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Having memorized the pregnancy books the first time around, many second-time parents turn instead to books on sibling relationships. But a review of 47 popular titles on the topic found that much of the advice contained in them is not supported by research and, conversely, that many omit tactics that have been proven to work.
“A lot of what’s written advises parents to try to avoid as much conflict and bad feelings about the new baby as possible,” says study co-author Laurie Kramer, Ph.D., a professor of applied family studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. “Yet very little attention is given to being proactive in helping older children establish a positive relationship with the new baby.” Here are seven ways to do just that.
1) Talk about the new baby as an individual
Encourage your child to think about what the baby might need and enjoy and what the future with him or her will be like. “Even children who aren’t yet talking are very interested in feelings and why we behave as we do,” says Judy Dunn, Ph.D., an expert on sibling relationships and a professor of psychology at the Institute of Psychiatry in London. For instance, ask: “Which mobile do you think the baby will like—the black-and-white one or the animal one?” Even if your child is unable to answer such questions, you can provide information about the baby, such as where he’ll sleep and the clothes he’ll wear. Research shows that the more families talk openly about things like why the baby is crying and even how tired the parents are, the better the older child adjusts, Dunn says.
2) Preview big-sister or big-brother resources
In one study Kramer co-authored, kids who were shown books or videos meant to prepare them for a new sibling actually had more negative interactions with the baby. “A lot of these books portray conflict or dissatisfaction in becoming a sibling, giving children the idea that not getting along is a possibility,” Kramer says. Look for books and videos that avoid negative emotions and that show older siblings as warm and caring.
3) Don’t rely solely on sibling-preparation classes
There is little, if any, research on their effectiveness. What’s more, most introduce children to the concept of an infant and talk about safety issues but don’t discuss the relationship they will have with the baby. “Parents need to build on what these classes do,” Kramer says.
4) Help your toddler make friends before the baby is born
Children who have at least one good friend get along better with a new sibling, Kramer has found. The qualities that are most important in a friendship include the ability to initiate and take part in fun and positive play, to manage conflict and other negative emotions and to “pretend play,” which requires taking another’s perspective—good training for getting along with a sibling.