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'Do I have to be a baby to receive all that attention?'
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 01 - 04 - 2010

Sibling rivalry is a major concern for parents who plan to have a second child. But, as Gihan Shahine finds out, good planning may make the journey a smoother ride for the whole family
When Rania brought her new baby girl home, her 18- month-old son Abdel-Rahman started to show negative signs towards the newcomer. For him, this little red-faced squirming intruder was suddenly encroaching on premises that were once exclusively his own, sharing his parents' love and time, sometimes even his space and room.
He was expecting a playmate, but all he saw was a yelling little thing that consumed all his mother's time and energy. Abdel-Rahman started to show hostility towards the newcomer, and it was definitely no coincidence for Rania to find her newborn with a jar of diaper cream lying right beside her head: her toddler had thrown it into the baby's crib.
Dalia's experience seemed to be smoother sailing, but not for too long. She was surprised to find that her clingy toddler Omar reacted positively when she first brought her new baby home. Dalia's sister was there for help during the first days following the delivery, and her son seemed happy to have a larger family back home. The catch came when Dalia's sister was about to leave and Omar queried worryingly why his aunt did not take the baby with her.
Sibling rivalry is one of the most important challenges parents can face when having a second child. According to child psychologist Amira Shawqi it can be manifested in several, sometimes subtle, forms. "Whereas some children openly show hostility to their siblings, pinching or hurting the newborn, others may just prefer to pour out their frustration onto their mothers, or perhaps pets if there are any," Shawqi told Al-Ahram Weekly.
A child may seem to be responding favourably to a newborn infant, until she asks when the baby is being taken back to hospital. "Some children go to another extreme by attempting to suppress their jealousy. They develop a kind of obsession with the newborn. The new baby becomes a point of reference for everything they see or do. This is neither natural, nor healthy," Sheryl Cohen writes in an article entitled Raising Children Effectively.
But whatever form the child chooses to vent his or her anger, which usually first appears when the child knows the mother is pregnant, psychologists insist that expressing emotions openly is much healthier than suppressing them. The cornerstone, according to Shawqi, is for parents to realise that jealousy is "a typical human feeling, and is only part of a temporary transitional period. Thus, they should be patient and not dwell too much on the child's hostility towards the newborn, since otherwise they will be reinforcing it."
Cohen concurs, insisting that when children are allowed "the opportunity to express their real feelings, even if they are negative, they are freed up to begin exploring their positive feelings."
One thing a mother should expect upon having a second baby, and even before when she tells her first child that she is pregnant, is that the older sibling will indulge in "regressive behaviour", or act babyishly.
Older siblings may "try out some baby talk, drink milk from a bottle and occasionally even wet the bed to draw your attention," Cohen warns. It may also be normal for an older sibling to become aggressive, defiant, fearful, clingy and dependent on the mother. He or she may throw things from the balcony, indulge in temper tantrums or in a generally irritable mood, and he or she may perhaps sleep less upon the arrival of a new baby.
According to Shawqi, such irritable moods are the result of an inner sense of insecurity that the first-born child may be losing the position he or she once had in the hearts of the parents. The message the older child is trying to convey by acting like a baby is: "do I have to be a baby to receive all that attention?"
How long these behavioural changes will stay with the child will depend on how the parents handle the emotions of their first child during this transitional period.
Both Shawqi and Cohen insist that it is crucial for parents not to dwell too much on these negative behaviour patterns or to scold the older sibling for acting babyishly, since otherwise they risk reinforcing such behaviour. After all, for a child "negative attention is better than no attention," Cohen explains.
Instead, a mother should rather focus on the positive behaviour she wants to reinforce in her child and remind the child subtly that she is a grown-up and praise her when she acts like a grown-up and like mummy's helper. The mother should also stress the fact that breastfeeding is necessary for the baby to survive and is not a matter of giving too much care to the newborn, according to Shawqi.
"Parents should not be too rule-oriented in this transitional period or criticise the child too much," Shawqi warns. Instead, they should give more love and care to the older child in order to make him or her feel secure as still the parents' sweetheart, though without of course spoiling the older child if he or she starts to act as a tyrant.
Handling the emotions of older siblings is, in fact, one of the greatest worries mothers have when expecting a second child. As exciting as it can be, a second pregnancy can also involve a range of mixed emotions for the expectant mother. A pregnant woman who already has a child may fret that she will be too exhausted to give the same quality of care or spend as much time with the older child. She may also worry that she will not be able to manage two children at one time, or perhaps love them both equally.
There is no doubting that having a new baby in the family psychologically affects, and may prove a little distressing for, every member of that family. Family dynamics change with siblings sometimes feeling displaced by the new baby and parents having to cope with the growing demands of the now larger family.
But mothers may take heart in Cohen's positive perspective that, "in every change there are losses and gains."
"There is a tremendous gain in giving birth, where you can hear your baby breathe and count his fingers and toes," Cohen said. On a more negative note, however, the mother will also be losing her nights' "sleep, independence, spontaneity, adult company, intellectual stimulation, maybe financial security, predictability and control". And whereas siblings gain a playmate and a life companion, their losses take the form of having to share parents' attention, love, time and resources.
Yet, Cohen says, "how you as parents negotiate these gains and losses will determine how you and your children deal with the transition." Here are some tips that may ease the ride:
- Tell your older sibling about the new baby once you know you are pregnant. Children are smart enough to sense when something is going on, and it would be better for them to learn the news from their parents. You can start fostering sibling bonds when the new baby is still in the womb. Taking an older sibling to the gynaecologist and allowing him or her to watch the baby on the sonar encourages sibling love. Looking at photographs of babies or showing your first child his photos when he was a baby are also helpful tips.
- Do not raise the expectations of the first child that he or she will have a playmate soon, for in that case he or she may get frustrated that a newborn child is not much company. As a result, psychologists advise mothers to talk about how they will change diapers and feed and bathe the baby together and perhaps even train the older sibling on such actions by using a baby doll.
- Start making the changes that will accompany the birth of the second baby beforehand. Toilet training should be accomplished before the birth of the new baby. Sending a toddler to daycare, or moving him to another bed, should also be done gradually before the birth of the second child. Otherwise, mothers will be sending out a wrong message, and the older child may feel abandoned by the mother, who has now started to take care of the new baby instead. This may result in the older child's showing resentment of the new rival.
- Involve the older sibling in baby shopping.
- Allow the older sibling to touch the baby. This helps build a positive relationship between siblings since for babies touching is feeling. Make the first meeting between the two children a special moment by letting your baby grasp the finger of his or her older sibling.
- Try to make sure that the siblings first meet in a neutral place, such as a hospital or grandmother's house. The first meeting is sometimes thought of as crucial, and a toddler may become jealous if he or she arrives home to discover that someone else is in "their" space with "their" parents.
- Get a gift for the toddler upon the baby's arrival. This may help to smooth the transition.
- Involve the older sibling in the everyday care of the new baby. This can help soothe the ride for the older sibling, since it will make the older child feel he or she is gaining a new position as a mummy's helper, rather than losing his or her position as the only child of the family.
- Do not pamper the baby in front of the older sibling
- Do not punish the older sibling for hurting the baby. According to Shawqi, the older sibling will feel guilty when the baby screams, and punishing an older sibling will reinforce negative feelings. Try to create a safe environment for the baby while keeping an eye on the older child.
- Try to spend quality time with your older child. Telling your older child that you love him is not enough. Spend special one- on-one time with him, reading, playing and watching TV. This can prove a difficult job since newborns usually consume all their mothers' energy, but even a short period (perhaps 15 minutes daily) can make a huge difference.
- Try to get help so that you can manage to take proper care of the baby while not ignoring the emotional needs of your first child.
- Involving fathers can be very helpful. Daddies can make this transitional period smoother sailing for the older sibling by playing with him and reading to him before sleep, while the mother is breastfeeding or even getting some sleep.


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