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Changes to family dynamics with the arrival of a sibling - Katy Bradbury


Having another baby can be a daunting thing for any mother. Add to that having a sibling in the middle of a global pandemic and I’m sure there are plenty of nervous wrecks out there waiting trepidatiously to see how an already finely balanced family set up will shift with the new arrival. Trust me, I know how you’re feeling, I’m one of you!


At time of writing in May 2020 I am 4 weeks off having my second baby myself. My daughter just turned 2 years old and has adapted to life in lockdown by deciding this is the right moment to go full throttle with the ‘terrible two’ tantrums. Plus she still breastfeeds (I had kinda hoped she might self wean in pregnancy, like many do, but she didn’t!) and lockdown life has also meant she has upped the ante with her demands for the boob. Being at home all day every day with my daughter has been wonderful in so many ways, but it’s definitely left me wondering how on earth we will cope when her little sister arrives. My mind is flooded with the not very distant memory of life with a newborn and just how intense it was, plus sleep deprivation x1000000. Will I have another ‘high need baby’ like my daughter was? Will I have another traumatic delivery? Will I suffer with postnatal depression like last time? How will my toddler respond to being a big sister? How will I manage breastfeeding two? How on earth will I meet the needs of two very demanding little people at the same time?!


The truth is, like every mother, I will draw from inner strength I didn’t even know I had and find a way through, however things pan out. And so will you.


There will undoubtedly be times that feel impossibly hard, countered by times that are so special and joyous that you’ll hold those moments dear for a lifetime to come. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a good idea to be as prepared as you can be with regards to what to expect.


So what kind of behaviour changes are normal in older children with the arrival of a new sibling? Really ANY kind of reaction is, and at any time. Lots of people talk about ‘regression’ when a new baby comes into the family, and this kind of response can range from sleep disruptions to a potty trained child starting to have more accidents, developing fussy eating, increased tantrums etc. More specific behavioural responses might include being mean to the baby (this could manifest in anything from shouting to snatching to hitting), being overly nice to the baby (think smothering with cuddles, trying to give the baby foods etc), and various responses towards primary caregivers, such as becoming very clingy to one parent or suddenly developing a preference and being mean to one parent. Also things such as increased attention seeking, emotional withdrawal, and violent or emotional outbursts. These things can occur straight away as a response to the new way of living, or sometimes there could be a delay of weeks or even months before an older child has an adverse reaction (lots of parents, for example, tell stories of older siblings LOVING the new baby at first and then after a while asking when they will be going away again!).


Now that doesn’t mean there aren’t some children to take to being an older sibling like a duck to water allowing you to sail through effortlessly, because it does happen. However, most children will find that the disruption to their routine alongside the shift in their parent’s attention away from them and towards the new baby, is enough to elicit some kind of reaction. And as I say, any of the above reactions are completely normal.


It doesn’t really matter what age your older child is, or what their behavioural reaction is, the important thing is to take a step back and think about what is behind it. So when you’re tearing your hair out because it feels like your older child is being relentlessly naughty, one of the most important things you can do is see things through their eyes: how are they feeling right now and how can I support them to manage those feelings a bit better?


When children misbehave it is invariably because they are trying to tell us something. They are communicating a need to us in the only way they know how, because they are little, and their brains don’t have the capacity to function in the same way that ours as adults do. Toddlers in particular (and also teenagers!) are governed by the emotional centres of the brain and therefore lack emotional regulation, impulse control and abstract thought.


Now let me be clear, just because a behaviour is normal after the arrival of a new baby, doesn’t mean we should be tolerating anything and everything. Although it is our job as caregivers to understand and empathise with them, safety is always the priority and if your older child is being physically violent towards the baby, or anyone else, or putting themselves at risk then we need to intervene quickly and the empathy can come later. Always be very clear and concise that we do not hit/bite etc and move them away if needed. Then be prepared to empathise with them if they get upset, explain in simple terms why we do not hit/bite etc, and offer an alternative of what they might do instead when they are feeling bad.


Here are my 10 steps to think about with regards to dealing with unwanted behaviour:

1. If required for safety, remove the child from the situation explaining that you will not let them hit (or whatever the behaviour was).
2. Consider what your child is trying to tell you. Could it be something as simple as a basic physiological need such as being overtired/hungry/thirsty/needing a nappy change or to use the toilet?
3. If all basic physical needs are being met, what is behind the behaviour? Are there some big emotions that they are having trouble controlling? Do they feel angry that the baby is getting lots of attention? Do they feel upset because they feel like you don’t love them as much as you did?
4. Recognise and empathise with how they are feeling, and allow them to feel whatever it is in a safe and supported environment. This might involve letting them cry for a bit with you nearby, offering a hug when they feel ready.
5. Naming feelings can be helpful in developing emotional intelligence in children. So for example: I can see that you are feeling sad that mummy was feeding the baby when you wanted me to dance with you.
6. Although we are often told to ignore or try and distract children from tantrums or emotional outbursts, the best thing we can possibly do for them as parents is to allow them a safe and supported space to feel what they do by remembering that their feelings are perfectly valid.
7. When they are ready, offer comfort and support.

8. One of the best preventative measures we can take to help stop our older children feeling so bad in the first place is by ensuring that we give them some alone time with us on a regular basis. Though this can be challenging, it makes all the difference in making our older children feel loved and secure in the face of a new arrival. This could be doing an activity together when the baby is sleeping, or asking your partner or another relative to stay home with the baby for a bit while you spend some quality time with your older child, focusing just on them and doing what they would like to do.
9. Despite having said all this, please do not feel bad or guilty when you ‘get it wrong’. We ALL snap, we all come to the end of our tether and respond in ways we regret sometimes, and that is normal too. There is no such thing as the perfect mother and we just do what we can. In fact, if your child can start to see you as a person with their own feelings then that can be a great thing too. If you find yourself responding in a way that you’re not proud of just make sure you take the time to come back and apologise to your child for shouting etc., and explain that you were feeling upset because of XYZ.
10. With this in mind, it’s important to take preventative measures to reduce the chances of you yourself reaching breaking point. After all, you have a huge load on your shoulders and motherhood (plus whatever else you have going on) is not an easy ride. Being kind to yourself and refuelling is so very important and this should be factored into the day to day running of the household (moreover something that your partner or loved ones support you with). Self care can be things such as having a massage or a pedicure, or going to a regular exercise class, or they can be more basic things such as having a bath, taking time to catch up on the phone with a friend, or reading a book but it should be protected time that’s factored into your day or week to allow you to recoup and better deal with everything that motherhood throws at you!


Katy Bradbury is founder of Rainbow Nutrition East LondonShe is a registered nutritional therapist and family nurse specialising in women’s health and child development.