How To Prepare a Toddler for a New Baby
The arrival of a younger sibling is inherently destabilizing for a family. You and your spouse might feel ready, but there’s no foolproof way of preparing a child for what feels like a natural disaster; it’s likely the worst, most upsetting thing he’s experienced, after all.
So preparing a toddler for a new sibling isn’t so much about avoiding drama as it is about mitigating the trauma. It’s a delicate balance between providing helpful information and experiences and overwhelming them with ideas they can’t yet understand (and consequently freak them out). So use your instincts – if you see your child feeling overwhelmed or threatened by all of the new-sibling talk, take a break and try again later.
When to prepare them
0 to 3 years: Children at this age haven’t yet developed the cognitive ability to understand what the future is and that it will become reality. The nine months of pregnancy will feel like years to them. So, it’s best to wait until the third trimester, when physical changes are most apparent, to tell them about their new sibling. There’s no good reason to have them spend months – a huge proportion of their lives – trying to grapple with something abstract and theoretical; too much imagination about this theoretical sibling could actually create anxiety and confusion.
3 to 5 years: At this age, kids understand what the future is and can imagine a baby growing inside of their mom. Still, their patience and grasp of time is limited, so you may want to wait until the second or third trimester to tell them about their new sibling. Kids this age and older will likely ask questions – How did the baby get in mom’s stomach? How will it get out? Is it hurting mom? Is It a boy or a girl? – so have your answers ready.
5+ years: Young children can be surprisingly discerning and may notice physical changes very early (for instance, mom is sick a lot in the morning). Acknowledge their concern and answer questions truthfully. You may need to share the news earlier than you planned; feel free to tell them that only the immediate family knows now and you plan to tell others later. But don’t ask them to keep a secret or lie.
How to prepare them
Regardless of how old a child is, there are some guiding principles for how to prepare a toddler for a new baby:
- Explain. Explaining changes as accurately as possible helps your first child know what to expect and mitigates shock.
(“There’s a sack inside of mommy that holds the baby. The baby is really small, but s/he’ll grow just like you do. And as s/he grows, the sack and mommy’s belly get bigger. When the baby is big enough, s/he’ll get to come out.”)
- Relate. Relating these explanations to things your first child already knows and/or has experienced helps him understand.
(“The baby is going to sleep in this crib. Remember when you were a baby and slept in a little baby crib?”)
- Involve. Involving your first child in preparations helps mitigate feelings of being left out and gets them excited about the sibling. However – don’t make all of your interactions about the new baby, otherwise your older child might feel overshadowed from the start.
(“Do you want to help daddy pick out a toy for your new brother/sister?”)
- Reassure. Reassuring your child of your love helps them feel supported and safe throughout the change.
(“You’ll always be mama’s first baby,” or “Mama will still read you books before bedtime.”) However – don’t make promises you may not be able to keep. Broken promises are a sure way of fostering resentment toward the new sibling.
(Avoid saying things like, “We’ll always have time to play together every day.”)
What to prepare them for
Mom’s physical changes
Depending on the age of the child and your own comfort, your explanations might be scientific or simplistic, but stick as closely to the truth as possible (in other words, avoid storks) when deciding how to prepare a toddler for a new sibling. Involve kids by letting them feel when the baby kicks or encouraging them to sing to the baby. Older kids may even enjoy accompanying mom to sonogram appointments.
Also, you’ll need to prepare them for changes in mom’s energy level, otherwise they might not understand why a parent who has always had time for them is suddenly saying no. One way to do it: “You know how you feel tired after you carry something heavy? As mama’s belly gets bigger, she’ll get more tired and she’ll need to rest sometimes even if she’d rather be playing.”
Doctor’s visits / the hospital visit
Small kids may associate seeing a doctor and visiting the hospital with being sick. So, without an explanation, they might worry the baby is making mom sick. You can explain that the doctor is making friends with the baby because he/she will be the one to help the baby come out.
Kids of all ages will need preparation for the fact that their mother, and maybe both parents, will be staying in the hospital for a few days after the birth of the sibling. For some, it may be the first time they’ve spent a night without either parent present. You’ll need to talk about what those few days will be like, and make sure they will be staying someplace – and with someone – where their schedule and routine will be as usual as possible.
(And when the older child does come to the hospital to visit the new sibling, it’s a good idea to have a few gifts from the new baby to her older sibling.)
Whatever is outside your (and their) control
If you don’t know the sex of your baby, explain that you can’t control what sex the baby is. (Even if you do know, you may need to explain; young kids have been known to make specific demands for a brother or sister.)
Relate it to their own life by saying: “You can’t control whether anyone else is a boy or girl. Your friend Aditya is a boy because he says so, not because you do.” You can remind and involve your child by having her help pick out clothes, toys, nursery decoration or (gulp) names.
Interacting with a baby
Children don’t automatically know to be gentle with babies, so preparing a toddler for a new sibling has to cover this. The best way is through interaction with a real baby of a friend or relative while you guide their actions and explain how and why to be careful while touching or holding the baby. If there’s not a baby in your social circle, though, look at and talk about your child’s own baby pictures with her.
If your child is old enough (~3-4 and older) you can use pretend play to practice. A doll or stuffed toy can stand in for the baby, and he can pretend he’s playing and caring for his new sibling while you watch and reinforce. (“I like how gentle you’re being with your doll, just like you’ll be gentle with your sibling.”)
Even interactions with kids their own age can be used to prepare them for change. Comments like, “It was so nice of you to share that last piece of cake with Arjun. Your brother will be lucky to have an older brother who shares like you,” help your child understand what type of sibling-behaviour is good.
Changes to their physical space or belongings
Older siblings often struggle to adjust to sharing their space or belongings. Even sharing a home – let alone switching rooms or sharing a room – can be a challenge for kids. Explain your reasoning: “You’re so big, you need a big kid’s bed! You’re sibling will be so small. Why not let her use the crib you’re too big for?” or “Mommy and daddy share that room, so you and your sister will share this room. Two people in each room.”
Posing some of these ideas as questions – “Wouldn’t you want to be right next to your sister so you can talk to her?” – allows your child to say ‘yes’ which makes them feel in control and more involved in the decision-making process. Including him in shopping trips and letting him help pick out any new supplies or décor for the baby can also help him feel like he hasn’t lost ownership of his space.
Preparing your child for a new sibling doesn’t mean they won’t have any trouble once the baby arrives. Chances are, you’ll still have to deal with bouts of bad behaviour. So watch for our next piece – how to help your older child adjust to a new sibling.