Congratulations! A baby is on the way. One of your most important jobs will be to prepare your toddler for the role of big sister or big brother. This can seem challenging, but with a few tips, the last few months of your pregnancy can be an exciting time for your toddler and the entire family.
Before Baby Comes
Break the news
While there isn’t a set rule on how to tell your preschooler a baby is coming, there are a few important things to take into account beforehand. Consider the due date as well as the age of your preschooler. Children under the age of five do not have a clear understanding of time. For that reason, it may make sense to wait until your belly is showing before you start the conversation. To explain the passage of time, use the weather or a holiday as a reference. For example, if you are due in spring or summer, you could say, “The baby will come when we are wearing shorts again instead of long pants and jackets.” If it is a fall baby, you could tell your child, “The baby will be here right after we pick out your Halloween costume.”
To continue the conversation, reminisce about when your toddler was a baby. Get out the baby book and show him his baby pictures. Let her know how excited you were when she was born and how much you loved caring for her as a baby. Have you saved his baby clothes? If so, spend time letting your child hold and look at them.
Preschoolers aren’t concerned about details. If he asks where the baby is or where it comes from, “inside mommy’s tummy” will likely suffice. Let your child’s questions be your guide.
Make prenatal checkups a family affair
As you get closer to your due date, bring your child to some of the doctor’s appointments. Seeing a picture of the baby and hearing the heartbeat can help her begin to make a connection and see the baby as a person rather than just a bump in your belly. When the baby kicks, have your child touch your belly. Talk to the baby and introduce him or her to the older sibling. For example, you might say, “Sweet baby (You can use the baby’s name if you have chosen a name and are okay with people knowing ahead of time), please meet your big sister Jennifer! She is a big girl and will be teaching you so many fun things, like how to play with toys and hold a spoon.”
Aim to incorporate these types of experiences as frequently as you can. Also, check to see if the hospital you are delivering at has a class for expectant siblings.
There are many good children’s books that gently explain the process of becoming a big brother or sister. Visit the library and select some books, and then read them on a regular basis so your toddler can begin to know what to expect. Here are a few suggestions:
- What to Expect When Mommy is Having a Baby by Heidi Murkiff and Laura Rader
- The Big Sibling Book by Amy Krouse Rosenthal
- I’m a Big Brother/I’m a Big Sister by Joanne Cole
- Big Sisters are the Best by Fran Manushkin
- I’m a New Big Brother by Nora Gaydos
Get a baby doll
Purchase a baby doll that looks similar to a newborn. Let your toddler practice holding and feeding the baby and taking it for walks in a toy stroller. Dolls are an important toy for both girls and boys as they help children build social skills and give them an outlet for expressing emotions.
Recently, I gave the above advice to an expectant mom. When her toddler saw Daddy holding the doll, he walked up to the doll and gave it a whack! The toddler also expressed great frustration when he saw grandma rocking the doll or putting it to bed. However, in a few weeks things turned around dramatically. After the parents modeled how to care for the baby doll, the toddler cuddled the doll, fed it a bottle and pushed it around in a doll stroller. Mom and Dad plan to have him take care of his “baby” when the new baby comes home in a few weeks. These parents are so glad they decided to introduce a baby doll first before bringing home baby! In doing so, they avoided some unpleasant interactions and helped to smooth the way for their toddler to adjust to his new sibling.
After Baby Comes
Enhance the happy homecoming
When a sibling visits the hospital, have the baby in a basinet. This gives mom the opportunity to greet, hug and show love to the toddler first. Then, the toddler can help dad hand the baby to mommy. Have a special gift for your toddler from his new baby brother. Say, “Baby Tommy is happy to have you as his big brother. This is a love gift to you from him.”
Speak for your baby. Since toddlers have a natural interest in babies, parents can enhance their curiosity by expressing what the baby would say if he could talk. For example: “When the baby grabs your finger and holds on, she is telling you that she loves you,” and, “When the baby cries, he could be hungry. Soon you will be able to feed your baby brother. That will make him happy.”
Guide the gifting and the greeting
Family and friends will likely come bearing gifts for baby. Those savvy enough to be sensitive to sibling rivalry will remember to bring along a gift for the older child. To be safe, have on hand a few wrapped gifts for your toddler. Have your toddler open his gift first, and then have him open baby’s gift and hand it to her.
Do what you can to impress upon visitors the importance of acknowledging the toddler first. You don’t want the toddler to feel neglected and become resentful. Baby doesn’t care who is greeted first, but a toddler will! If guests enter without greeting the older sibling, you can say, “Jennifer is happy to introduce you to her new baby brother” or “Jennifer has been a big help and will teach her new baby brother many things.” Hopefully they will take the hint to converse with and appreciate the toddler first before sharing their joy over the new baby.
Ask your toddler for help
When you can, ask your toddler to help you with a task. “Could you please get Mommy the diaper?”; “Can you find the baby’s blanket?”; “Let’s give your baby brother a bath.” Feeling needed helps the toddler enjoy the older sibling role. Giving a toddler the opportunity to care for the new baby sets the stage for bonding. It can head off jealous feelings and boost the odds for a loving relationship in the future.
Invest in a “time share”
Since babies need lots of attention, it is unrealistic to try and give equal amounts of time to both children. Making sure your toddler feels special just takes a bit of creativity. When feeding baby, you can have the toddler hold up his favorite book so that you can read it to him. (You probably know it by heart!) When changing baby’s diaper, sing to your toddler. She gets to pick the song. When baby is napping, hold off a bit on toddler’s nap until you’ve played a game together. On occasion, ask a friend to help with the baby or hire a babysitter to secure a guaranteed block of one-on-one time that your toddler can look forward to. Say, “When my friend Carol comes over, she is going to watch the baby so we can go to the park. Won’t that be fun?”
Emphasize privileges and abilities
Accentuate the fact that your toddler is the big sister or brother. Being older brings privileges and the ability to do fun things that babies can’t do. Some privileges that come with being older may be going to bed later, choosing breakfast foods, picking out clothing or eating ice cream. Toddlers enjoy attention, so make comments that focus on her abilities and what she can help the baby learn in the future. You might say, “When baby gets a little bigger, there are so many things that you can teach him to do. You can show him how to hold a spoon, ride a scooter, play with Legos, go down the slide. I know your baby brother will love you for helping him learn how to do things.”
Toddlers need time to adjust to having a new baby. Sharing Mommy and Daddy can be challenging, so it is natural for them to have negative feelings toward the baby and to be moody or fussy. Be empathetic. You can help him express his feelings by letting him know that whatever he is feeling is okay. You might say, “I know you are sad Mommy can’t hold you right now. I will be able to in a few days. But Daddy wants a big hug,” or, “It is hard to listen all that crying isn’t it? Let’s turn up the music and dance!”
Get ready for some regression. Thumb sucking, baby talk or lack of progress in potty training could be your toddler’s way of saying she wants to be a baby, too. Take it all in stride and realize that this reaction is temporary. Making encouraging comments about what she can do will help your toddler gradually realize how much fun it is to be older and more capable than baby.
Hopefully these 10 tips will boost the odds for a smoother and happier transition for your growing family!
Janada Clark, M.A. is a parent educator who has taught at Stanford and throughout our community. She teaches Love and Logic parenting classes at various locations. In addition, she is an instructor at Day One in Palo Alto. For more information, visit www.janadaclark.com. You can also find her on Facebook.