by Jessica Martin-Weber
This post made possible by the generous support of Beco Baby Carriers.
When I was pregnant with our second child, I was pretty good at keeping a journal for our first born with regular entries sharing not only what she had done and milestones she had reached but also my feelings along the way. First child/new parent kind of thing, I’m not even kind of keeping up with journals for the girls now, they get about two entries a year. A few of my entries from those early days record both my excitement and concern about adding a child to the family, all normal thoughts when adding a new baby. Worried about how I would love another child as much as my first born, wondering how I would be able to give both the attention they deserved and I thought required, anxious about possible jealousy as a result, and afraid that my children wouldn’t get along. That last one was one of my greatest concerns. My own relationship with my siblings up to that point had been tenuous at best and I wasn’t sure how to foster a bond between my own children that would invite them to have a meaningful relationship with each other beyond “hey, we’re family, you’re supposed to love each other so get along.”
Today our 6 girls share a bond I could never have imagined and my relationships with my siblings is improving. Though they have their share of squabbles, necessary interactions for learning how to manage conflict and establish boundaries (we utilize the Peace Path for helping our children develop conflict management skills), all six of our children have a connection they each treasure and actively cultivate which for all of them began before the new sibling was even born. It hasn’t always been easy and there was a period of regression with our first when our second was born and we all laugh at how when our third came along her big sister regularly asked if the new baby could go back in my tummy for a few months. But these minor hiccups have only served to strengthen their relationships, not weaken them. As Erica E. Goode said:
Sibling relationships – and 80 percent of Americans have at least one – outlast marriages, survive the death of parents, resurface after quarrels that would sink any friendship. They flourish in a thousand incarnations of closeness and distance, warmth, loyalty and distrust.
Encouraging their connection has been intentional on our part. As their parents, we have learned how us valuing their relationship helps them to value it as well, and truly valuing it, not having expectations of simply getting along to keep the peace. Respecting their individual yet communal needs to develop their ties based on their own personalities and interactions in order to have authentic relationships because they want to, not just to make us happy, has given us all the space needed to know not only ourselves but each other. We’re still learning but here are 6 of the lessons we have learned as we journey this path together.
- Positive talk. Before our children are even born we talk them up to their older siblings and their older siblings up to them. It’s not fake either, we honestly believe that they are incredibly lucky to have the others in their life and that our children are some outstanding people, we can’t wait for them to meet each other. Hearing us not only talk positively about their siblings but of them to their siblings is inspiring and confidence building. We continue this long after birth. I will never forget when our then 5 year old lovingly whispered to our 4th baby at a few months old as they were on the bed together while I cleaned up after a diaper change where she had assisted me as I talked her up to her baby sister: “mommy is right, I DO love you lots and lots. I will never stop loving you.” Cue happy mommy tears.
- Play Games together. From the earliest age with rhymes, massage, peek-a-boo, and finger plays, connecting through play bridges age gaps and interests. This Little Piggy, the Itsy Bitsy Spider, and other repetitive rhymes are perfect, even toddlers and preschoolers can enjoy sharing those with a younger sibling and may spare you some repetitions. Don’t let siblings replace your own play time with baby, but involving older siblings and giving them one on one time to play together will have a lasting impact on their relationship. Try some other creative activities as well, older siblings will love sharing these experiences of play together. Our bigger girls always love making the newest baby laugh, it’s a treasure to share and games are an active way of connecting. As they get older they build their game playing repertoire from recognized free-style games (hide and seek) to structured games (Candy Land) to made-up games that become family favorites. Games can be a family affair but some of the deepest connecting times happen with one on one games. Which brings me to my next point…
- Get out of the way. It can be so easy and in many ways necessary to never leave your children to interact on their own together, particularly with a very young baby. While it is important to supervise young children with an infant, giving them the space with you present to touch, play with, and connect with a new young sibling will have lifetime pay off. Sitting on the couch well supported by pillows and mommy and daddy’s trusting encouragement at as young as weeks before turning 2 years old, each of our 5 big girls have glowed with love as they held their newborn baby sister. As the get older, trusting them with their younger siblings even more, letting them do caregiving that we typically assume such as diaper changing and babywearing develops their own confidence and connection. When the youngest is old enough we begin encouraging quiet times and naps with a sibling. Our 20 month old and newly turned 4 year old share a room together now and one recent evening I heard the toddler cry out and by the time I got to their room they were cuddled up together in one bed sleeping peacefully. They still join us in our room early every morning for a few hours but they have the giggles of going to bed together and the comfort of each other through the night. Getting out of the way can be hard, finding a balance between safety and providing opportunity can be challenging (and do make sure everyone is safe) but more than likely it will be letting go of your own desire to control that will be the most difficult to overcome. Though it may mean things won’t be done exactly how you would do them or there may be a bigger mess as a result, getting out of the way will allow your children to develop their own experiences together and define their relationship together outside of their parents. Worth any cleanup required.
- Nurture their nurturing side. Children, at least young children, like to emulate their parents and caregivers. This aspect of their development is crucial to their learning life skills. Helping with household chores, copying parents leisure activities (i.e. reading), and mimicking caring for babies and small children. Dolls and plush toys can help meet this need but don’t limit it to pretend. Even very young children can help with caring for their younger siblings in simple ways. Toddlers can give kisses, help with bathing (wash baby’s toes with the wash cloth!), fetch toys and other items, perform to entertain baby (my toddlers love to dance for their baby sisters, not sure the littlest was ever impressed but the big sister felt important in that moment), offer comfort, and participate in snuggles. There is something about a toddler gently patting a baby saying “it’s ok baby” that makes me melt. Preschoolers can do these same activities plus play games with the baby, listen for baby to wake from a nap (hopefully not wake baby from the nap…), assist with feeding times*, distract a slightly older baby when upset or a parent needs to go to the bathroom, and many more activities based on their capabilities. We have even let our preschoolers babywear their new siblings briefly with us right there to support. It can take more time and it isn’t always exactly helpful but it is special. School aged children can step it up even more including watching younger siblings for a parent to take a shower, introduce new games, babywear, respond to the baby’s cries (my bigger girls will actually call dibs on getting a crying little one), cuddle them when sick or tired, take them for walks, and more. Be respectful of their capabilities and don’t expect them to take your place, our children know they can always refuse opportunities to take on these responsibilities and sometimes they do but overall they enjoy the chance to be the one extending care.
- Gifts to share. We don’t expect our children to share their personal belongings out of obligation but we do intentional have quite a few play things that don’t specifically belong to any one person. Be it a bottle of bubbles to share together or a kitchen set, having playthings that belong to all of them and are more fun when shared with others encourages interactions together which goes a long way to securing those sibling bonds.
- Dolls and plush toys. Copying mom and dad in caregiving helps little ones recognize the dependency of infants and toddlers as they care for their own “babies.” My children have used their dolls to work through their own issues with their siblings, creating scenarios of jealousy or frustration that they coach their “children” through. This important play helps them with their own feelings. Transitioning the youngest to being a big sibling when a new baby is on the way is supported by encouraging them to care for their own babies and when they don’t get to be worn as often as before the new baby, having a carrier for their own baby makes that transition so much easier.
I love watching our children together. My heart nearly bursts as I see the love they share. So strong is their connection sometimes I feel like I’m intruding. They will have conflict and at times jealousy but with empathy and conflict management skills the basis of their relationship will remain strong and true. Our children are blessed to have each other and we are, in turn, blessed that they have each other. Having multiple children may not be for everyone, certainly having a large family like ours is not right for all parents, but the friendships our children have built in through each other is one of the best things we’ve ever done for our children.
To see more of our 6 daughters’ interactions, follow me on Instagram at jmartinweber.
I don’t believe an accident of birth makes people sisters or brothers. It makes them siblings, gives them mutuality of parentage. Sisterhood and brotherhood is a condition people have to work at. – Maya Angelou
*Breastfeeding assistance can include helping mom get anything she needs, keep mommy company with a story, share a snack with mommy, etc. Those that bottle feed can include preschoolers and older children in the feeding times by helping them give a bottle and instructing them how to do so and sharing the experience with them. My babies have all received bottles at times when I had to be away from them for work reasons, left in the care of daddy or another trusted caregiver, their big sisters have loved getting to give them a bottle when I was away. Once solids are introduced, be it baby-led solids or baby food, sharing the adventure of new tastes and textures can be a lot of fun for everyone.
To celebrate fostering sibling bonds, Beco Baby is giving away 6 sets of carriers in honor of our 6 girls and the connection they share. Each prize pack includes a Soleil ($140 value) and a Beco Mini ($30 value) to encourage your bigger littles to practice their nurturing and copying mommy and daddy. Use the widget below to enter the giveaway and happy bonding, happy babywearing to your family! Open to USA residents only.