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When Is It Okay for Older Siblings to Care for the Baby?

Ponijao and older sibling playing with rocks

Recently, I was watching the amazing and wonderful documentary, “Babies,” and I was struck by how different our culture’s approach to older siblings’ interactions with babies is compared to some other cultures around the globe.  In particular, I was fascinated to watch the way baby Ponijao, born into a Namibian tribal family, is cared for, loved on and played with by his older siblings and cousins, even as a very young infant.  

Through these interactions, lots of good things happen: Ponijao’s mama gets much needed breaks, the older kids become full participants in family life, and Ponijao has built in playmates, right from the beginning. I love it.

I certainly can’t claim to be as laid back as Ponijao’s mama is in letting Baby G’s older siblings and cousins play with her and take care of her, but I do think I’m a lot more laid back about it than many other moms of babies whom I’ve observed. Our own family culture (beyond our nuclear family – out into our extended family, too) is one in which all the kids are always encouraged to have lots of hands-on interaction with the latest baby to join our clan, and it’s my anecdotal belief that this is helpful in encouraging the super strong sibling and cousin bonds that our family values.

I frequently ask one of G’s older siblings or cousins to watch her or hold her or play with her while I cook dinner or throw in a load of laundry or whatever. And often, I don’t have to ask; they are asking me. Of course, I scale these requests by age; I am not leaving the baby alone for long stretches with her 3 year old sister, C, and C isn’t allowed to pick her up. However, even at this young age, C does sometimes have responsibility for entertaining G for a moment or two in her bouncy chair or on a blanket on the floor while I answer the phone or something. She’s proud to be able to help with baby care duties. It makes her feel competent.

C plays with G while I fold laundry.

As for the older (than C) siblings and cousins, they all argue over who gets to hold G next.  It’s a baby hot potato game with them, where 3 month old G gets passed from brother to sister to cousin until I finally retrieve her to get some baby-holding time in myself.

How about in your family? Do you encourage or discourage lots of sibling-new baby interaction? How did your parents handle this? And do you think American parents are too uptight about allowing older siblings to play with their baby sisters and brothers? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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