If you're expecting your second or third child, you may be wondering how to prepare your older kids for the new baby. We spoke to experts and parents who have been there to get advice for preparing your child to become a big brother or big sister.
It was once believed that Earth was the center of the universe. But those early scientists got it wrong: Ask any mom and she will tell you that everything revolves around her first-born.
Whether it’s for 10 months or a few years, the oldest child has Mom and Dad’s attention all to herself. So while parents may be delighted they’re expecting a second child, they may worry about how to break the news to their first-born and prevent any jealousy that might arise.
“Bringing a new baby into the world is a very complex and magical process,” says Kenneth Schuster, Psy.D., clinical neuropsychologist in the Learning and Development Center and director of clinical training at the Child Mind Institute. “But for a child, it is best to keep things simple and concrete. Introduce the subject in an age-appropriate manner. Answer his or her questions using age-appropriate language. Keep in mind that what is appropriate for one two-year-old may not be appropriate for another. Different children have different language skills and social maturity. …You need to meet your child where he is, and remember that anecdotal stories about what may have worked for another family will not necessarily work for your child.”
With that in mind, read on for ways to prepare your child for the new baby.
Be Strategic About When You Break the News
If being pregnant for nine months seems like forever to you, imagine how long it would seem to a 2-year-old! After all, a 1-minute timeout feels like an hour to a kid that age. So if you have a very young child, breaking the baby news early may not be best. He may not even understand at first or remember what you’ve said.
Many other factors may impact your decision about when to share your news. For instance, if you’re not feeling well, you may consider telling her sooner rather than later, or else she may worry you’re really sick.
Your growing belly will eventually become noticeable, making the talk inevitable. “The news that a baby is on the way becomes more meaningful to a young child when there are perceptible changes to their physical environment,” Dr. Schuster says. “For instance, perhaps the child is noticing mommy’s shrinking lap. Or the child has taken note that his parents are moving in furniture and painting walls.”
Until you’re ready to share the news, be discreet. Even a very young child hears her parents talking and can pick up on “secret” information. More importantly, however, you don’t want your child, at any age, hearing the news from anyone else. “You want to make sure you’re keeping them in the loop,” says Jen Trachtenberg, M.D., assistant clinical professor of pediatrics at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.
Keep the Conversation About a Younger Sibling Simple
When sharing the news with your young child, be direct. Simply say, “Mommy has a baby in her belly.” Even older children don’t need to hear additional details. This is not the time for a “birds and bees” talk, Dr. Schuster says. There will be plenty of time for your child to ask questions should she need further explanation.
Be sure not to ask your child if he wants a baby brother or sister. This could backfire! (What are you going to do if she says, “No”?)
Just as important as sharing the factual news with your child is conveying the emotions surrounding it. Reassure her that you and your partner are fully capable of loving both her and her new sibling. “Emphasize that she will not be left out, that there’s more than enough love to go around,” Dr. Trachtenberg says.
Accentuate the Positive of a Having Baby Sibling
Over the coming months, there will be many opportunities for you to prepare your child for the big event. Of course, not everything you tell him about the new baby will be rosy. Explain that new baby brothers and sisters are not born ready to play, but rather spend a lot of time sleeping, eating, crying, and pooping (expect a giggle for that one). Tell your child he did the same thing when he was a baby.
The trick is to spin the “bad news” in a positive way. For instance, tell your child the baby will cry a lot, but also say it will be like a game to figure out what she needs. Is she hungry? Tired? Needing a diaper change?
Emma L., who lives in New York City with her husband and two children, Ella (7) and Rafa (4), believes finding a good marketing angle is the best way to deal with potential issues. “Need to transition the older child to a bed, so the newborn can have the crib? Market it as an amazing new bed she gets to have because she is such a big girl!” she suggests.
Involve Your Older Kids in Getting Ready for Baby
Once you’ve shared the news, build on it with age-appropriate activities:
- Read books together about having a new sibling. Many favorite TV characters have siblings as well. Watch the show your child likes and talk about how those siblings interact.
- Give your child a baby doll and feed, change, and rock it together.
- Introduce your child to a friend or relative’s baby. The baby should be older than 3 months to reduce the risk of catching an illness from your child, and you should exercise caution if you let your child hold the baby.
- Share old photos of you and your siblings, and tell stories about what life was like growing up together. Don’t forget current photos. Fran L., a mother of two boys in Syosset, told 3½-year-old Ben about the baby on the way by surprising him with her sonogram photo.
- Allow your child to pick out clothes or toys for the new baby.
- Have your child participate in a sibling-preparation class at a local hospital.
- Enlist your first-born as an all-important “mommy’s helper,” Dr. Schuster suggests. “Tell your two-year-old that you will need her help letting you know when the baby is crying and figuring out what the baby needs. You can tell older children that you’ll need their help getting clean diapers ready and making the baby laugh by making silly faces.”
- When referring to the baby-to-be, use language such as “our baby” and “your baby sister/brother”—it suggests your child has a relationship with the baby and has an important role to play.
Helping Older Siblings Bond with Baby
To keep the sibling relationship growing after the baby arrives, do a few more things:
- Help your child choose a gift for the newborn. Give your first-born a gift the newborn “picked out” as well.
- Avoid introducing big changes in your older child’s routine while your baby is still settling in. That includes toilet training, going from a bottle to a sippy cup, and giving up the pacifier.
- Allow your child to help with the baby. Closely supervised older children can hold the baby while sitting, or can pass diapering or bathing supplies to the parent. Children of all ages can sing songs to a fussy newborn. (If your child doesn’t want to help, though, don’t force it. Encourage him to say hello and goodnight to his sibling and let the relationship blossom on its own.)
- Praise your first-born whenever she is behaving well.
- Have her spend time with other family members, such as grandparents, to deepen those relationships. Emphasize that you are one big happy family with enough love to go around.
Even if you do all of the above, there may be some bumps in the road. For one thing, expect a bit of regression—sliding backward on previously mastered skills is not unusual. Emma’s daughter Ella, who had been toilet-trained for five months, briefly went back to diapers after the birth of her little brother. The key, Dr. Trachtenberg says, is not to make a big deal of it.
A certain amount of jealousy and acting out may also be unavoidable. Stay the course with the strategies above, and remain positive—hugs, kisses, and kind words will go a long way. And be sure to have regular 1-on-1 time with your older child. Emma has a “girls’ lunch out” once a week with Ella.
Realize that for a child, no matter what his or her age, having a baby brother or sister enter the family is nowhere near as tumultuous as parents imagine it to be. “Most of the time it’s a smooth transition,” Dr. Trachtenberg says. “I’ve been in private practice twenty-two years and people always ask me when is the best time to have a second child. But whether the children are close in age or far apart, it’s super rare that there’s any ongoing jealousy. It will work out.”