Our twins sleep in our bedroom, sometimes in their own cots and other times in our bed. One morning they woke at the ungodly hour of 5:30. As I sat between their cots patting them trying in vain to re-settle them, my three year old shuffled in. Our rule is that if she wakes early she can quietly join us: no talking, let us sleep! Since the babies were born though, she assumes that if they are awake and crying she too can make a noise. And so I employed my “talk through the babies” technique. As I patted I spoke in a stage whisper, “Come on girls, you need to sleep. Your big sister is doing such a good job at being quiet and sleeping. She wants to make a noise just like you but she is lying so nicely. I am so proud of her.” I didn’t manage to get the babies back to sleep but the big sister lay quiet as a non-squeaking mouse for over half an hour, an achievement I then praised all morning.
I use this technique a lot, this and the “stage whisper” designed for children to overhear. Allow me to share some of these tips that can help reduce sibling rivalry and jealousy and reinforce desired behaviours. Be creative and ham it up!
Waiting: waiting while a new baby is attended to is hard for older siblings. It is a frequent occurrence for an older sister or brother of newborn twins.
• Take every opportunity to show your older child that the babies sometimes have to wait for her too. Create these opportunities if they don’t arise often. For example: as you prepare your older child’s breakfast, call out to the babies, ‘You have to wait sweetie. It is your big sister’s turn now. She waits for you and now you have to wait for her.” You can do this even if the babies are happily asleep! Of course, this is very effective if the babies are actually crying for you and your older child knows they are having a hard time waiting. In order not to leave your babies crying longer than necessary –if at all- grab the opportunity as above and then go to the babies. “Yes babies. It is hard to wait. Your big brother finds it hard too but he is very good at it. You will be good at it like him too one day.” Or you might say,” Sometimes it’s your turn and sometimes it’s your big brother’s. Your big brother is very good at waiting while it’s your turn.”
• If you have to wait for your partner, ham it up and in a loud stage whisper mutter about how hard it is to wait for others but how you know it is good to do so you will try!
• Also show your older child that the babies have to wait for each other. Eg, “Sorry Sammy but you have to wait for Freddie now while I change his nappy.”
• When your babies are waiting quietly you can say, “Oh what wonderful waiting! Did you learn that from your big sister? She is very good at waiting even though waiting can be hard!
Sleep time: Ssshhh! Don’t wake the babies! If your babies are light sleepers you might have constant battles to keep your older children quiet at nap time.
• Create a learning and reinforcement opportunity when your older child is in bed by “telling” the babies (within earshot of your older child),” Now babies, be very quiet because your big sister is going to sleep and you mustn’t wake her. I know it is hard to be quiet but it is your turn to be quiet just like she is quiet when it is your turn to sleep.”
• Remind your older child that if she wakes the babies you will have to go to them and then you won’t have enough time left for a story/song/etc. This approach is a useful one generally. That is, help your child to see the consequences of their behaviours. You don’t need to think in terms of punishments, just logical, natural consequences. “Shhh..Quiet so the babies stay asleep and I can sit with you for longer.” Your child will be more compliant if there is something in it for him!
• Let your pre-schoolers and toddlers children overhear you praising them to their siblings. E.g., “Your big sister loves you so much and when you were born she bought you a present.” And, “ Beth was such a big help to Mummy this morning. Mummy is really happy about that.” This is an especially useful technique with newborns and a toddler/preschooler. Your newborn (s) will love the eye contact and smiling as you chatter away about your wonderful older child: two (or more) children happy at once!
• “Are you playing with Suzie’s toy? It really is hers. She loves it. It is hard for her to share it but she is doing a very good job. Let’s ask her if you can play with it a little while longer.”
• While playing with or caring for the baby, tell him stories about his older sister when she was his age and you were playing with or caring for her. As above, tell the story just loud enough for big sister to hear while engaging your baby in a lively chat.
• “No baby, you can’t pull your older sister’s hair. I don’t let anyone hurt her, just like I don’t let anyone hurt you.” You can set this one up by placing your baby next to your older child’s head. Some hair pulling will probably happen and it is a great teaching moment.
• “No hurting the baby. Soft hands only. I don’t let you hurt him and I don’t let him hurt you. I keep my children safe. Ok? Got it?”
These strategies communicate that your older child is still your baby who needs protection and care just as the babies do. Using the “stage whisper” and “speaking through the babies” can be useful in many other situations. Try out the suggestions above and you will find that these trick start to come naturally to you after a while.