Bringing a new baby into the family can be both an exciting and a challenging time for a big brother or sister. How you choose to tell children about new siblings and prepare them for changes in family life will vary depending on the age difference, but there are some rules of thumb experts recommend to create the best possible environment for your expanding family.
You may be thrilled to have a second child on the way but the upsides of a bawling new baby who is going to grow up and try to steal your older child’s toys may not be so clear to her. Babies aren’t easy. And jealous older siblings who act out will only make the transition harder. Preparing older children in advance and helping them feel included in the process can go a long way to a smooth and happy family life.
When and how to tell your child
The more time your child has to get used to the idea of a new baby, the better. When mom is pregnant, experts agree it’s best to tell your child as soon as the baby begins to show. However, if a pregnant woman is experiencing morning sickness or has a very young child who can’t be jumping on her the way he is used to, parents might want to consider telling their older child even sooner. “It’s always best to be honest to avoid making kids anxious about what’s happening,” says Dr. Mandi Silverman, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute. “So don’t wait too long to tell your child.”
If the family is adopting or using surrogacy, the coming baby may not be visibly obvious, Dr. Silverman adds, “but definitely still start the conversation early.”
Dr. Silverman stresses that parents need to give children as much time as possible to ask all the questions they need to but also to get in some extra special alone time with each parent. “The key thing here is that parents need to indicate that this is a positive thing for a family,” she says. “It’s a change, and change — whether it’s good or bad — is something that takes time to get used to.”
The language you use to explain these changes to your child should be developmentally and age appropriate. Emphasize change for the good and all the great things a new baby will bring to the family. “There’s one more person to love,” suggests Dr. Silverman. “There’s somebody new to spend time with. Watching the baby do new things, and teaching him things, will be fun. Holidays will be even more special when there’s a new baby.”
Don’t oversell the new baby
While you want to emphasize all the great things about having a new little brother or sister, older children also need to know things that will be difficult. Be as specific as is appropriate for your child. You may tell them that babies are a lot of work. “They can’t do things on their own. You know, they can’t feed themselves. They need somebody to change their diapers. They may be up at night. They cry. It can be loud. It can be annoying,” says Dr. Silverman. But reassure your older child that you will do whatever you can to keep the baby quiet and happy and on a regular sleep schedule as soon as possible. And also that you are going to make time to spend with her.
Set aside special time to spend together
One thing you can do with a child of any age to help her feel reassured and secure is to establish a ritual (even if it’s just a few minutes of playtime or reading) that each parent can do with her before the arrival of the new baby and that continues after the new sibling comes.
“Something like a constant,” says Dr. Kristin Carothers, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute, “where the kid knows, yes, this is something that I had before my sibling and I get to have it after my sibling. Mom and dad have protected this time for me.
Involve older children in the process
Getting your older children involved in the preparations for the new baby will help them to feel more a part of the change and growth in the family. Some families involve older children in decorating the new baby’s nursery or choosing toys for their new sibling. “Some families invite their other children into the process of picking a name,” Dr. Silverman adds. She knows one family in which the big brother wanted his baby sister to be named after a character in his favorite Disney movie. Fortunately, his parents liked the name, and they went with it.
Regression and other common behaviors
Even the best-prepared kids may suddenly start acting younger, and seeking the kind of attention their new sibling gets. For example, your toilet-trained child might start having accidents or want to go back to wearing diapers or he might want to take a bottle. “It is totally normal for children to engage in regressive behaviors when a new baby arrives,” Dr. Carothers says. “It’s children’s way of making sure their parents are aware that they still need them and it helps them to get the attention they crave.
Older, school-aged children have a strong sense of fairness and equality so they might not understand why one child is being treated differently than another, even though a baby has different needs, and this can cause them to act out
To help them feel valued, it can be good to give older children developmentally appropriate jobs that make them feel special. It’s also good to praise the positive mature behaviors the child exhibits.
Prepare for your hospital stay
- He may be confused when you leave for the hospital. Explain that you will be back with the new baby in a few days.
- Your child may feel worried by your absence or simply left out, so if a family member or friend is coming to help take care of your child, hopefully that person can try to make the time extra special for her. If there are any important routines that your child counts on, it’s a good idea to share that information ahead of time.
- If the child is old enough, allow him to come visit the new baby in the hospital.
After the baby arrives
- Think about how to involve your child in the daily routines involving the new baby. You know your kid best. “One child might really like to help clean up, and another child really likes to cuddle,” says Dr. Silverman. “So, let’s say during feeding time maybe the other child is sitting next to mommy and snuggling with the baby and mommy or daddy. Another child may be the one that brings over the burp cloth or maybe they stand on a step stool and help with diaper changes or they can hold the towel at bath time.”
Preparing kids of different ages
Ages 1- 2 years
- Children this young may not “get” all that much about what it is going to mean to them to have a new brother or sister. But you should still talk about the new baby with excitement.
- Look at picture books about a new baby. At the very least, your child will become familiar with words like “sister,” “brother” and “new baby.”
- Do something special for your older child when the new baby arrives. This could mean taking her someplace special, spending time with grandparents or a small gift.
- If your family is comfortable using the baby’s name before it’s born, that’s an excellent way for little kids to get used the idea.
Ages 2-4 years
- At this age, kids tend to be pretty territorial when it comes to their parents and may not love the idea of sharing your attention. They may also be more sensitive to change in the family than you might imagine a child this young would be. “I think for a 2- to 4-year-old, the easiest way to talk about it would be to say that the family is going to grow,” says Dr. Carothers. “Explain there is going to be a new person who’s going to come into the family and that’s going to be a brother or a sister”.
- Then, says Dr. Carothers, “I would link it to maybe a TV show, cartoon, activity or book that they enjoy where there is a new sibling or there is a younger sibling. Board books and picture books about new babies are a great thing to add to the usual bedtime ritual. This helps build positive associations to phrases like ‘new baby’ and ‘little brother’ or ‘little sister.’ ”
- The other technique Dr. Carothers suggests is buying the older child a special doll —his “baby” — that he can practice holding and caring for.
Ages 4-6 years
- Dr. Carothers advises explaining to kids this age that there are fun things about babies — you get to play with them — but the baby also needs mom’s or dad’s help. “And so, it may seem that the baby is getting to be with mom and dad more, but mom and dad love everybody the same.” This is where popular culture can come in handy as a teaching tool. “Maybe the 4- to 6-year-olds would watch something like an Arthur. Before his sister DW came around it was just Arthur and his mom and dad, and afterwards there was DW and then things changed.”
- Check with local hospitals to see if they offer sibling classes for families expecting new babies. These can be especially helpful.
- Tell your child what is happening in language she can understand. Explain what having a new baby means and what changes may affect her — both the good and the not so good.
- Have your older child help get things ready for the new baby. Maybe he can help pick out clothes or books, or fix up the baby’s room. Whatever he does, let him know that you really appreciate his help and that he is being a great brother already.
- Another strategy Dr. Silverman suggests is having the older child spend time with another family with a baby and maybe even with adult supervision (for older kids) learning how to hold and gently touch the baby.
- Practice with a doll can be good for older kids as well. “I actually just recently did this in session with one of my kiddos who’s expecting a baby sister this summer,” Dr. Silverman says. “I gave him some brief pointers, like how to hold a baby. I even had him hold the baby doll on the couch with the pillow under his arm, and then afterward he was really excited to tell his mom all about the things he learned about being a big brother.”