The Teachers Story

ONE DAY LAST week, Rachel rushed in with the news: "My mommy went to the hospital. I have a baby sister!" Then she played happily for the rest of the day. Watching her, I thought how well this three-and-a-half-year-old's parents had prepared her for such a big change. Rachel had proudly mentioned the expected baby several times in recent weeks. Now that the baby had actually arrived, she was doing fine.

That was last week. On Monday, a different Rachel wandered in, clutching a dog-eared old teddy bear, sucking her thumb, and looking worn-out and listless. I put my arm around her and tried to interest her in her favorite game, but she wasn't in the mood. Later, Rachel did perk up a bit on the playground, but she was soon mortified when she wet her pants. Today she spent most of the morning clinging to me and sucking a bottle she found in the doll corner. After another bathroom accident, she began to talk baby talk. That alarmed me, since she is verbally precocious. Can all these changes be stemming from a new baby in the house? I wish I could do something to help.

The Parent's Story

I KNOW ABOUT THE jealousy that many children feel when a new baby arrives. That's why my husband and I arranged for Rachel to start preschool four or five months before the baby was due. We thought this would give her her own special place and the new baby wouldn't make her feel pushed out of the way.

Early in the pregnancy, Rachel seemed excited about the prospect of a sister or brother and enjoyed listening to stories about babies. And just a few weeks ago, she happily helped us fix up the baby's room. While I was in the hospital, Rachel had a great time with Grandma after school and Daddy in the evenings. The trouble began when I brought the baby home.

I was very happy to see Rachel and told her I had missed her, but I was just too tired to play. So after nursing the baby, I took a long nap. Rachel wet her bed that night for the first time in a year. She's sucking her thumb again, too, and carrying her old teddy bear around. This morning when I dropped her off at preschool, she cried. I decided to ask her teacher if we could talk.

Dr. Brodkin's Assessment: Even the most sensitive parents can't prevent these pangs of jealousy. Rachel's mommy and daddy had done everything they could to prepare her, but their child was used to the exclusive devotion of the family. "If it is a baby they want," Rachel seems to have concluded (as many children do), "then I'll be one." Some regressive behavior on the part of a preschooler is to be expected when a new baby arrives.

What can the teacher do?

Rachel's teacher can read books to the group about new siblings and invite those who want to bring in pictures of themselves when they were babies, as well as pictures of their baby siblings. The teacher can use both the books and the photographs as springboards to encourage children to talk about their feelings and experiences when new babies came into their lives.

Whenever there is an opportunity, the teacher should praise Rachel's accomplishments and point out to her what a "big girl" she is. Rachel may need the teacher's lap a bit more often than usual and extra supportive words and glances. If the little girl should have a bladder or bowel accident, the teacher should discreetly guide her to the bathroom and help her clean herself. Hopefully, the children have a full set of extra clothing for such emergencies so that the incident can be quickly forgotten. Of course, parents should get a call about such an event.

What can the parents do?

If Rachel wants to try drinking from a bottle, there is no harm in going along with her request matter-of-factly. When adults don't make a fuss, she will discover that drinking from the bottle is not so pleasant. They should also avoid scolding her about occasional bladder or bowel accidents at home or in school.

Rachel's parents need to let her know in every way they can that there is plenty of love to go around. Their older daughter needs to be convinced that their feelings for her are as strong as ever and that they understand how upset she feels. Although some jealousy will live on, Rachel is likely to be calmer about it and act like her old self again soon. It may take a month or two of such reassurance. In the meantime, Rachel may be encouraged, though not prodded, to enjoy the privileges of being more grown-up. After all, baby sister can't go to story time at the library with Daddy, make Jell-O with Mommy, or build a sand castle with neighborhood children. Before long, Rachel should rediscover how much more fun it is to ride a tricycle with her friends than to cling to an adult.

Of course, if Rachel's behavior remains unchanged for months, the parents should have a talk with their pediatrician or a child psychologist. However, if the parents and the teacher work closely together, they are likely to hasten the end of this trying time. When it is over, Rachel will have learned about sharing, compromising, and living comfortably with some competition. Though painful, these lessons are crucial for a child's healthy development.