, all day every day. And now I was so busy feeding the baby and trying to recover. And even when things started to return to “normal”, my toddler held on to his feelings. In retrospect, I wish I had opened the conversation more and let him talk even more about how he was feeling, instead of shutting him down by telling him it wasn’t nice.
Now, almost 4 years later, all is well. We have our normal challenges as a family, but my relationship with my oldest is as strong as ever and he and his brother have a loving friendship too. I have tried to think about what I learned from the experience, especially as we prepare to welcome our third son in April. Three clear ideas have emerged for me in regards to the postpartum adjustment of children as they welcome a new sibling. The first is simply, “this too shall pass.” While it doesn’t seem to do much to fix the situation in the moment, this understanding is crucial because sometimes the situation just can’t be fixed. It just needs to happen. This leads me to the second idea. The best thing I can do for my children as they adjust to a new sibling is to choose love every time. This transition is so very hard for them, and it’s OK for it to be that way. They don’t need me to become further frustrated with them for their struggle. I can set boundaries and work on preventing everybody from getting hurt, but I can also be gentle with them and allow them to be where they are with it. And finally, I think it’s important for me to tell them that I know it’s hard and that I understand. They don’t need to hear how lucky they are to have another sibling. They need their feelings to be validated and they need to be heard.
I hope that I’m more prepared this time around and that I can meet any challenges with a level head and with love. I know it will be hard and I know I’ll fail sometimes, but I’m resolving to make it a part of my postpartum plan because helping my children adjust to a new baby sibling is really important work. If you’re experiencing this, or anticipating this adjustment, know that you’re not alone. Family dynamics will change and that’s OK. Let’s love our children and be gentle with them. And if that’s feeling hard for you, I understand. Don’t forget to love yourself and be gentle with yourself too.