For two decades, Community Hospital in Munster has been offering a class to prepare preschoolers and young children for their new roles as big brothers and big sisters.

The free Sibling Class is typically held quarterly. Children age 3 to 10 are invited for the 45-minute session taught by Barb Pennington, a registered nurse who serves as Clinical Educator.

For two years she has been teaching the class that gives kids an idea of some of the changes ahead and lets them know some of the things they can do to help. “I start out introducing myself, and I have them introduce themselves and ask how old they are,” she said. “I encourage questions and ask them if they’ll get a new room or be sharing a room with baby.”

After the introductory portion, kids watch a 15-minute video. “It’s a movie with pirates and it explains how a fetus develops, the benefits of sharing and alone time, healthy feelings and communication, ways to prepare for the big day, what it's like get a brand new member the family. It leaves kids feeling reassured and excited to meet their new sibling.”

After a discussion of the movie, the class finishes with a talk about safety with the baby. “We talk about how they can’t do a lot at first, but they can be a big help to Mom and Dad,” she said. “We talk about hand washing and never picking up the baby by themselves.”

The class includes car seat safety.

Pennington uses visual tools including a toilet paper tube and a belly ball. The tube is used to demonstrate how small items can be a choking hazard for infants. “We show them that anything that will fit inside it should be kept off the floor because we wouldn’t want baby to swallow anything,” said Pennington. The belly balls give the participants an idea of how small a baby’s stomach is to try to help them understand why baby needs to be fed so often — and why Mom may be so preoccupied.

Pennington also conveys to children that if they talk to baby while still in the womb, he or she will recognize their voice once they are born. She gives each big sibling a coloring book and a personalized certificate showing that they completed the class. Enrollment is usually in the range of 4 to 8 per class, but Pennington said she would love to see that number increase.

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A nurse at Community for close to 30 years, Pennington worked in Oncology before moving to Labor and Delivery and now Education. “This is truly my passion,” said Pennington, who also teaches childbirth education classes for adults and teens and does maternal tours for expectant parents.

“I think this is a realistic class,” she said. “Mom will be tired, and the (siblings) need to know that. Home is going to change. This class gives them a better understanding of what to expect. When they leave, they seem to have enjoyed it, and I enjoy teaching it.”

Shaterrah Wigley, of Hobart, registered her 4-year-old daughter, Sydney, for the class last September. Her brother, Sebastian, was born in November.

“Sydney learned that although Mommy and Daddy will be busy with her new baby brother, I'll always have time for her. She also learned that it's OK to have special things she'd like to keep just for her and not have to pass down to her baby brother,” said Wigley. “I think one of the biggest benefits of taking the sibling class was just making Sydney aware that change was about to happen but is normal and many families go through it.”

Since Sydney was an only child, Wigley felt it was important to help prepare her for the baby and reassure her that she is still a priority.

Also participating in the September class was Courtney Rosinski, 6. She welcomed a sister, Chloe, shortly after taking the class.

Jennifer Rosinski enrolled her daughter because she wanted her to hear all the important information from a professional and not just from her. “She was able to hear from someone other than her parents about important rules about handling the baby. She was also told how Mommy would be very tired the first few days and how Baby would take a lot of Mom's time,” she said.

Rosinski cited hand washing and baby handling as key points of the class, adding that “it got Courtney excited and ready for her baby to come.”