Supporting Siblings

A new baby is a very exciting time and every big brother and big sister cannot wait to meet their new little sibling. If your new baby needs specialised care and is admitted to a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit it can be a very frightening and emotional time and have a profound effect on all family members.

How children respond to having a sibling in a NICU will depend on their age and ability to understand what is happening around them. When the family environment changes suddenly it can make siblings feel very insecure and affect their behaviours. It is very important to remember that experiencing some of the behaviours listed below is your child’s way of expressing that they need you. Reiterating that they are special and a much loved part of your family will go a long way to reassuring and calming their fears. Some children may:

  • Act out and play up to gain attention
  • Become quiet and withdrawn
  • Have trouble eating or sleeping
  • May start thumb sucking or wanting a dummy
  • Regain an attachment to a toy or blanket
  • Regress with toilet training or have night time accidents
  • Trouble at school
  • Be clingy and want your undivided attention

There are lots of ways you can support your children while their baby brother or sister is in hospital, here are some helpful ideas;

  • Try to maintain your family’s usual routine as much as you can. Though it may be difficult to juggle with the NICU visits it can make the situation less stressful for your other children. Make use of your support network by asking family and friends to help keep up with the daily activities such as playgroup or visits to the park.
  • Involve siblings in your new baby’s progress. Give simple and honest age appropriate updates in words they can understand. Allow time for them to ask questions and tell you how they are feeling.
  • Try to set aside time each day for the sibling. This special one on one time can be as simple as reading a book before bedtime and helps to assure your child that they are loved and special too.
  • Look with the sibling at their own baby photos. Talk about what is the same and what is different.
  • Make use of your local library, it is a great source for new books videos and CD’s to explore, and there is minimal charge to borrow.
  • The birth of a premature or sick newborn can bring inconceivable highs and lows and even very small children can sense that you are unhappy. Let them know how you are feeling and that you are ok, and that is alright to be concerned about the baby.

Preparing for a NICU Visit

Most children will be very keen to meet their new little baby brother or sister however each unit will have a different visiting policy. If your unit allows, invite your elder children to visit and meet their new sibling. It’s important to prepare siblings for the NICU visit, to help them understand what to expect and also help them decide if they want to go along.

  • Show the children pictures of their baby brother or sister. It’s a good idea to explain some of the items in the picture, for example the wires help to monitor the baby’s heart rate, eye covers are to block out the bright light. You could even video tape one of your visits and show them in advance
  • Take photos of the NICU environment and equipment and explain how it is helping their brother or sister. Let them know that some of the equipment is noisy and have alarms that may go off.
  • Describe the sounds, sights and smells they may experience.
  • Let them know that the equipment or any items attached to the baby don’t hurt and are there to help look after them.
  • Let your children know who is looking after their baby brother or sister by introducing them to your baby’s Doctors and Nurses.
  • After a visit make time to ask if they have any questions about the baby or things that were going on while you were there and reassure and concerns they have.

What Big Brothers and Sisters Can Do

Even in a NICU it’s important for siblings to become involved with their baby brother or sister. Not all activities will be possible in every NICU or appropriate for every child however there are many ways siblings can be positively involved in their siblings NICU stay;

  • Suggest they draw pictures for their new sister or brother which could be put up on the crib or at the bedside.
  • Tell them that it is ok to talk to their baby brother or sister and help them to touch the baby if their medical condition allows.
  • Choose a photo of themselves to place at the baby’s bedside.
  • Encourage your child to choose a toy, balloon or something special they can give to the sister or brother.
  • You can also surprise siblings with a gift the baby has chosen especially for them.
  • Leaving little messages from the baby for their older sibling is such a simple and much loved gift. For example “I’m so glad I have a big brother that loves me” or “You are my favourite sister in the whole world”.
  • Make a scrapbook or storybook about their baby brother or sister to take to school with photos, hand/foot prints a nappy etc. It’s also a good idea to keep some paper and pencils handy for the sibling to use when they visit.
  • Older children may be able to help with simple jobs such as checking nappy supplies, tidying up around the baby’s bedside or even choosing their clean clothing.
  • Help prepare the baby’s room at home
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