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You Can Help Little One Cope With Littler One


One week to the day after Jake and Rose Fowler brought baby Max home from the hospital, their older son, James, announced that he had been thinking a lot about his new brother and had just one question.

Folding his hands beneath his dimpled chin, the precocious 4-year-old gazed at the ceiling and pondered, "I was just wondering . . . what would happen if someone held baby Max by his toes out the upstairs window?"

The parents gasped and together raced up to the nursery to find Max safe in his crib. Though relieved, the Fowlers were stunned and frightened by James' query. Was this simply the innocent imagining of a mischievous preschooler or was their baby truly in danger? When the only child loses his place at the center of the family universe, that universe explodes. Sometimes, say the experts, the new world order is established quickly and without much trauma. But in too many cases, the chaos continues well past the new baby's first year.

From the little girl who put her baby brother under her bed with her other toys and suggested keeping him there until "it's time to play with him again" to the 5-year-old who insisted on wearing diapers and drinking from a bottle just like his newborn sister, the stories of firstborns' reactions to new babies are enough to make some parents stop at one.

Novelist Anna Quindlen wrote about first son Quin's shock when he realized what it meant when he needed his mother's attention and didn't get it because she was busy with the new baby. "I turned to my older son and said, 'You know, Quin, I'm Christopher's mommy, too.' The look that passed over his face was the one that usually accompanies the discovery of a dead body in the den: shock, denial, horror. 'And Daddy is Christopher's daddy, too?' he gasped."

As painful as they are, the experts tell us, sibling rivalries are not only natural, they can be useful. No less an authority than the late Benjamin Spock--pediatrician, author and the eldest of six siblings--wrote 50 years ago that this first competition can build the confidence and coping skills needed for the inevitable rivalries at work and at home later in life.

To make sibling rivalry a constructive experience, children need their parents' help and understanding.


Start by preparing your child gradually for the baby's arrival.

"No matter how carefully you break the news, it's going to take a small child awhile to digest it," says Nancy Samalin, author of "Loving Each One Best" (Bantam Books, 1996). She recounts the story of 4-year-old Elena, who struggled with her belief that because her mother was having another baby, she was also going to have another family and leave her behind.

There is no foolproof method for guaranteeing Baby No. 1 will welcome and adore Baby No. 2, but there are some steps that can certainly help:

* Take your child with you to visits to the obstetrician.

* Sign up for sibling preparation classes, free at most hospitals.

* Visit a friend with a newborn.

* Talk about the baby growing inside the mother and encourage your firstborn to feel it move.

* Although the biology of pregnancy can be difficult to explain to a child younger than 2, parents can show the big brother- or big sister-to-be pictures of the baby growing--either from a book such as "A Child Is Born" (Delacorte Press, 1990) by photographer Lennart Nilsson or from in-utero images taken by the doctor.

* Show your child pictures of himself when he was a baby and talk about how he has grown and how many things he can do now that he couldn't do then.

* Don't wait until the last minute to prepare your home for the new addition. Your firstborn's life is going to be seriously disrupted no matter how well you prepare, so avoid making major changes in the ninth month.

In their perennial bestseller, "Siblings Without Rivalry" (W.W. Norton, 1987), Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish liken the addition of another baby to the introduction of a second wife. Comparing the first wife's feelings to those of the firstborn child, the authors ask parents to put themselves in this scenario:

"When the new wife finally arrives, you see that she's young and cute. When the family is out together, people say hello to you politely, but exclaim ecstatically over the newcomer. 'Isn't she adorable! Hello, sweetheart. . . . You are precious!' Then they turn to you and ask, 'How do you like the new wife?' "

This, Dr. Spock would suggest, is the time to show and tell your first baby how much you love her. When you come home from the hospital, let someone else hold the new baby while you hug and kiss your older child.


And if the older child wants a bottle or even to be with the mother when she breast-feeds the baby, don't object.

The craving to be a baby strikes most young children at some point in their adjustment to siblinghood. Some may relapse and wet the bed, or may revert to baby talk and crawling instead of walking. Experts say it's OK to humor this behavior once in a while, but suggest it may be more useful to appeal to the other side of the child--that part that wants to be grown up.

Even children as young as 3 can help out. If not with baby care, then by fetching diapers or a bottle from the fridge. Author Samalin suggests asking your older child to "translate" what he thinks the baby wants. The older child can be rewarded for "understanding the baby better than anyone."

But for the first year, don't leave them alone together.

Although little James Fowler never harmed his brother, Max, the Fowlers took his inquiry about the new baby seriously and reassured him that while they respected his feelings, they weren't going to let him--or anyone--hold the baby by his toes out the upstairs window.

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