Sibling pride

Posted on February 17, 2016

Sibling Pride Hero

The arrival of a new baby can be difficult for older siblings, especially when their new brother or sister is admitted to hospital. Two families tell Little Bliss magazine how they coped when their new baby was born premature and sick.

Looking back on Little Bliss

Little Bliss magazine will celebrate its tenth anniversary in April. To mark a decade of our magazine for parents, we’ll be looking back at some of the most inspiring family stories and popular topics from our previous issues.

Issue 6, 2007: Sibling pride

Whole sections of baby magazines are dedicated to siblings. They explain how to help older ones adapt, usually with ten fail-safe rules from changing toddler’s routines in advance to time tabling so you get one-to-one time with your older child. But the baby book rules often have to go out of the window when your new arrival is born premature or sick.

“We’d thought a lot about how we would help Alex get settled with the new baby,” says Melanie Booth, whose daughter Erin arrived at just over 25 weeks. “Andy and I had read that things like routines and one-to-one time are important and we were conscious Alex had been an only child for over four years.

“But when Erin arrived early, without warning, we hadn’t time to prepare,” says Melanie. “When she came home, she was in and out of hospital with breathing problems. There was no routine. Alex would get up in the morning and I’d have gone to the hospital with Erin in the night. Or he would come out of school to find grandma at the gate rather than me because something had happened during the day.”

Front cover of Little Bliss magazine, 2007

After having a premature or sick baby, many parents describe feeling like their world has been turned upside down and like circumstances, rather than parenting experts, dictate how each day and week is organised. For parents in this situation, there seem to be only two guiding principles – the need to involve older children in what’s happening, and talking to them about how they, and you, are feeling.

For Rachel and Rob Jones, whose daughter Poppy was born at 26 weeks, involving their four other children in their baby’s care from the beginning was key.

Poppy was born with cerebral palsy and lung disease. She was on life support for a long time and had been in and out of hospital 15 times since she came home. “It was instinctive,” says Rachel. “We involved them all. Izzy, Sam, Charlie and Alfie, then eleven, nine, five and two years old.

“Poppy was always going to be their little sister, and so they needed to be part of her life. They all knew Poppy was at risk of dying in the first 18 months, so we wanted them to cherish the time they had with her, be prepared for what might happen, but understand why we were going to the hospital each day. I think without that involvement they may have felt alienated and confused.”

Bonding at Hospital
Dr Joanna Hawthorne, a research psychologist at the Cambridge Centre for Family Research, agrees. “You can’t hide what’s going on,” she says. “Siblings need to see what’s happening to help them understand why the baby’s in hospital.”

“The hospital staff were brilliant with Alex,” says Melanie. “He chose a little tiger for Erin and the first time we took him to the unit the nurses put it on the incubator and told him that it was the one and only toy - her own special one - that was allowed in. They also encouraged kangaroo care and Alex was the only person apart from me and Andy who was allowed to touch Erin – he was very proud.”

“When we did bring Poppy home, the children’s involvement in hospital made a huge difference,” says Rachel. “I thought they’d all be scared by the medicine and equipment. I didn’t want Alfie - then a meddlesome two-year-old - to mess with it. I imagined a constant battle. But they were so accepting of it. I was amazed by how much they’d grasped while she was in hospital.”

Say how you feel
“Just as important as seeing what you and the baby are going through is talking about it,” says Dr Hawthorne. “Tell your children as much as they can understand. Why, for instance, the baby has good days and bad days, and acknowledge how you are feeling about it.

“Even very small children will pick up what’s going on from your tone of voice, interaction with others and body language. They are going to be feeling things too, and those feelings, fear, confusion, anger, even guilt that this is somehow their fault, will shift from one day to the next. By telling they how you feel, how hard it is when the baby’s not well, and sharing your feelings in the gentlest possible way, you’re giving them permission to be open about how they feel. When you say you miss them, they know it’s okay to feel and say the same.”

“Talking about feelings is a way of resolving them,” says Dr Hawthorne. “And it gives you the chance to reassure them, that doctors are working hard to make the baby better, that it’s okay to feel what they are feeling and that you love them.

“Children will still mind having to share your time. That’s natural. But with your understanding, children not only cope, but celebrate, love and enjoy the new baby.”

Rachel says, “Even though Poppy is older now, the children still get upset when she is poorly and one of us has to dash to hospital while the other stays at home. But we have all learned so much, seen a part of life we’d never seen before. Poppy’s been wonderful for the children. They adore her completely, just as she is. They don’t begrudge her anything.

“They, and their friends, understand cerebral palsy and what it means. They may have to remind Alfie why Poppy can’t ride a scooter but they do it in such a gentle, understanding way. When I see them all together, laughing and talking and including Poppy in their chat I feel immensely proud, and incredibly lucky.”

Next Wednesday read about how three dads coped when their babies were admitted to neonatal care.

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