- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 24, 2004

Grace Doherty, a blue-eyed, alert 2-year-old, nods and smiles shyly when her mother, Bobbi Doherty, asks, “Are you going to have a baby brother?” and follows up with: “Are you going to be mommy’s big helper?”

“She seems excited about becoming a big sister,” says Mrs. Doherty, who is expecting to welcome Jett to the world March 22. “We’ve made an effort to prepare her for the new baby as much as possible by making her an active part of the getting-ready process.”

Grace helped put together the wild-animal mobile for Jett’s room in the Doherty’s Sterling, Va., home and has “read” — with the help of her mother, of course — several books about becoming a big sister.

Local pediatricians and family therapists recommend preparing a firstborn for a new baby. It’s not a do-or-die matter, they say, but it can help prevent the firstborn from feeling excluded and unimportant once the needy newborn comes home.

“This is one of the biggest changes in the child’s life, if not the biggest,” says Kelly McCracken, a licensed marriage and family therapist at the Inova Keller Center in Falls Church. “So, I would really encourage parents to help the child make the transition.”

The Inova Keller Center, a branch of the Inova Health System, offers outpatient behavioral health services for children, adolescents and their families.

This help can include going through the older child’s baby book to help the youngster remember his or her own infancy, helping decorate the new nursery, feeling the baby kick, reading books about becoming an older sibling, taking a tour of the hospital where mommy will be staying for a few days, going to ultrasound visits with mommy and making sure that once the baby arrives, the older child still receives one-on-one time with each parent.

All these aspects of preparing the older child for the newborn are age-dependent. A 2-year-old is not going to comprehend and participate as well as a 4-year-old, Mrs. McCracken says.

One thing that’s very important independent of the child’s age, however, is that he or she feels secure and safe and knows what to expect when the parents are at the hospital, she says.

“Predictability and routine are usually important for young children,” Mrs. McCracken says.

That’s why it’s important to leave the child with someone — a grandparent, other family member or close friend — the child knows well.

Dr. Diane Dubinsky, a pediatrician with offices in Fairfax and Centreville, agrees.

“It wouldn’t be too cool to leave the child with a baby sitter they barely know while you go to the hospital,” Dr. Dubinsky says. leave the child with a baby sitter they barely know while you go to the hospital, Dr. Dubinsky says.

“That could be pretty traumatic.”

Gabriel Cather, now almost 6 years old, stayed at his home in Bristow, Va., with his visiting grandparents — Mimi and Papa — while his mother, Karin Cather went to the hospital for the birth of Noah, now 2 years old.

“Children want structure and predictability,” Mrs. Cather says. “They want to know what they’re going to have for breakfast and who is going to prepare it.”

In Gabriel’s case, Mimi and Papa prepared the morning meal, which, as always, consisted of Ovaltine and cereal, Mrs. Cather says.

Preparing by age

The age difference between the newborn and the older sibling is going to determine what works in preparing the older sibling, Dr. Dubinsky says.

“A 15- or 18-month-old is probably too young [to prepare], but with a 2- to 3-year-old, you can probably help them with the transition,” she says.

The older the child is, the easier it is to explain the changes that will take place, Dr. Dubinsky says. It also means more questions — sometimes of a sensitive nature — on the part of the child.

“They’ll ask, ‘Where do babies come from?’ With a 2-year-old, you don’t need to get into that kind of detail,” she says.

This happened to Mrs. Cather while she was expecting Noah when Gabriel was almost 4 years old.

“Gabriel eventually asked me how Noah was going to ‘walk out’ of my tummy,” Mrs. Cather says. “And I said … How did I put it? … I just said the doctor was going to help him come out, but it wasn’t going to hurt Mommy … I think that was the only lie I told. I didn’t want him to worry.”

Mrs. Cather had shown Gabriel in books how babies are made in response to his questions about how the baby got into his mother’s body in the first place. “They showed him in a kind of ‘biology without sex’ way,” she says.

She also took Gabriel to see the sonograms of Noah, something Dr. Dubinsky says can be helpful and make the pregnancy more real for older children. She also suggests bringing the older child to a regular prenatal visit so he or she can hear the baby’s heartbeat.

The Cathers called the black-and-white images of the fetus “Noah’s shadow.”

Talking about the pregnancy and the impending arrival of a second child probably should be delayed longer if the first child is very young, Mrs. McCracken says.

“A lot of people recommend waiting until the last trimester, or when you really start showing,” Mrs. McCracken says. “It’s a big concept to grasp … even men have a hard time grasping what’s happening until the third trimester.”

This is also a good time to get the child involved in decorating the new baby’s nursery and reading books about being an older sibling, she says.

“If you let them be a part of the preparations, it gives them a sense of being intimately involved in the process,” Mrs. McCracken says.

With older children, ages 7 or 8 and older, it’s important to be upfront about the pregnancy as soon as they start figuring out what’s going on, even if that happens to be during the first trimester, Dr. Dubinsky says.

“You shouldn’t hide it. If you do, you’ll lose credibility,” she says.

However, if it’s possible, Dr. Dubinsky recommends waiting to tell the child until after the first trimester because of the higher miscarriage risk in the beginning of any pregnancy.

Books about becoming an older sibling can be helpful in defining what the older child’s role will be and what the youngster can expect from the baby.

Mrs. Doherty and Grace have been reading “I’m a Big Sister,” by Joanna Cole, which talks about what’s expected of the newborn and the older child.

“It talks about not touching the baby, that the baby only drinks milk, sleeps a lot and can’t do very much in the beginning,” Mrs. Doherty says.

Mrs. Cather’s son, Gabriel, was pleased to find out that there were certain things he could do and the baby couldn’t.

“I wanted him to know that being older had its benefits, too,” she says. “For example, you don’t have to share your pizza with the baby.”

‘Undivided attention’

If the age difference is just two or three years, jealousy between the siblings can enter the picture pretty early on, but there are ways to try to prevent it, Dr. Dubinsky says.

“The older child really wants mom’s and dad’s undivided attention,” she says. “So try to make some alone time with each child. It’s important for them to have that noncompeting time. … When they’re toddlers, it’s going to be about physical contact. They want to be cuddled and snuggled.”

Beth West in Fairfax Station says she noticed that her son, Robert, now almost 3, wanted more affection once his sister, Sara, was born a year ago.

“He accepted her from the very beginning, but I did notice that he asked to he held a little more than he used to,” Mrs. West says.

If the child doesn’t accept the newborn — and acts out — even when the family has made preparations and made sure to spend individualized time with the child, the family may need to seek professional help, Dr. Dubinsky says.

“I would start with your pediatrician,” she says.

Mrs. Cather says she makes sure she gives individual, noncompeting attention to her sons at least 30 minutes a day.

This time alone with each parent gives the older child a chance to express whether he feels left out or less loved because the younger child gets and needs more attention, Mrs. McCracken says.

“Tell them that they hold the same place in your heart as the baby does,” she says. “They don’t get held as much because they don’t have the same need for physical attention as the baby does. Sometimes the older child can mistake that for less love.”

Mrs. Doherty plans to make sure that Grace not only gets alone time with her and her husband once Jett is born, but also that she continues her daily and weekly routines. The Dohertys plan to continue to send Grace to day care, story hour at the local library and dance classes on Monday nights, at which the little 2-year-old wears a blue leotard, flowered skirt, black tights and pink ballet slippers and where she has made several good friends.

“I think being consistent with her is important because her world is going to change so much, anyway,” Mrs. Doherty says. “It’s our responsibility to make sure that she still feels important and special to Mommy and Daddy.”

MORE INFO:

BOOKS FOR ADULTS —

• “AND BABY MAKES FOUR: WELCOMING A SECOND CHILD INTO THE FAMILY,” BY HILORY WAGNER, HARPERCOLLINS PUBLISHERS, 1998. THIS BOOK OFFERS TIPS FOR THE ENTIRE FAMILY, INCLUDING A FIRSTBORN CHILD, ON HOW TO PREPARE FOR A BABY. IT ALSO PROVIDES ACTIVITIES TO SHARE WITH YOUR OLDER CHILD DURING THE LAST FEW WEEKS OF PREGNANCY, TIPS FOR HELPING EVERY MEMBER OF THE FAMILY ASSUME HIS OR HER NEW ROLE IN THE LARGER FAMILY, AND A MINI SURVIVAL GUIDE FOR UNDERSTANDING AND DEFUSING SIBLING JEALOUSY AND RIVALRY.

• “TWICE BLESSED: EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT HAVING A SECOND CHILD — PREPARING YOURSELF, YOUR MARRIAGE, AND YOUR FIRSTBORN FOR A NEW FAMILY OF FOUR,” BY JOAN LEONARD, ST. MARTIN’S PRESS, 2000. THIS BOOK GIVES IDEAS ON HOW TO INCLUDE THE OLDER CHILD IN THE PREPARATION LEADING UP TO THE BIRTH OF THE BABY. THIS PREPARATION HELPS THE OLDER CHILD GET USED TO THE IDEA OF A NEWBORN.

BOOKS FOR CHILDREN —

• “THE NEW BABY AT YOUR HOUSE,” BY JOANNA COLE, WILLIAM MORROW & CO., 1999. THIS BOOK, PACKED WITH FULL-COLOR PICTURES, DISCUSSES THE FEELINGS OF BIG BROTHERS AND SISTERS TOWARD YOUNG SIBLINGS. IT SHOWS THAT IT’S NATURAL TO FEEL LOVING AND TENDER ONE MINUTE AND ANGRY AND JEALOUS THE NEXT. ULTIMATELY, THE BOOK AIMS TO PREPARE THE OLDER SIBLINGS FOR THE UPS AND DOWNS OF HAVING A BABY IN THE HOUSE.

• “THE NEW BABY,” BY FRED ROGERS, PUFFIN, 1996. THIS BOOK BY “MR. ROGERS” TALKS ABOUT AND EXPLAINS THE POSITIVE AND NEGATIVE FEELINGS AN OLDER CHILD MIGHT HAVE TOWARD A BABY IN THE HOUSE. IT ALSO INCLUDES QUESTIONS AS DISCUSSION STARTERS.

• “I’M A BIG BROTHER” AND “I’M A BIG SISTER,” BY JOANNA COLE, HARPERCOLLINS PUBLISHERS, 1997. THESE BOOKS, APPROPRIATE FOR CHILDREN AS YOUNG AS TODDLERS, SHOW WHAT THE BABY WILL AND WON’T BE ABLE TO DO. THEY ALSO TALK ABOUT WHAT THE SIBLINGS, DESPITE THE AGE DIFFERENCE, CAN ENJOY TOGETHER, SUCH AS THE OLDER ONE SINGING SONGS TO THE INFANT AND MAKING THE BABY WARM AND COZY. THE BOOK ALSO SHOWS HOW THE OLDER SIBLING STILL IS VERY SPECIAL TO HIS OR HER PARENTS.

• “KID’S BOOK TO WELCOME A NEW BABY: FUN FOR A BIG BROTHER OR BIG SISTER,” BY BARBARA J. COLLMAN, MARLOR PRESS INC., 1999. THIS BOOK PROVIDES ACTIVITIES TO HELP THE OLDER SIBLING WITH THE TRANSITION. IT GIVES TIPS ON HOW TO INVOLVE THE CHILD IN THE PREPARATION FOR THE BABY AND TEACH ABOUT THE BABY’S CAPABILITIES.

ASSOCIATIONS —

• AMERICAN ACADEMY OF PEDIATRICS, 141 NORTHWEST POINT BLVD., ELK GROVE VILLAGE, IL 60007. PHONE: 847/434-4000. WEB SITE: WWW.AAP.ORG. THIS NATIONWIDE ORGANIZATION FOR PEDIATRICIANS OFFERS LITERATURE ON A WIDE RANGE OF CHILDREN’S HEALTH AND BEHAVIORAL ISSUES.

ONLINE —

• BABYCENTER, PART OF JOHNSON & JOHNSON, HAS A WEB SITE (WWW.BABYCENTER.COM) THAT PROVIDES EXPECTANT AND NEW PARENTS WITH MEDICAL AND BEHAVIORAL INFORMATION REGARDING INFANTS AND YOUNG CHILDREN. AMONG THE TOPICS IS PREPARING A FIRSTBORN CHILD FOR A SIBLING.

• THE CENTER FOR EFFECTIVE PARENTING (WWW.PARENTING-ED.ORG), A STATEWIDE PROGRAM IN ARKANSAS FUNDED BY THE U.S. DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION, AIMS TO IMPROVE PARENTING SKILLS. ITS WEB SITE GIVES INFORMATION ON TOPICS SUCH AS SIBLING RIVALRY, HOW TO COMMUNICATE EFFECTIVELY WITH YOUR CHILD AND HOW TO PREPARE A FIRSTBORN CHILD FOR A SIBLING.


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