I thank my lucky stars just about every day that my two girls, now aged nine and 11, were born in the order they were. The oldest has a patient, kind temperament and loved her little sister from day one. She helped with bottles, rocking the baby to sleep and playing endless games of peek a boo.
Her younger sister (who we of course love dearly) was born with a fighting spirit and would have terrorised a younger sibling.
Sibling relationships can be some of the most important of a person’s life. In fact, Dr Mark Feinberg, lead investigator of Penn State University’s ‘Siblings Are Special’ Project, says siblings can have almost as strong an effect on childhood outcomes as parents.
They push each other towards different varieties of friendships, romantic relationships, emotional and mental health problems, problematic behaviours and achievements.
He says we’re wired for the capacity to engage in rivalry from a very early age because in the early days of human existence, competition made sense because to survive babies needed to be cared for.
“And when there were multiple children around, there was competition for resources including love, attention, support, food and protection,” Dr Feinberg says.
While nowadays, most of us have access to food and shelter meaning competition isn’t necessary, our natural instincts continue.
Stress and insecurity can lead to conflict between siblings and in fact, parents who spend one-on-one time with children deflate rivalries, because the feelings of support reduce the need to use conflict to get attention.
He says negative sibling relationships are linked to aggressive, anti-social and delinquent behaviours, including substance abuse. On the other hand, positive sibling relationships are linked to all kinds of positive adjustment, including improved peer and romantic relationship quality, academic adjustment and success and positive wellbeing and mental health.
In his study into sibling rivalry, Gottesman1 (2013) found the arrival of a new “favourite” into the house is one of those events that can cause long-reaching effects on children.
Three different theories have dealt with sibling rivalry, including that sibling rivalry tends to exist especially between opposite siblings. On the other hand, some theorists say negative behaviour changes can occur in preschool children after the birth of a same-sex sibling. In addition to gender, the birth order of siblings also influences their rivalry, with the first-born envying the second one, and the most intense rivalry between the first and second born opposite sex siblings who are close in age. (Jones 19872).
The second theory is that because every person in a family is unique, when one sibling is compared with another, such as saying one is funnier that the other, the competition and rivalry between siblings be intensify. (Jones 1987).
The final theory focuses on the role of parents in causing sibling rivalry. This theory says parents treating children differently by showing inconsistent behaviours may have an impact on sibling rivalry.
Preparing for a sibling
Whatever causes sibling rivalry, Goodstart Early Learning’s Senior Child and Family Practitioner Alma-Jane O’Donnell says while it is a natural part of childhood, there are some tools parents can use to prepare children for a new arrival.
They include talking to children about their new brother or sister, and encouraging them to have a role in the life of the new baby.
- Always include children in conversations using the phrase “when baby comes home WE can . . . “rather than “when baby comes mum and dad”.
- It’s a good idea to let your child know what role he or she will play in the new baby’s life. Let them know they will be his or her sister or brother. However, it is important not to put too many expectations on child such as: “you are going to be the big brother/sister soon, you will need to look after your new sibling”. When new baby comes sometimes the older child does not want to be the “big one”, they often still want to be your little baby.
- When the new baby comes homes, your older children will seem so much bigger but they are still young and will still experience all sorts of big emotions when new baby comes home. They will still need your help to understand why.
- Try setting aside 20 minutes once a day as one-on-one time with your child to talk through those big emotions. Making this at a regular time can help because a predictable routine is important when life has big changes.
- Be prepared. Some children may regress in developmental areas when new siblings arrive – such as toilet training or sleeping through the night. It’s best to be patient be aware that things will eventually be better.
Siblings and sleep
While many households can cruise along quite nicely with one child who is not in a consistent bedtime routine, adding a new-born baby into the equation can cause major issues.
Not only will parents have less time to spend getting a toddler off to sleep, the elder child may be having trouble settling because of stress and insecurity due to the new family member.
Before the new baby arrives it’s a good idea to prepare your child and talk them through the changes that are coming, while letting them know their new baby brother or sister will need plenty of sleep.
Alma says there are some strategies parents can use to enable their child can independently go to sleep.
Firstly, she says consistency and a predictable night time routine are key. “It’s important to have the same predicable routine every night, for example, have dinner, a bath, read a book and then head off to bed for sleep,” Alma says.
“But make sure you consider how many books you will read, who will be doing the routine, whether the lights will be left on or off and how long you will stay in the room after the book is read.”
What can you do if your child continues to get up or cry?
Alma says controlled crying is not recommended in this situation because it teaches the child that no matter how upset they are, no one will come.
Here are a few tips to help out:
- Go into the room and use a low kind tone saying “mummy/daddy is here, it’s sleep time now”. Goodstart early learning expert Kylie Dawson says a parent’s calm mood can support a child to rest. “Taking a few deep breaths before going into the room will help,” she says.
- Gently lay your child back into bed, patting them if they like it, repeating “mummy/daddy is here, it’s sleep time”. Do not to start any other conversation with your child and you may need to repeat this numerous times until your child is calm.
- Ms O’Donnell says the most important rule is not to give in. “Once you let you child back up and out of bed, they will think this is a possibility every night.”
- She also advises mums and dads to get on the same page. “It is important that both parents are consistent in the bed time routine. Getting a child to sleep during the night can be very tiring for parents and supporting each other will help the child feel secure in their bed time routine.”