Bringing a new sibling into the family is, without a doubt, cause for celebration. But like it or not, it’s also cause for upheaval and a drastic change in family dynamics — especially where your toddler is concerned. Your tot has gotten used to the status quo — his world as it is now — and he probably likes it just the way it is. He’s the one and only child, and you and Dad are the doting adults.
If he’s aware that some kids have siblings (and even if he’s expressed an interest in having one) he probably doesn’t have a clear concept of what that really means. All he knows is that “Noah has a little sister” or “Olivia has a big brother,” and he has no idea that having these additional family members means sharing attention, toys, and his parents’ time. That’s why it’s up to you to prepare your unknowing toddler as best you can for what will happen when a new sibling arrives — and have a game plan in place for what you can do to help your toddler adjust once the new baby makes four.
BREAKING THE NEWS
Of course you’re excited about the prospect of a new baby, but before you spring it on him, think through when and how to tell him.
- When to tell your toddler: It’s probably best to wait until about halfway through the pregnancy before you spill the beans about what lies ahead. You may want to be sure that the pregnancy is moving along smoothly before you plant the new-sibling seed in your firstborn’s head. Plus, nine months is a lifetime for a toddler, and you might get awfully tired of being asked “Is the baby coming today?” every day. And then there’s the fact that having a real bump (and maybe some kicks that your toddler can feel himself!) will make everything much less abstract for your tot. On the other hand, there are reasons you may need to let your child in on the secret sooner: If he starts asking questions the minute you start to show, or if you’re especially morning sick, you might want to explain what’s going on so he doesn’t worry.
- How to tell your toddler: Reading books together about new siblings is a great way to help your child process what’s in store. The best books describe the ambivalence an older sibling feels when a new baby comes — if you want, you can use their plots as a jumping-off point for a discussion about what your toddler might find difficult.
- What if your son really wants a brother, hates girls (so he says), and the ultrasound seems to lack some very crucial boy parts? Well, you can start trying to prepare him, but insisting sisters are fabulous might cause him to dig his heels in further. You might point out that no one gets to choose WHAT the baby is — it will be what it will be — if you think this will work with your child. Or you might just grit your teeth and break the “bad news,” hoping he’ll get used to the idea by the time the baby shows up. One thing to be grateful for: Tiny babies are basically genderless anyway, and with luck, by the time the baby gets a little bigger your firstborn will have forgotten all about the little brother he wanted and will love (or loathe) his little sister for who she is.
AS THE DATE DRAWS NEAR
When your kid’s tenure as center of the universe is drawing to a close, your very best tool is to play it cool. Think about it — if you keep insisting that the arrival of a new sibling is going to be the greatest thing ever, your toddler will quickly smell a rat. (And if he doesn’t, the baby can’t possibly live up to the hype.) Instead, try these tactics to prep your toddler for the imminent arrival of his new sibling:
- Help your toddler sort out his toys and designate ones that will be off-limits to the baby (this will help him feel he has special privileges as the elder sibling).
- If you fix up the baby’s room, make sure your toddler is involved so he feels he has a part to play in the baby hubbub — and consider buying new sheets for your big kid’s bed too (or otherwise try to spruce up his space to match).
- Make sure you have plenty of activities for your toddler to do once the baby arrives. Choose ones that your toddler can do while you’re either feeding or holding the baby (coloring books, Legos, or figurines), and also have activities on hand that you can participate in while the baby is sleeping (reading together, listening to books on CD, watching DVDs together, even looking at old photo albums of your first newborn — kids love seeing themselves as tiny babies when a new baby is around).
- Stock a high shelf with a bunch of new little toys to whip out at various intervals when a fractious toddler demands to go to the park just when it’s most inconvenient for the baby.
- Don’t forget to clue your toddler in to some of the nitty-gritty that’s in store. As much as you want to paint a happy picture of what life will be like when the baby arrives, be sure to prepare your toddler for reality. For instance, let him know that his new sibling won’t be a playmate for him right away — and in fact, not for a long time. Explain that the baby will cry a lot, that he may hear the baby wake up in the middle of the night to eat, and that Mommy will need to give the baby a lot of attention and will be holding the baby a lot. And if you plan to breastfeed, tell your toddler that the baby will be drinking from Mommy’s nipples, just like he did when he was a baby.
WHEN THE NEW SIBLING ARRIVES
When you first see your big kid after giving birth, remember that it’s YOU he wants — the new baby can come second. So have open arms (sans baby) and give him a huge hug, lots of kisses, and your full attention — he’s missed you — before introducing him to his new sibling. After the initial reunion, try some of these tips:
- Take cues from your toddler, who may be shy around the new arrival at first. You might want to relate everything to your older kid (“Your feet used to be this small, too! And you had no hair! And no teeth!”), since that introduces the baby in a way that a narcissistic toddler might find amusing.
- Let your toddler hold the baby (after you’ve shown him how to do so gently!), and snuggle all together, so that your toddler knows it’s okay to be affectionate to the new little one.
- Come up with a few things your tot can “help” with — special baby-care jobs that only he can do. Give him a stash of cotton balls and a little moisturizer and have him carefully dab the baby’s toes during diaper changes, for instance. Let him “read” to the baby or pat the baby gently on the back (stay close lest the pats get overenthusiastic!). Let him pick out his new sibling’s outfit or pajamas. The idea is to involve your tot as a caretaker, not set him up as a rival. You can really emphasize this by saying, “I’m so glad I have you here to help me take care of this baby.” And, in front of other people, say, “Well, his big brother is the one the baby REALLY likes. He’s the best at taking care of him.”
- For those times you need to be with the baby and your toddler can’t help out, give your older child a baby doll of his own. When you feed the baby, for instance, he can give his baby a bottle. This way, you’ll both be big people taking care of little people — instead of one big person coping with two needy small ones!
- Since guests will come with presents for the baby, have small treats or gifts at the ready that you can give your toddler, too. That way he won’t resent all the goodies the baby is getting; instead he’ll associate the baby’s arrival with lots of positives for him. You might even consider giving your toddler a gift “from the baby” and helping your toddler choose a gift that he can give the baby. This will foster the idea that siblings love each other, are nice to each other, and give to each other.
- Guard yourself for extra toddler tantrums, acting out, or clinginess — all attention-seeking antics from your older child. Even if you’ve done all you can to help your toddler adjust to the new family dynamics, he may still feel displaced. With that in mind, whenever you can possibly spare the time, try to give your toddler some undivided attention. You don’t have to do anything terribly special, but it’s important that he knows you can still focus on him. While it’s great to enlist the help of a favorite aunt or Grandma to spend extra time with your toddler while you’re with the baby, try not to slip into the habit of always letting relatives take your toddler off your hands (even if it’s tempting). When relatives offer to help, remember that it’s okay to hand them the baby, which can allow you one-on-one time with your eldest. After all, even big brothers and sisters need to be babied sometimes.