10 Ways to Encourage Sibling Bonding in the First Year

Preparing for the arrival of your second child is very emotional for many reasons. One of the biggest reasons is your concern for how to help your first born adjust to, and hopefully embrace, this addition to the family.

My son was four years old when I was pregnant with my daughter. For four years I’d been available to him all day every day. For four years our world revolved around him. None of us could imagine it being any other way. I wanted to give him a sibling in the hopes that they’d share a lifelong bond, but I feared it was inevitable he would resent losing so much of his parents’ time and attention and that resentment would prevent them from forming that bond. My conflicting emotions over it were just another one of the typical dichotomies that parenting has brought to us.

Now a year later I’m thrilled to be able to say that he handled the adjustment better than I ever hoped he would and fell more in love with being a big brother than I would have thought possible. I do believe some of our approaches have truly helped foster this sibling love.

Of course every child and every family dynamic is incredibly different so there’s no such thing as one way that works magically for all who try it. But here are the top ten techniques we used that I feel made the biggest impact on our first born’s ability to embrace the new baby. I hope one or more of them feel like they could help your family as you all adjust to the joyful new addition.

1. Make a personalized book about baby being added to the family. I used a free Shutterfly book coupon to create a personalized story book for my son. The book told the story of how he once grew in my tummy and we became a happy family of three when he was born. Then it goes on to talk about everything he’s done to prepare for the coming of the next baby and all that would happen while Mommy and Daddy would be off giving birth. The story ends talking about how with the new baby we have become a happy family of four.

We read this book nightly in the last week’s of my pregnancy. It really laid out the whole concept in a way that made sense to a young child. It helped him have the words to understand what was happening. And of course all kids love seeing their own pictures and name in a story book so it made him feel extra special, like the star in his own tale.

2. Let the child make choices and be involved in preparation. So much in life happens to young kids without their input or choice and they feel helpless against it. I wanted him to feel like he had an active role in bringing this baby into our family. He got to pick out clothes, toys, a blanket, he even got to help paint the nursery. At doctor appointments I asked if he could be involved and they even let him hold the ultrasound wand. It was all very empowering for my little boy which, made him all the more open to it.

3. Try not to be holding the new baby when the older sibling first walks in for a visit after birth. When you first see your child after the birth of the baby, whether you’re in the hospital, birth center, or wherever, it’s likely they’ve been away from you at least a day or longer. They’re anxious to see you. Let that first moment be about reconnecting with just them. If they walk in to see you holding the baby it could get them off on the wrong foot with their new sibling by sparking jealousy. If their first impression of the baby gives them a jealous feeling, it could be hard to change that. They won’t feel missed like they were missing you, they’ll just feel replaced. So I made sure I was alerted when my son arrived at the hospital so I could send the baby to the nursery and spend a few minutes just letting my first born tell me about his time away from me. Once he seemed connected and satisfied with hugs, I asked him if he wanted to hear about the baby.

4. Let the first born bring the baby to you. This is to again empower the child. My husband took my son to bring his new sibling in. This made him feel like he was presenting his baby to me instead of the other way around. It’s a subtle difference that has a huge affect on a little person. You’ve seen how protective they can be of toys they feel ownership of, let them get that sense of ownership for the baby. In the hospital they have the little carts that any little one can push. If your child it too young for that they can at least be in daddy’s arms helping bring the baby in to your room.

5. Cuddle together and try sibling skin-to-skin time as well. We had some cuddle time right there on the hospital bed immediately when my son visited. We read some books together while the baby was on our laps between us. Then once the baby had a good feeding and was soundly sleeping we had them both take shirts off for some sibling skin-to-skin time. I’m sure you’ve heard of the many benefits of skin-to-skin time for newborns and mothers. But why limit it to mothers?

We turned on a movie to help my son relax and happily stay still while we laid the baby on his chest for as long as they’d both allow it. Of course we stayed with them the whole time for safety. Make sure to take off the baby’s hat for this because newborn heads give off bonding pheromones! My son quickly told me that he loved her head because “it smells like beautiful stuff” and he’s been hooked ever since.

6. Read to first born during nursing or feedings or let them feed baby with a bottle. If you’re breastfeeding try to let your oldest child be a part of these moments. Again, nature creates an intoxicating hormone cocktail for bonding during breastfeeding so capitalize on that by letting the siblings share that time together. This also helps your oldest know that your lap is still as much theirs as it is the new baby’s.

I know this can be tough when you’re struggling with getting a newborn to latch while also keeping a rowdy toddler or child happy in the same spot. You probably won’t be able to do it for most feedings but hopefully at least one a day will be manageable. I have no shame in using TV or iPad for these times. Best yet is to make it a story time. You’ll be starting a family reading habit early while also fostering that sibling bond. This works great for bottle feeding as well. And if possible, let the sibling get a turn feeding the baby. If they’re not old enough to hold the baby, at least let them hold the bottle for you.

7. Keep corrections to a minimum. If someone told me I could hold their baby but then constantly snapped at me “oh be careful!! Gentle! Gentle! No! No! Not like that! Oh stop! Put your hand down! Gentle!! Don’t do that! No don’t hold the baby that way! Too rough! Careful!! Oh be careful!” I’d be rushing to hand that baby back and you wouldn’t be able to convince me to go near it again! I don’t blame little ones who try touching the new baby one time and then don’t want anything to do with it after that’s how their parents reacted. It’s a natural instinct for us to protect this helpless new creature.

Of course step in if there is real danger, but most of the time we are panicking for no good reason and shouting “be careful!” when the child gets within a foot of the baby. Babies aren’t as delicate as they seem and kids often aren’t as rough as we are imagining. This can be the hardest thing to do but try your best to keep those corrections and reminders to an absolute minimum so the older child can actually enjoy being close with the baby. You don’t want them to associate being near their sibling with getting scolded, lectured, or corrected constantly. If you can’t handle them outright holding the baby then start by letting them touch fingers or toes without telling them to be careful or to stop. They’re curious about this new creature, let them explore a bit. And watching them explore at a pace you’re comfortable with will also help build your confidence in them so you’re not as tempted to Be overprotective.

8. Talk to the baby about the older sibling, letting older sibling “overhear” you. This is a technique I learned in “Happiest Toddler on the Block” by Dr. Harvey Karp. It sounds crazy and you’ll feel silly the first few times you try it but you might be surprised what an impact it has. When kids “overhear” you praising them they really take it to heart even more than when you’re telling them directly. When they think you and the baby are discussing their qualities they will feel appreciated, loved, and more confident of their place in the family dynamics.

9. Try to have at least ten minutes of one-on-one time with the older child every day. It’s great if you can do longer but with a new baby in the house, ten minutes is usually a manageable daily minimum that you can stay committed to. Even that short time is enough for them to feel connected again. The point is for them to have that time to look forward to each day, to be able to count on it and feel secure in it during all the new changes.

This has been the single most critical thing for my son. There’s a notable difference in his demeanor and behavior when we haven’t been making sure he gets this time for just me and him. The rules for this ten minutes of one-on-one is that the child gets to choose the activity as long as it doesn’t involve screens (no screens or phones for parents during this time either!). Make it a time of the day the child truly gets to lead you in everything. No questioning, suggestions, or corrections from the parent. I set my alarm on my phone to ensure he gets the 10 minutes at least. If we can go past that then we do but he likes knowing he’s guaranteed a certain minimum.

10. Let the older sibling be involved in day-to-day choices and helping. Just like when preparing for the baby, it helps empower and engage the older child if they get to have a part in caring for “their” baby. Ask them which outfit the baby should wear today, ask them to bring you a diaper, let them know you need their help and then let them hear you telling the baby how their sibling is taking such great care of them.

Bonus: Babywearing

This depends greatly on the age gap between your children, the temperament of your oldest child, and personal parenting style. In our family, babywearing is very important and special for all of us. My son is a very calm, gentle, and strong boy whom I believed could handle wearing his baby sister at least a little bit. Turned out I was right! It’s been such a special joy seeing their closeness while he wears her. It’s not for everyone, but for us it’s worked out to be fun bonding experience for both of them. It’s something you might want to consider for your family as well.

We are only a year into our new family of four and all the challenges and opportunities for connection that it brings. I know we have a long road ahead of us with some of the biggest challenges yet to come. We will have to evolve our approaches as each new stage arises.

I can say with sincerity that I feel better facing the future knowing that we’ve built a solid foundation between the siblings this first year. I hope that one or more of these ideas works as well for your family as it has for ours.

Are there any special ways you helped your first born adjust to life with the new baby?

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