For most families, the birth of a child is a much-anticipated, joyful event. But a new baby in the house also means big changes, not just for parents but for older siblings too.

For children between the ages of 1 and 3 1/2, the transition can be especially difficult because they are still very dependent on their parents. But children of any age are susceptible to feeling jealous. They’re likely to see the infant getting more time and attention while they’re losing time and attention.

Parents, however, can ease the transition for children. Many kids are excited about a new child coming into the house, and a baby sibling can bring opportunities to cultivate empathy and caring for other people. That can bring growth in some important social areas.

The process begins before the infant is born. Parents shouldn’t rush into discussions about a new family member as soon as the mother is pregnant. Six to eight months of discussion is too much for a young child. It’s better to wait until the child notices the mom is visibly pregnant or begins noticing differences accumulating in the daily routine.

At that point, acknowledge that your child may have mixed feelings about a new baby in the house but hedge toward assuming that, on balance, the child will think the baby is a good thing for the family. They’ll look to your verbal and nonverbal cues to determine whether this is good or bad news.

Likewise, take cues from children to determine how much they want to be involved. Don’t expect them to be involved in preparations, but if they are interested, engage them in a way that’s meaningful and natural for them rather than trying to establish a contrived connection.

For example, if your child enjoys art or painting, you can let your young artist paint a mural in the baby’s nursery or pictures to hang on the wall. If you have little shoppers, take them to choose new clothes or supplies for the baby. Whatever the case, pay attention to what your child needs and wants to do instead of projecting your own needs on the child.

When you bring the baby home, let the sibling relationship develop naturally. If the older child isn’t interested in the baby, don’t force it. Usually older siblings want to connect. They’ll want to do whatever you’re doing, including connecting with the infant. When that time comes, praise them for how well they hold or interact with the baby. Be sure it’s in a relaxed time, with no rushing involved.

To the degree your children are interested, let them help you care for the baby. As you do so together, you can point out how amazing the little sibling is and the older child will begin to understand better why everyone loves the baby so much.

Take as many opportunities as you can to piggyback parenting. If you need to do household chores such as laundry, cooking or cleaning, let your child do a junior version of what you’re doing. That counts as parenting and connecting with your child. It’s not always necessary — or feasible — to compartmentalize one-on-one time with each family member. In fact, that can foster competition.

Instead it’s helpful to view each family member as a point on a shape, like a square or star. The more points on the shape, the harder it is to balance, the more complicated it becomes. With that complexity, however, also comes richness. If you blend interaction with all the points of the shape, you can weave the family together into a more cohesive set of relationships rather than individual sets of competitive connections.

As published in the April 2008 Edition of the Vernon County Broadcaster.