Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Teaching with Toys

9/5/10 Teaching with Toys
Originally at:

As we approached the birth of our second child, there was concern that our first would not react well. We had heard horror stories from friends about their kids acting out, hitting their new siblings, feeling forgotten and jealous - all things that we wanted to avoid if possible. We spent significant time including our daughter in the preparations for our son. Still, explaining something biologically and socially complex to a one or two-year-old is difficult. With tips from our friends, doctor and nurses, we believe that the transition from a three-person family to four was relatively smooth.

First, we explained to our daughter that she would soon be a "Big Sister". The concept reached much further than I had originally anticipated. We started by bringing out her old baby bed, baby toys and clothes explaining along the way that she was a Big Sister now, so she doesn't need baby things. This also gave us the opportunity to help get rid of some toys that needed disappearing, and habits that needed to be stopped. Done in a teasing manor, our daughter stepped it up and began to embody the role presented to her. She would talk to her little brother, touch mom's belly and generally start including him even before birth.

We didn't really know how to explain the biological part of childbirth or if it was even good to go down that road. That is to say that we didn't know a good way until I accidentally used a PotatoHead to explain in a moment of sleep deprivation. A few weeks before our son was born, our daughter woke me up at 5am. My daughter had a Mr. PotatoHead and baby PotatoHead that she wanted to play with - fully awake. She managed to shove the baby into the storage area on the backside of the larger one. Still loopy from lack of sleep, I dressed the larger one as a woman and told her that it was a mommy and she was about to have a baby. We pretended that the misses went to the doctor's (another PotatoHead) and pushed a few times before popping out the baby PotatoHead. To top it off, I then had the baby nurse from Mrs. Potatohead. I don't know what it was about the visual but all of a sudden she understood what was going to happen with her mom. She made me repeat it over and over again that morning and the mornings leading up to our son's birth.

We tried to be prepared for the day-of with special regard for the amount and type of attention displayed. We had prepared our families with instructions - somewhat thrown out the window by our unexpected home-birth. Still, our in-hospital experience afterwards was key toward introducing our son to his big sister.

When our daughter first came to the hospital room, the baby was in the bassinet - not in our arms or nursing. This way she was able to hug and interact with us without a "barrier" in the way. Our experience may have been traumatic, but she was right on the sidelines and incapable of assisting or fully comprehending. This also allowed her to discover baby at her own pace. This is especially important when your first child has been in an unfamiliar place for an extended period of time. While the Cottage Hospital waiting room is quite nice, it is still not home. In order to acclimate your first-born to the hospital, that they will undoubtedly spend significant time, take them on the baby tour. Cottage Hospital offers regular tours of the third floor to expectant families on Tuesdays at 6pm.

For the first post-birth visit, it is helpful to have a small gift wrapped in the bassinet "from the new baby." The idea behind this is to associate the new child with a positive gift-receiving experience. I wasn't entirely comfortable when I heard about this - for me it leads to other questions about the origins of the gift and why mom can't pop out other gifts on demand. Fortunately, toddlers are less neurotic and simply just happy to receive a toy.

It is a good idea to keep any visit (but especially the first visit) to 30 to 60 minutes and then to go somewhere fun. Oak Park is a convenient walk from Cottage Hospital, and it gives grandparents something to do as well. Grandparents and visitors should be instructed in advance to limiting the cooing over the new baby as much as possible while the other child is present. If they are present with the firstborn grandchild, they should come in, put down the baby, and shower attention on the first child. Questions such as "how do you like this hospital room?" and "how do you feel being such a big sister?" are key.

During the first few weeks of feeding times, try distractions. For example: "the baby is hungry, I bet you are too, why don't you count out 10 Cheerios and put them in a bowl." Hopefully that will give enough time to get baby latched on without having to help the other count.

When our daughter got home and we brought the baby in, we had a large toy waiting for her - a tricycle. She was riding it around when our son was brought in for the first time. Now, he wasn't invading her territory - he's the source of many toys so he's a welcome guest! While I am not entirely comfortable with the buying of attention or affection, the tricycle was a gift that we had been holding on to for such an occasion.

I hope that these tips can be of value to you if you are preparing to have your second child in Santa Barbara as we did earlier this year.

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