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The arrival of a new baby can herald significant changes in family dynamics, particularly if it’s the second child. This can be challenging enough for adults to cope with let alone a toddler, who has comfortably spent their first years of life as an only child. We asked Dr Maryhan Baker, a child psychologist who specialises in helping parents raise happy, confident children to give us some advice on how to make the arrival of a new sibling as easy as possible for you as parents, and your child.

I remember reading the following analogy, which I feel best describes the arrival of a new sibling from a child’s perspective.

Imagine your husband comes home one day to tell you he loves you so much he has decided it is time to take on a new wife, just like you. The new wife arrives and she seems very cute and sweet. When you all go out together people say hello to you but then gush over the new wife, exclaiming how beautiful she is and then turn to ask you how much do you like the new wife. As the new wife’s stay with you lengthens she begins to need clothes and so your husband goes into your wardrobe and begins removing t-shirts, jumpers, and dresses for her. He explains you’ve put on some weight and your clothes don’t fit you anymore but will fit the new wife perfectly. 

One day you are trying to work out how to use the new phone your husband bought you and the new wife exclaims she knows how to use it, if you would just give it to her! When you tell her she can’t use it she goes running to your husband. He returns with her in his arms and asks you to let her have a turn, and to share.

Source: “Siblings without rivalry: How to help your children live together so you can live too”, by Adele & Elaine Faber & Mazlish

I could go on, but to me this analogy sums up perfectly how a child feels when a second child arrives in the family. They have been the centre of your universe, receiving your undivided attention for years and then this upstart arrives and everyone starts running around after them instead!

In my experience the families who best navigate these changes are the ones who spend a little time before the new baby arrives considering where the challenges might be for their first child, and then putting strategies in place to help reduce them.

Five ways to prepare for the arrival of a second child

Here are five key activities you can use to prepare for the arrival of a new baby; and to make the transition as easy as possible for both you and your child.

1.Consider the changes which could impact your child most

The biggest change will be the amount of time you have available. Your time will now need to be split across an increased number of children, but there are other factors which you ought to consider and plan for:

  • If your working patterns are going to change when the baby arrives, for example you will be at home more, try to keep the amount of contact time with your first child the same now as it will be when your new baby is born. This prevents children feeling the baby has taken away their ‘mummy’ time. So, if your child is in nursery three days a week keep this routine going, even when you are on maternity leave.
  • If your child will start school or nursery once the baby is born then try (if possible) to begin the separation time before the new baby arrives. This isn’t always practical but if you can get your child used to being away from you before the baby arrives they will not feel resentful of the baby taking you away from them. Increase their hours at nursery if necessary or ask family and friends to help by taking them out for you.

2.Create daily one-to-one time for each child

It is so important to give each of your children quality one-to-one time each day.  Habits which are put in place now will pay huge dividends when your child becomes older and needs a listening ear to offload their emotional challenges, and teenage angst. Be creative because time can be so difficult to find some days, for example,

  • Bath times are great for one-to-one time
  • Reading stories in bed
  • A walk to the park
  • Spend time playing your little ones favourite games.

It is important to note a new baby will not remember being bored because they laid in the same position on the floor under a mobile for a while, but a 3-year-old will remember all the times you tell them you will play with them in a little while, once you’ve settled their brother or sister.

The flip side of this is encouraging your child to play independently whilst their sibling has their share of one-to-one time too.  The more you encourage your child to practice this particular skill, before the arrival of the new baby the better. Particularly if you have only one child, as they are likely to be used to having your undivided attention, and may not have developed the skills to play independently yet.

Finally, encourage your child to allow ‘mummy’ to have her own one-to-one time too; to have a cup of tea, read a book, have a bath etc.  The more you model the importance of one-to-one time, the more likely your child is to act this way too, and understand its importance.

3.Praise good behaviour

You’ve probably heard this a million times before, but in my experience this one strategy can be the most effective at promoting positive behaviour in children. However, the way you praise children is critical if you want to see more of the good stuff. Superlatives, such as ‘you are amazing, wonderful, fantastic’ don’t work. Instead remember the phrase ‘describe what you see’ and you’ll never get it wrong.

So, if you see your child tidying away their toys say, “I noticed you put all your toys away when you had finished playing, I am so impressed with you for looking after your toys, that’s such a grown-up thing to do and so helpful for mummy”. You’ll notice your child putting away their toys, and being helpful for the rest of the day!

4.Understand where challenging behaviour comes from and have a plan

It can be difficult when children show challenging behaviour, particularly towards their new baby sister or brother! But remember babies are far more resilient than we think.  A slightly over zealous kiss, which is designed to deliberately provoke a reaction from you is best ignored, the baby won’t be hurt by it.

Also, keeping the ‘new wife’ analogy fresh in your mind should at least give you some perspective on why your child might be exhibiting challenging behaviour.  Unless your child is putting their sibling’s life at genuine risk, it is best to ignore their challenging behaviour and instead distract and praise every little step towards positive behaviour.

Some days it can feel really difficult to find any good behaviour to praise but if you make a conscious decision to focus your attention away from what they are doing wrong, and towards all the things they are doing well, you will be amazed at just how much positive behaviour you can find to praise.

5.Master the art of distraction

This can be easier said than done! Children will always test the boundaries and the arrival of a new sibling is likely to result in boundaries being tested more than usual. Reacting to every misdemeanour is only going to create an unpleasant environment for everyone, and drain you of any energy you have left.  Start each day by tasking yourself to find ten positive behaviours and praise them immediately.  By starting the day this way, you set the right intention for the day not only for you, but also for your child.

Dr Maryhan Baker, Brainboost

Dr Maryhan Baker is an experienced parenting coach and psychologist, as well as a mother to two teenagers. For over 15 years she has been supporting children, teens and young adults who have anxiety, low confidence, or who struggle to manage their big emotions. It is her wholehearted belief, given the right strategies and tools, children and teens can become their best selves and reach their full potential.

I believe wholeheartedly in the power of improved confidence and self-esteem in providing children and teens with the fundamental skills they need to a lead full and enriching life. Whilst completing my doctoral research I observed first-hand how much children learn through play, and how parents are an integral part of this process. After publishing my research work on a parent-administered assessment tool, I set about developing a play-based programme. This programme provided children with all the necessary skills to boost their confidence, develop their resilience, and promote overall emotional well-being; equipping them with the necessary tools to negotiate friendship issues, manage their emotions, and deal with life’s challenges more positively.

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