No matter how many “I’m a big sister!” t-shirts or new-baby-sibling-themed books you buy, bringing home a newborn to a house essentially ruled by a toddler can be daunting. My little girl will be 3 years old this summer and there’s a chance she’ll end up sharing her birthday with the new little brother or sister we’re expecting. We’ve been making every effort we can to prepare her for this eventuality, and in some ways it feels like we’ve already done this before.
This may sound crazy to some, but when we brought our newborn daughter home three summers ago, we already considered our 2-year-old dog our first child. We doted upon that pup like nobody’s business, so when we prepared to bring home a new family member we were nervous as hell. We read all the expert-recommended books and watched all the dog-baby YouTube videos that showed anxious parents-to-be how to introduce their furry baby to their new human one. And it’s kind of funny because a lot of the advice applies to our new situation.
We were instructed to treat and praise our dog (i.e. the older sibling) whenever they interact nicely with the new baby. At this point in my pregnancy I swoon over my daughter every time she shows interest in my growing belly. And when she’s playing gently with a baby doll, I tell her how proud I am of her. On the flip side, it’s best to ignore any bad or unwanted behaviors (think: hitting, being too rough, saying mean things) and to physically get in between the siblings and redirect their attention and actions. I try to do this every time my daughter gets overly excited or is too harsh with our dog or with any baby friends of ours during play dates. At this point, I’m doing a lot of refereeing between dog and tot when it comes to stuffed animals, and I just consider it practice for what lies ahead.
While we couldn’t involve our dog in many baby preparations for obvious reasons, we’re trying to include our daughter whenever possible. We’ve had her help us clean out the new baby’s room (which is actually a fun activity for some 2-year-olds!), asked her to weigh in on decisions like what color to paint the dresser and where to place the crib, and even asked for her help carrying newborn diapers into the house from the store and wiping down old baby gear we had stored in the basement. She’s attended a few prenatal appointments as well, getting a chance to see the baby on the ultrasound monitor while enjoying a special snack in her stroller nearby. Of course, we only involve her if she’s enjoying the experience. No use in making welcoming a new baby home seem like a chore.
My husband and I have also been very excitedly reminiscing about the day our daughter was born to let her know that it was a magical day and to “remind” her that she was once growing in my belly too. We’ve spent rainy weekends looking at pictures of her as a baby and talking about how she slept a lot, cried a lot, and pooped a lot, all to prepare her for how this new baby will likely behave. Most days we drive past the hospital where she was born so I always point it out to her as a reminder that her time as a baby was special and real.
Perhaps most importantly, we’ve made every effort to accept all toddler emotions and reactions, good and bad, without judgment. We tell our daughter that we love her and the baby, but won’t get upset if she says she doesn’t like her baby sibling. The same has been the case for her coming to grips with sharing our attention with the dog. “Go away!” she’ll shout if the dog is trying to squeeze in between us while reading books. I’ll casually redirect our doggy, give her a little kiss on the snout, and then go back to reading the picture book. At this young age, punishment can be shaming and I’d rather not reward my toddler with any negative attention either. One thing we’ve been surprised to see is that our little girl is already reverting to acting like a baby, which we didn’t expect this early on before the baby has arrived. She’ll let her jaw go slack, stick out her tongue, say “Gaa! Gaa!” and crawl around on the floor. But instead of telling her to stop acting like a baby, I’ll just reply, “Oh, I guess you’re learning how to crawl now!” That simple acknowledgement seems to satisfy her and she’s quickly back to her usual toddler antics.
While bringing a baby home to a furry family member isn’t exactly the same as making the introduction to an older human sibling, the heart of the issue remains the same: There is plenty of love and attention for everyone. It just might mean practicing a new level of patience and communication, and investing in some duplicate stuffed animals.
Whitney C. Harris is a freelance writer living in Westchester, NY, with her husband and young daughter. Find her at whitneycharris.com.